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Commentaries, otherwise unpublished

Craig C. Chandler, a remembrance

Craig C. Chandler, a personal observation

We first met in late 1977 at his office in Rosslyn when he was director of Forest Fire and Atmospheric Science Research for the U.S. Forest Service. I wasn’t sure what to expect. We chatted freely and when I left I was better informed, except about the man. What was one to make of him.

Craig C. Chandler – C3, or C cubed, as he liked to style himself –projected a genial candor that kneaded seriousness with a wry puckishness, a sardonic humor, and a touch of irreverence, as though bemused by his own standing. His signature corn cob pipe lay nearby. So was a cage holding a white mouse - Smokye Mouse, promoted as the ‘living symbol of fire research,’ a gentle mockery of self-importance and an embarrassment to the establishment. Later, I came to appreciate how these traits and props, which could seem like affectations, served as disguises and misdirections. There was always a deep seriousness behind the seeming flippancy.

I owed him. He was only member of the Forest Service fire hierarchy who actively supported the project that became Fire in America, his program the only one that contributed money (twice), and he the only recipient who read my thousand-page submitted report and offered comments. His suggestion at our first meeting that I hustle over to the office of a new assistant director for Fire and Aviation Management led to 13 boxes of documents that became the core of my research archive.

Craig and I met again for follow-up questions, and this time he opened his office safe and showed title pages for some of the classified research he did. Later, after he retired, we met accidentally during a conference at NASA Ames devoted to the nuclear winter question. He spoke dismissively of physicists who thought they could understand fire from first principles when, as he well knew, fire was more complicated than their imaginations. We met again not long afterwards, a passing courtesy, this time at his house in Arlington, when we found ourselves both writing textbooks on wildland fire for the same publisher and wanted to avoid pointless competition. Over thirty years then passed before I had the chance to interview him by phone when I was writing To the Last Smoke. By then he’d had a stroke and lived at the Kings Grant Retirement Community in Martinsville, Virginia. He spoke as he did when we first talked – candidly and sardonically but not bitterly, still skeptical of bureaucracies and the self-important, his interest still piqued by the curious spectacle that was life. It was the same voice I had first heard in 1977. We’d come full circle.

The episode in which he opened his safe stayed with me. The more I learned, the more I appreciated that it was not something marginal to his career but near its hidden core.

A connection to the military had informed the whole of his adult life. He joined the Navy out of college during World War II. He served under Keith Arnold, a mentor, during Operation Fire Stop, a multi-agency program staged at Camp Pendleton that sought to adapt surplus military hardware to fire control and to organize research on the wartime model. His career matured during an era in which national security concerns, inspired by World War II fire bombing and Cold War nukes, revolutionized wildland fire science. His own major research efforts had Department of Defense and civil defense funding – studies on fire and nuclear weapons. He went to Vietnam as an advisor on weaponizing fire (a program that led to agency disavowals after it became public). Pentagon funds were a critical supplement that, when eliminated, and as part of general shift in attention, helped send FFASR into free fall. (The military decided that big bangs were better than mass burns; the Reagan administration, that wildland fire was a solved problem; and Forest Service rivals, that timber mattered more than flame.) Craig's tenure was the high-water mark for fire research. He continued his own classified research well into retirement – work of which he was proud. (When in Fire in America I quoted a “Forest Service researcher” who worried that we knew more about how cockroaches would take over the world after a nuclear war than how to cope with practical measures of defense, he insisted that he be explicitly identified as the source, not hidden in a footnote.) When he remarried, it was to an administrative secretary who transferred into the CIA and who also happened to be the niece of CIA Director, William Casey. He stayed in the loop. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

When I first encountered his allusions, and sometimes direct claims, to the black monies that supported his interests, I dismissed them as tangential to what must be his core enthusiasms. I later realized I had it reversed. The Stanford freshman who enlisted in the Navy at 18 was still re-enlisting. For all his adult life the nation was at war, hot or cold, of one sort or another. His engagement shaped his career, his mind, his life. What too many people saw was Smokye Mouse in the reception room. The black-funded research stayed in the office safe.

He wrote as he thought - directly, almost colloquially, coming clearly to the point, not willing to defer to authority, whether it be the US Army, the Forest Service, Smokey Bear, or ego-enriched atmospheric chemists. He was willing to talk to anyone he could learn from, even a green-as-a-gourd historian and North Rim Longshot who wandered into his office one afternoon.

Probably the classic C3 publication was “Prediction of Fire Spread Following Nuclear Explosions” (1963), which summarized the postwar DoD research, sparked anew by the Cuban missile crisis, and was the prototype for his later Pentagon-funded projects. But that understanding also funneled into problems of conflagrations (the megafires of their day), houses burning amid wildlands (today's WUI), and the complexities of actually managing fire. In 1973, as the Forest Service pivoted from fire control to fire management, he co-published an article in the Journal of Forestry that declared "there is no single 'best' solution or panacea for wildfire problems." The 2-volume textbook that he wrote with his peers in Canada, Australia, France, and Britain, Fire in Forestry, went through 12 reprintings between 1983 and 1991, and found its way into 323 World Catalog libraries.

My personal Chandler favorite remains the fire-analyst briefings he gave for the 1961 Basin fire, reproduced as part of a case study. They read like the man - a model of sophisticated understanding (doubly so for his time) about fire behavior, particularly when coupled with atmospheric dynamics, but stated plainly and salted with a healthy skepticism that forecasts could be more than shrewd guesses.

The mouse at the door, the papers in the safe – Craig Chandler lived in the space between them. An irreverence that bordered on impudence was visible to everyone; the sophisticated studies for DoD were viewed by few. The man between was often cipher and conduit, disguised by his wit, a shrewd twinkle in his bureaucratic eye, content to smoke a corn cob pipe and let others puzzle over the reason. Time and again, I found his advice equally insightful and practical.

Smokye Mouse passed away, unrequited, to the relief of those chagrined by its presence. C3 deserves better. Especially regarding wildland fire, his generation – and often he himself – engineered the transformation from field forestry to something like big science and the engagement of all the disciplines that fire merged. We won’t know the full extent of his contributions to wildland fire science until his black-money research gets declassified. I’m guessing it was significant, and that its greatest contribution was to call out those who thought they knew fire but didn’t. Someday a biographer will have the necessary sources; and we’ll be glad to hear the story.

I knew Craig C. Chandler only in fragments, bits of debris blown across the winds of decades that my passage snagged here and there. It’s not easy putting those shards together especially when many were meant to be hidden. But there is enough to recognize the contours of a major figure in wildland fire science. From my own experience, I understand how fire can shape a career, and I can appreciate how it might have shaped his. He gave back as good as he got. I miss him.

Steve Pyne
20 September 2018
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