Fire Planet
The Politics and Culture of Combustion

Corner House Briefing 18

by Stephen J. Pyne with Larry Lohmann

first published 28 February 2000


Sensational broadcast images of a blazing Borneo, smoked-in Singapore and smouldering Sydney have prompted calls for sweeping, high-tech measures to control fire in the open. Yet fire in the open is a planetary necessity. The problem is a maldistribution of burning -- in the North, there is too little controlled open burning, while in the South, too much wildfire -- and a profusion of the wrong kinds of fire -- too many catastrophic, destructive blazes and not enough cleansing, fertilizing ones. Both problems are partly the result of industrialization and imperialism. Overall, there is probably too much fire within the combustion chamber and not enough in fields and woods. Constructive debate about climate change, agriculture or forestry requires a careful look at the culture, ecology and politics of global fire.




This briefing is extracted from the books and articles of fire historian Stephen J. Pyne of Arizona State University, to whom thanks are due.


For centuries, intellectuals have tended to view fire in the open landscape as an environmental horror. Agronomists and government officials have condemned swidden cultivators as irresponsible pyromaniacs endangering soil fertility. Professional foresters have damned farmers, hunters and gatherers who set undergrowth on fire for manifesting "bad habits and loose morals". Nature conservationists have campaigned for the eviction of mountain dwellers who maintain local ecosystems through fire.

Recently, free-burning fire has been blamed not only for destruction of biodiversity and soil fertility, but also for global warming. Where rural landscapes are invaded by new commercial economies or exurban sprawl, the number of extreme conflagrations threatening lives and valuable property grows. The closing years of the 20th century will not be the last in which sensational broadcast images of a blazing Borneo, smoked-in Singapore, flaming Florida or smouldering Sydney suburb prompt calls for sweeping, draconian, high-tech measures of fire control -- or even blanket bans on fire in the open.

Such proposals tend to overlook important distinctions among different kinds of fire and to misunderstand the way fire is embedded in human history. Fire in the open, far from being an evil in itself, is a planetary necessity. The problem is a maldistribution of burning and a profusion of the wrong kinds of fire, both partly the result of industrialization and imperialism.

In the North, there is too little controlled open burning; in the South, perhaps too much wildfire. There are too many catastrophic, destructive blazes and not enough cleansing, fertilizing ones. Overall, there is probably too much fire within the combustion chamber and not enough in fields and woods. Constructive debate about climate change, agriculture or forestry requires a careful look at the culture, ecology and politics of global fire.

Fire and Life: A Necessary Symbiosis

Fire and life form a symbiosis. In breaking down the matter that organisms have assembled from captured sunlight, fire releases stored chemical energy and delivers organic and inorganic chemicals into an ecosystem. In temperate zones, where growth rates generally exceed rates of decomposition, fire is especially essential to liberate nutrients otherwise locked up in a reservoir of biologically inert litter. Fire maintains a biochemical equilibrium rather as lightning does an electromagnetic equilibrium. Much as lightning releases stored electrical energy leaked to the atmosphere, so wildland fire releases stored chemical energy gradually accumulated in the earth's vegetative cover. Only in extreme cases or in certain fire regimes does fire destroy standing forest or the soil.

However shifting and unstable in its extent and characteristics, fire has shaped and regulated biotas for hundreds of millions of years. Threads and lenses of fossil charcoal are found in all kinds of coal and in all geologic eras, reflecting fire's ancient role in maintaining the carbon-laden vegetative landscapes out of which the coal was formed. The close interdependence between fire and life is no less evident today. Some organisms have adapted defensively to protect against fire's energy, developing thick bark, storing food in tuberous roots, or resprouting soon after a fire passes. Others have adapted to seize the nutrients and opportunities that fire releases. Sequoia seeds, for example, seem to germinate best in a sunny, ashy soil, while many grasses sprout phoenixlike into luxuriant growth from the ashes of their dead stems. Legumes occupy burned sites readily, enjoying a temporary advantage because of the volatilization of organic nitrogen by a hot fire. Ash discharged into the air, meanwhile, can often retard aerial-borne parasites. This whole process, moreover, is self-reinforcing: the type of growth that occurs on a burn helps to determine the frequency and intensity of subsequent fires, as well as their biological effects.

