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.
It turns out that the educated elite were wrong about fire protection and the nominal “primitives” were right.
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.
A tally of actively burning fires — both natural and human-caused — across the globe from 2000-2019. Credit: NASA
Second paradox. Despite the expansion of feral flames, so abundantly recorded in global media, the amount of land burned on Earth continues to shrink. Mostly this is attributable to a reduction in traditional agricultural burning as the “pyric transition” passes its shadow over new lands or darkens its presence. The Earth does not have more fire today than before fossil fuels emerged as a primary source of energy: It has significantly less.
The pyric transition from burning living landscapes to burning lithic ones has systematically sought to replace working flames with alternatives derived from industrial combustion. Our houses no longer use flame for heating, lighting, and cooking; we rely on electricity, propane, and heating oil. The same transmutation has remade our offices, factories, and cities, which are no longer filled with smoke or suffer through running conflagrations. We projected that same process onto the countryside.
Farmers had relied on fire to fertilize, fumigate, and alter microclimates. Fire did all this in one catalytic process that self-propagated. But with the transition to fossil biomass, modern agriculture found surrogates with artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and it now had the fossil-fuel-powered machines to distribute them. Production became more efficient; transport, more dense. As agriculture joins a modern economy, working flames recede.
Perhaps more astonishingly we extended the process into protected wildlands. Whatever the wishes and ambitions of forest administrators, what made fire suppression plausible was exactly what had transformed the other habitats of humanity: the firepower made possible by fossil-fueled machines. Remove the aircraft, the engines, the chainsaws, the pumps, the bulldozers, the trucks to carry crews on roads carved by graders, and you have to manage fire as humans had previously: You would substitute controlled fires for wildfires and organize the landscape to better accept your burning. Even today’s burnouts are done with drip torches (filled with gas and diesel), delivered by UTVs, helicopters, and crews carried by vehicle, with firebreaks cut by tractor plows or paved roads. Open flame began receding.
Today, barring a transitional phase, the Earth shows one combustion realm or the other. Landscape fire fades; what fire persists tends to be outbreaks of feral fire. We see those oft-disastrous flames. We don’t see the lost fires or the sublimated fires in machines that removed them. Still, the transition occurs at particular geographic locations. A disrupted climate, however, globalizes the competition until eventually the two realms of combustion collude. Like a self-reinforcing dynamo, each is amplifying the other. Climate is boosting fire, and fires are feeding back into a warming climate.
Third paradox. As we ratchet down our binge-burning of lithic landscapes by cutting our use of fossil fuels, we will have to ratchet up our burning of living landscapes. A lot. And in perpetuity. Fire management is forever.
There is little honest doubt that we need to end fossil-fuel combustion as a generic source of power. But even if we shut it down tomorrow, we will have to deal with an atmosphere marinated with greenhouse gases for decades, if not centuries, and we still have to manage fire in living landscapes. The fire that fossil fuels took out of living landscapes we will have to put back, with interest.
Here, the issue is not just consequences that will linger into the future, but the legacy of an ill-advised past. Our decision to let fossil fuels replace or remove fire from landscapes has generally left a fire debt that must be paid. The need is not just to reduce fuels to help contain wild fires; those missing fires did biological work for which no single surrogate exists. We need to reinstate the right kind of fire, and unlike burning fossil fuels, the project will have no end.
The fundamental issue is getting the right fire on the land. This may mean deliberately burning, or burning coupled with thinning, grazing, or brush crushing. It may mean working with or loose-herding fires, pushing and pulling wildfires in favorable times and places to expand the range of good fire, or letting fires in remote settings ramble with minimal attention beyond monitoring. Still, prescribed fire persists as official doctrine and an ideal.
Living with fire means we work with fire, which means we adapt to fire’s presence and let it do the work for us.
Despite its name, a prescription fire is not a vaccine — fire has none. But good fire does resemble annual flu shots and can help build some herd immunity against bad fires. Yet what makes prescribed fire attractive — its promise of being scientifically informed and institutionally disciplined — also makes it restrictive. We aren’t getting the burning done at the scale required, especially in places like the American West.
Anthropogenic fire needs more room to maneuver — more geographic space, more legal space, more political space, more conceptual space. Rather than a set-piece fixed to a particular site, prescription burning may need to resemble foraging, allowing burning as the opportunity presents itself over landscapes and across seasons. Many fire officers now practice a box-and-burn approach in which they concentrate firepower on protecting areas where wildfire can threaten communities or municipal watersheds, and then draw big boxes that can be systematically burned out. It’s a hybrid — half suppression, half prescribed fire done under urgent conditions. Equally, society needs to rethink liability law to reduce the risks incurred by fire officers doing a necessary job and make fire’s use a default choice; adapt air quality regulations to tolerate prescribed smoke; and tweak National Environmental Policy Act review processes designed to contain industrial emissions so they can accommodate the realities of restored fire at a landscape scale.
Living with fire means we work with fire, which means that we adapt to accept fire’s presence, but also that we let fire do work for us. What makes fire so elemental to living landscapes, its ability to act as a broad-spectrum ecological catalyst, and what makes it interesting, its complex synthesis of everything around it, also means that many points of intervention are possible. We can exploit those properties to advantage. A single burn can dampen fuels, stimulate foodstuffs like berries and tubers, and improve browse for wildlife.
In a similar way, fire can help catalyze many social responses we need to make anyway. Powerlines that cast sparks in high winds are a nightmare source of ignition: Bond fire to a program to upgrade a creaky power grid that has long needed replacement. Communities in the fire equivalents of flood plains need hardening: Let fire help redesign them, and add greenbelts, improve roads, and apply zoning that would enhance their overall attractiveness. Just as green energy jobs can replace those lost in the conversion from fossil fuels, so fire restoration jobs can replace those lost from forest commodity production and a fire suppression business that critics have labeled a fire-industrial complex.
Still, fire is not ecological pixie dust; messed up landscapes may yield messed up fires. As with wolves, it was easy to hunt fires to near extinction, and tricky to reinstate them. Our science of landscape fires is still primitive — still dominated by a physical representation of fire that reflects its origins as a means to control wildfire. A genuinely biological theory of fire remains elusive (that we still consider fire a disturbance is like characterizing rain as a disturbance). Clearly, we not only need a lot of science, but sciences that can better analyze the entangled and shape-shifting character of fire in living landscapes.
More deeply, we need a working fire culture. Our hominin ancestors fashioned an alliance with fire in which we each expanded the realm of the other. We learned from long empirical experience how to live together more or less amiably. That broke during the Enlightenment and the pyric transition as fire was removed from its ecological context, the deep loam of traditional understanding was stripped away, and a mutual-assistance pact began to look more like a Faustian bargain. We can survive without a fire science; we can’t without a fire culture — one that ensures fire’s proper place in the landscape.
We have a lot of fire coming at us. We can fight it and lose. Or we can renew our ancient alliance and turn what has become an implacable enemy back into an indispensable friend. That is not a paradox peculiar to our new age of fire. But it is one, it seems, we must continually relearn.