A Sober Consideration Of Fire

The Bobcat Fire burns through the Angeles National Forest in Southern California on September 17. KYLE GRILLOT/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Stephen J. Pyne, more than an expert on fire–if you have heard the term Pyrocene, thank him–gives a primer here worth your time if you want the scary stuff in perspective. Wonky in a powerfully good way, still accessible and clear:

Our Burning Planet: Why We Must Learn to Live with Fire

By suppressing all wildfires and incessantly burning fossil fuels, humans have upset the role that fire has historically played in providing ecological balance. We need to rethink our view of fire and accept its presence by changing how we manage lands and plan our communities.

There is a paradox at the core of Earth’s unraveling firescapes.

The fires are seemingly everywhere, and everywhere more feral. They are burning from the Arctic to the Amazon, from New South Wales to the West Coast. They are visible, and their smoke projects their presence in the form of immense palls well removed from the flames. But equally significant are the fires that aren’t happening.

The Earth is a fire planet, the only one we know. It has held fires as long as plants have lived on land. Removing fire from landscapes that have co-evolved or co-existed with it can be as ruinous as putting fire into landscapes that have no history of it. The fires we don’t see — the fires that should be there and aren’t — are an index of ecological loss, like imposing a drought on a normally lush landscape.

We have too many bad fires — fires that kill people, burn towns, and trash valued landscapes. We have too few good ones — fires that enhance ecological integrity and hold fires within their historic ranges. At the same time, with the incessant burning of fossil fuels, we have too much combustion on the planet overall.

How did fire’s presence on Earth become so deranged?

The critical contrast lies in a deeper dialectic than burned and unburned landscapes. It is a dialectic between burning living biomass and burning fossil biomass. We are taking stuff out of the geologic past, burning it in the present with all kinds of little understood consequences, and passing the effluent into the geologic future. We inhabit living landscapes. But we have increasingly powered that world by burning lithic landscapes, that is, once-living biomass now fossilized into such forms as coal and petroleum. That clash of combustion realms is rippling not only through Earth’s fire regimes but its air, its water, and its plant and animal life. Fires in living landscapes come with ecological checks and balances. Fires in lithic landscapes have no boundaries save those humans impose on themselves.

More and more, fire is shaping the planet as cause, consequence, and catalyst. The scale is vast, the tempo quickening. Even climate history has become a sub-narrative of fire history. Add up all of humanity’s fire practices — from burning fossil fuels to enabling the burning of rainforest and tropical peat, to suppressing fire — and we are creating the fire equivalent of an ice age, complete with sea level changes, mass extinctions, continental-scale shufflings of flora and fauna, and peri-pyric effects like smoke palls on the scale of glacial outwash plains. The ice-aged Pleistocene has segued into a fire-aged Pyrocene.


In simple terms, we are witnessing a fossil-fuel society imposing itself on a fire-prone planet. The upshot is a new world order (or disorder) on fire that is governed by three paradoxes.

First paradox: The more people attempt to take fire out of places that have co-evolved or co-existed with it, the more conditions change that worsen the fire scene. Biotas degrade, fuels upgrade, and fires become uncontrollable. Removing good fires leaves only bad fires.

This is not a new insight. A century ago, Northern California underwent a hard-fought debate about whether to found fire protection on a European model underwritten by forestry that sought to remove fire or to emulate the “Indian way” and routinely scrub the surface with “light” fires. Advocates for light burning insisted that if fires were kept out, forests would reassemble and thicken in ways that would invite insects, diseases, and massive fires. Regular burning was widely practiced by newcomers to California as well as Indigenous people; and variants of the light-burning controversy existed throughout the country. Forestry condemned all forms of traditional fire lore as primitive and irrational. (Even Aldo Leopold, then establishing a fire protection system for the U.S. Forest Service in the Southwest, opposed light burning.) It turns out that the educated elite were wrong and the nominal “primitives” right. The first paradox has been proven true around the world…

Read the whole article here.

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