Human Institutions and Fire Ecology

Fire regimes have long been influenced by the activities of humans. Like many other organisms, humans promote burning as a means of eliminating competitors and favour environments, particularly grasslands, for which fire is as basic as sunlight or water.

Humans are unique, however, in that they can control the source and timing of ignition. From the time of Homo erectus, they have competed with lightning over the biomass that serves as fuels. What one burns the other cannot.

Humans are the greatest modifier of the fire environment, particularly its fuels, tinkering constantly with the timing, frequency, size, intensity and seasonality of fire regimes. They have inserted fire into every conceivable place for every conceivable purpose for so long and so pervasively that it is impossible to disentangle fire from either human life or the biosphere. In Australia, for instance, aboriginal burning beginning at least 38,000 years ago ensured not only the pervasiveness of the fire which has shaped the continent's tough and unique biota, but also its permanence. Even the fabled botanical biodiversity of southern Pará in Brazil, recent studies have suggested, is perhaps 40 per cent attributable to anthropogenic disturbance, an impact not possible without fire.1

The study of a "pure" fire regime without human participation, dear to some ecologists, is a fantasy. Fire ecology has to incorporate the pathways of human institutions and knowledge as fully as biogeochemical cycles of carbon and sulphur.

Flame and Hoof

From the earliest times, fire provided humans with a means of driving game, of baiting traps, and of creating a habitat favourable to the species they found most useful.

Fire was used to hunt a vast range of animals. Excavations at Torralba, Spain, suggest fire hunting for elephants, wild cattle, horses, deer and woolly rhinoceroses 400,000 years ago.2 Torches assisted evening hunts, and made fishing at night notoriously productive. Smoke flushed out bears from dens, sables from hollowed firs, possums from termite-cored eucalyptus. Fire drives were practised for springboks in Southern Africa, elephants in Sudan, turtles in Venezuela, rheas in Patagonia, kangaroos and maalas in Australia, boars in Transbaikalia. In the Americas, fire hunting targeted bison, deer and antelope. Aboriginal Alaskans used it against moose and muskrat, Yuman Indians for wood rats, Texans for lizards, Great Basin inhabitants for grasshoppers.

In the early 19th century, Thomas Jefferson related how native Americans hunted in circles by:

"firing the leaves fallen on the ground, which gradually forcing animals to the center, they there slaughter them with arrows, darts and other missiles. This is called fire hunting, and has been practiced within this State within my time, by the white inhabitants".3

Selected sites could be baited with the smoke that relieved animals from the attentions of flies or with the fresh grasses recharged by burning. Apaches set such traps for mule deer; Lapps, for reindeer; contemporary African poachers, for rhinoceroses. Boreal tribes burned along traplines to keep them open and encourage foods attractive to the rodents upon which furbearers thrived. Fishing tribes in East Borneo burned the drifting sods of kumpai grasslands in dry years, transforming shady forests into open lakes stocked with fish.

"Barrens," "clearings" and "deserts" (deserted places) maintained by native Americans as hunting grounds were among the most common sights reported by early white explorers in North America. New pastures could be added through successive firings or by burning abandoned fields to prevent forest regeneration. Such pastures and shrubby forage areas attracted wildlife and produced medicines and foods, and the corridors between them created forest "edge effects", creating a more diverse, productive and accessible landscape than would have been available under monotonous tree cover.4

Fire controlled grass and browse, recalibrating the calendar of renewal and the rich flush of nutrients that springtime brought. Applied correctly, fire could inaugurate that first growth, or stimulate a second, late flush in the autumn. The pattern of burning dictated the pattern of feeding, thus the annual migration of grazers and browsers and, of course, the hunters that followed them. The land reflected this symbiosis, reshaped into fire-sculpted hunting grounds both large and small. Where fire could burn freely, great steppes, campos, llanos, prairies, savannas, cerrado and grassy veld could result -- the feeding grounds for the animals that produce most of the meat in current human diets. Writing of Australia, Surveyor General Major Thomas Mitchell noted in the 1830s that:

