The following is a summary of Stephen Pyne’s Seminar “Fire Slow, Fire Fast, Fire Deep”, presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long-term Thinking. These monthly talks started in 02003 to build a compelling body of ideas about long-term thinking. Links to media and more information about this series can be found at the bottom of this page.
“WE are uniquely fire creatures,” Pyne began, “on a uniquely fire planet.” Life itself is a form of slow metabolic combustion — which eventually created oxygen and burnable vegetation that allowed fast combustion, ignited by lightning. Humans came along and mastered fire for warmth, food preparation, and managing the landscape, and that made us a keystone species. Humanity’s ecological signature on the world is fire.
Then we made fire the all-purpose catalyst for craft (clay, glass, metal) and eventually industry, shifting to the vast geological resource of fossil fuels. That “pyric transition” made humans dominant on the earth, even to the point of affecting climate. We used fire to clear much of the world’s forest for agriculture.
Then came a century of misdirection about wildfire. The forests of Europe are mostly too wet to burn, but by the late 19th century the leading foresters in world came from there and taught their ignorance to foresters in North America and India, where the land depends on seasonal fire for ecological health. National governments set about suppressing all wildfire, with catastrophic success. In the absence of the usual occasional local fires, massive fuel loads built up, and destructive megafires became the norm. There was an alternative theory of a “restoration strategy” to manage wildfire in way that would emulate how lightning and native American burning kept the landscape ecologically healthy, but it has been applied haltingly and fractionally, and megafires still rule.
“The real argument for fire is that it does ecological work that nothing else does,” Pyne concluded. “Charismatic megaflora” like redwoods need fire. An ecologically rich mosaic of forest, savannah, and meadows needs fire. Healthy prairie needs fire or it gets taken over by invasive woody plants. People trained only as foresters are blind to all that. Wildfire practice now works best when it is guided by wildlife biologists who insist that red cockaded woodpeckers need fire-dependent longleaf pines, that grizzly bears need the berries that grow in recent burns, that pheasants need grassland burned free of invasive eastern red cedar.
The techniques for prescribed burns for a bioabundant natural landscape are now well honed. They need to be applied much more widely. When in doubt how to proceed, ask the ecologists, who will ask the animals.
A professor and “distinguished sustainability scholar” at Arizona State University, Stephen Pyne is author of 15 books on fire, including Fire: Nature and Culture and Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America.
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