"Fire, grass, and kangaroos, and human inhabitants, seem all dependent on each other for existence. ... Fire is necessary to burn the grass, and form those open forests, in which we find the large forest kangaroo; the native applies that fire to the grass at certain seasons, in order that a young green crop may subsequently spring up, and so attract and enable him to kill or take the roo with nets. In summer, the burning of long grass also discloses vermin, birds' nests, etc., on which the females and children, who chiefly burn the grass, feed."5

European immigrants to Australia soon picked up this "firestick habit" of kindling blazes across the countryside, applying it for their own benefit.

Pastoral fire probably helped the process by which wildlife was domesticated; wild herds could be moved from site to site as areas were burned, creating, sustaining, and improving grazing lands with palatable new growth. The seasonal herding of livestock between two pastures (transhumance) in environments such as those of Iberia, the Balkans, Britain and Algeria has almost universally been accompanied by seasonal firing for the improvement of pasture.

Flocks of domesticated livestock frequently forced herders to keep open fields, first cleared for farming, as pasture, again through routine burning. In humid environments, from Australia's northern tropics to Siberia's taiga, the introduction of domestic animals typically inspired still more burning, with fire used as a flaming axe necessary to slash back the encroaching woods. In more arid grasslands, from Morocco to the western US, increased numbers of domestic animals commonly brought a reduction in burning as livestock cropped fuels that would otherwise feed flames.

Box 1: Fire and Evolution in South Africa's Fynbos

South Africa's fynbos scrubland is a good example of an entire ecosystem which has evolved in close relationship with frequent fire. At least 8,500 plant species crowd into the fynbos's condensed dominion, of which 5,800 are endemic. The Hottentots-Holland mountains, some believe, exhibit the richest plant bio-diversity in the world. Even within the fynbos, some species are restricted to one small valley, mountain slope, or spring. The whole biome is miniaturized, not only in its structure but also in its functions, like a computer shrunk to a microchip.

What drives this system -- what pushes scarce nutrients through this biotic circuitry and stimulates the germination of a tough, wary flora -- is fire. Routinely, necessarily, often intensely, fire scours the scrub, cloaking the Cape in smoke and outlining its mountains in fiery silhouette. Fire comes as routinely as winter rains, droughts and frosts.

Without fire, the fynbos senesces and ultimately disappears. The fire lily, for example, blossoms only within the 24 hours after a fire, and many fynbos plants require fire to stimulate seed release or germination. The seeds of Leukodendron remain in sero-tinous cones until flame melts the waxy seal and releases them. Fire is as fundamental to the machinery of this biome as spark plugs to an automobile.

Like other ecosystems, however, fynbos is adapted not to "fire" in the abstract but to particular local regimens of fire -- to fire in certain seasons, with certain intensities, with frequencies that vary by year and decade. Randomly firing the plugs won't drive an engine; the sparks must be timed, and the timing will vary with the engine speed and flow of fuel into its combustion chambers. In fynbos the flow of fuel is measured by biomass and regulated by organic pumps that follow the life cycle of the plants that make it up. The profusion of plants argues for a profusion of burning regimes.

The usual prescription is to burn the veld every four to twenty-five years, with the particular regime set by local conditions. More frequent fire may be impossible or destructive, either because fuels have not rebuilt to the point that they can carry flame or because incessant burning, or burning out of season, can allow grasses to invade and convert scrub to savannah. Conversely, less frequent fire -- fire exclusion for 30-40 years, say -- is sufficient to allow forests to reclaim the landscape from their fire-shielded refugia in rockfall or wet kloof.

Clearly, forests can grow in much of the geographic dominion claimed by fynbos. They don't, in large measure, because the fynbos burns too frequently and intensely for the indigenous forests to leave their fire-safe sanctuaries. But once converted to grasses (where nutrients are sufficient) or to forests (where rainfall is adequate), new fire regimes are established that make reclamation by fynbos difficult.

Source: Pyne, S. J., World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth, University of Washington Press, 1997.

Fire and Agriculture

"Our 'bread'," fire ecologist E. V. Komarek observes:

"comes from cereals which are grasses, and present studies indicate that they were developed from fire-adapted grasses. ... Nearly all, if not all, of the major cereal food plants and our major domestic livestock apparently came from fire environments".6

Many other foodstuffs available for annual gathering or domestication, such as acorns, chestnuts and beans, appeared along the burned edges of forests and grasslands. Berries thrived in the open sunny environment of a burn, judiciously pruned of unnecessary growth by periodic fire, and seized nutrients that in the postburn state were more accessible to them. So did game birds, some of which could be domesticated.

Fire also promoted the growth of other favoured foods such as wild rice, cassava, sunflowers and bracken; it helped harden the sticks that dug them up; it stimulated the reeds that, woven into baskets, carried the harvest; it cooked the gatherings, leached them of toxins, boiled them down into oils or sap, dried them for storage; it yielded the light by which the crop was discussed and celebrated. It drove off insects and other pests; in certain seasons humans lived in smoke, as reluctant to leave its sheltering cloud as to walk away from a campfire on a moonless night. For most of their history, Australia's aborigines cultivated the continent through fire, stimulating the growth of wild yams, bracken, and other useful plants, even carefully setting fires they knew would burn at different temperatures to foster different kinds of plant. From Neolithic times, fire also helped maintain the European garden, making the continent inhabitable.

Fire alone could not create agriculture as we know it today, but outside of flood-recharged alluvial plains, early agriculture was impossible without burning, and could not have expanded beyond its environments of origin without it.

In shifting agriculture, a farmed site was rotated through the biome; in settled agriculture, a contrived biome was, in effect, rotated through a fixed site. Both required fire -- at least until recent developments began to manufacture fertilizer and energy from fossil fuels. Where fallow was lacking, farmers would transport wood, manure, peat or other debris to the site and burn it as surrogate, as in rab cultivation in India.

Fallows were cultivated to support fire just as three-field rotations grew oats and barley to feed draft animals. Peasants grew fallow weeds to recapture nutrients and then burned them to liberate these biochemicals in a suitable form and purge soils of hostile microorganisms and weeds, as well as to flush pasture with succulent proteins. Even constantly cultivated infields required outfields from which to gather combustibles or run the herds whose manure was collected from winter barns. Fire and fallow constituted an endless cycle.

Wandering farmers carried slash and burn agriculture into the most remote landscapes. Using alkaline ash as fertilizer, swidden extended to grasslands in Africa, heath and moor in northern Europe, boreal and tropical forests -- any landscape that demanded a long fallow.

Part of the agricultural revolution that preceded Europe's industrial revolution involved the conversion of "wasteland" through a regimen of cutting and burning. Even in northern Europe, swidden persisted into recent times -- in Germany to the late 1890s; in Belgium to 1908; in France to the mid-1920s; in Finland, burdened with war refugees, to the 1950s. In Sweden, swidden agriculturalists helped preserve into the 1930s species and landscapes that centuries of their forebears had fashioned. Some 80 percent of the Nordic countries have been swaled, and it was largely Nordic immigrants who took swidden into the north woods of the US.7

As late as 1957, it was estimated that at least one-quarter of the earth was subjected to swidden agriculture, with perhaps one-seventh of that amount, or over three per cent of the earth's land area, burned annually. Most of the grasslands of the non-industrial nations are burned annually or biannually, usually in spring and fall.

Fire and Forests

Preferred forest products, too, come from biotas, like pine, oak, teak, eucalyptus and bamboo forests, that are particularly adapted to fire and often maintained by anthropogenic burning.8 In the Nordic countries, repeated slash and burn on the same sites created almost pure stands of even-aged pine -- the basis of the region's great timber resources. Elsewhere, trees were often grown on a long-fallow swidden like wheat, turnips and cotton, in which periodic controlled fires were used to prevent catastrophic blazes that would otherwise have eventually resulted.

In fact, forests everywhere have coevolved with agricultural and pastoral fires as well as, in many places, lightning fires. Throughout North America, "fire is the dominant fact of forest history",9 with native Americans passing on to frontier whites fire-reliant techniques of pasture improvement and pest control.

Nor is fire alien to most tropical forests. Dig almost anywhere in Amazonia and you will find charcoal. Coal seams in Borneo have been burning for over 14,000 years and rekindle the surrounding forests with every intense El Niño event. In 19th century India, as one European forester noted, "every forest that would burn was burnt almost every year".10

Fire Use and Fire Control

The use of fire in getting a livelihood has always been predicated on the ability to control it. In North America, for instance, debris was cleared from around native American villages; cooking fires were situated carefully; camp sites on long grass were avoided, or the grass was first burned; and, when necessary, fires were fought. Using blankets and brands, backfires were set. It was from the native Americans that European immigrants learned the basic fire survival skills appropriate for their new settlements.

Villagers also knew to expect firefighting duty in medieval Europe. As witnessed by place names like Brentwood and Burnham, England was plagued by wildfires from the ninth century down to Tudor times, when a cooler climate and a less extensive agriculture pushed the larger European blazes to fringes like Finland, northern Scotland, pastoral brush along the Mediterranean, ranges on the Spanish plateau, and the Russian steppes.

In Northern Europe especially, as farms rather than flocks became the primary units of agricultural societies, punishments for fires set by pastoralists could be harsh. It was not uncommon to prohibit grazing for 10-15 years on a forested area that had been burned, to discourage fire aimed at range improvement.11 Legal codes also prescribed stringent penalties for incendiarism and for fires which were allowed to escape from agricultural burnings.

Box 2: Rural Exodus and Plantations in Iberia

Industrial-age shifts in settlement and political organization have deeply affected fire use and fire control in Spain and Portugal. Landscapes once given over to pastoralism and labour-intensive agriculture are being reconstituted for very different purposes. Rural exodus has made a shambles of old fire regimes, and fuels and fires are no longer in synch.

As tourists replace the itinerant labourers and trans-humant herders of earlier eras, those who remain permanently on the land are typically the elderly, who continue to burn but who often lack the capacity to contain the fires they initiate. Fuels and fires flourish with the seasons, but without the built-in firewalls of rural society -- the close cropping of fuels, the abundance of able-bodied campesinos to control them, the mores that governed the old fire practices. Blazes spill over fields, incinerate hedges, cross woodlands, invade long-suffering scrub. Boundaries blur. Any place not subjected to meticulous cultivation is at risk. Any fuels not otherwise harvested are available for burning. Fires feed on untouched sites like ants gathering crumbs from a picnic.

The commercial tree plantations which have transformed village commons since Francisco Franco came to power in the 1940s have meanwhile provoked incendiarism at the same time they produce abundant fuels which baffle indigenous methods of fire control.

Groves of eucalypts are biological deserts, not only because in dry lands their grasping roots suck up water like addicts, but also because they purge a site of indigenous flora and fauna. Often eerily empty, large afforestation projects are unable to coexist with local villages except through the cycles of a global economy. Rural resentment has led to arson and a guerrilla war with firefighters over the environment amid a scattering of confused confrontations and allegiances. Some 24 per cent of afforested lands burned between 1970 and 1990.

Yet although the curve of burned lands parallels the curve of afforested lands, afforestation is only a minor part of the problem. Abandoned lands soon overgrow with volatile fuels, and lands reserved for parks or nature preserves, stripped of traditional consumption by grazing, burning, and firewood gathering, quickly blossom with pyrophytes. As the grasp of peasant agriculture loosens, fire slips through society's fingers.

Source: Pyne, S. J., World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997.

Fire and Industrialization

Within the last 500 years, two events have rewritten the history and geography of fire. First, the expansion of Europe set in motion a colossal mixing of the world's flora, fauna, peoples and economies. Second, imperial Europe became industrial Europe. Anthropogenic fire was catalyst, cause and consequence of both these processes.

With the industrial revolution, Europe began to sublimate the power of fire into machines. New devices were invented to illuminate rooms, warm houses, bake bread, harden ceramics, shape metals, and the other myriad tasks open fire had once performed. The development of Watt's steam engine constituted one of the most profound events of fire history. Living biomass reserves began to be exhausted, forcing the exhumation of lithic biomass from the geologic past. This new source of energy led to new sources of mechanical power and transportation, restructuring the flow of nutrients and aligning ecosystems with the routes of commerce and the trophic flow of capital.

In the past, fire had depended on life -- on the interaction with oxygen and fuels that life generated, on the ecological fugue between fire and fuel played over aeons of evolutionary trials. While this symbiosis had made fire possible (even necessary), it had also restricted its dominion. But industrial combustion stood outside the ancient ecology of fire, burning with savage indifference to time of day, season, climate or biota, cutting off biological links among combustion, nutrient cycles, and pathways of succession, and often ranging beyond the capabilities of organic scavenging and biochemical recapture. Instead of liberating nutrients, industrial combustion's byproducts could overload or poison the environment.

The fossil-fallow of coal snuffed out many an agricultural flame. Guano could be shipped from Pacific islands to fertilize European fields; chemical herbicides and tractors could substitute for fallow burning to control weeds. As late as 1870 as much as 70 per cent of Germany's Black Forest was still subject to a swidden cycle that involved cereals, root crops and oak for which fire was fundamental.12 Yet swidden expired when steam transport rendered its oak-derived tannic acid no longer competitive against South American imports.

Vitamin supplements and chemical fertilizers came to fortify animal diets in ways not dependent on the recycling capability of fire. Rather than burn field stubble, farmers could mix the organic residue with nutrients to make cattle fodder. The money made from sale of the livestock could pay for fertilizer, with a profit left over. Cattle could be raised in feedlots, making broadcast burning of range grasslands less useful. To power such activities, the combustion chambers of industrial machinery became more important than the fires of the field.

Industrial combustion did more than reshape ecosystems. It reconstituted them, forging new pathways of energy, new cycles for biogeochemical compounds, new "mechanical" creatures, and, of course, new practices of fire use and fire control, including petroleum-powered firefighting equipment. These practices operate outside the folkways that have traditionally guided anthropogenic fire.

Increasingly, humans are less keepers of the flame than custodians of the combustion chamber. Industrial fire threatens to choke out agricultural fire, much as agricultural fire practices once weeded out aboriginal fire. Yet at the same time, industrial fire lays the groundwork for new kinds of uncontrollable blazes. Combustion housed in chainsaws and logging trucks and broadcast over slash fields the size of a province does not function as fire formerly did in swidden plots.

Redefining Nature

Industrialization has also compelled a full-blown redefinition of nature, rank with new values and new perceptions, many derived from the rowdy efflorescence of modern science, which accompanied and sought to explain European expansion.

Industrialization demanded not only new combustion technologies for furnace and forge but also new fire practices for field and forest. Like planets orbiting binary suns, ecosystems now had to revolve around the gravitational field of industrial combustion as well as biomass burning. The interplay became increasingly unpredictable, the ecological equivalent of the three-body problem in celestial physics. Industrialization could strip forests through logging and, equally, restore woodlands by abolishing the need for fuelwood. Industrial societies could subject the most remote site to exploitation, yet simultaneously propose special categories of wildland that were by law to remain immune to human consumption. For these new landscapes, new fire practices had to be invented which were sanctioned by neither nature nor the precedent of human history. What resulted was the most fundamental restructuring of fire regimes since the Stone Age.

Of course, fossil fuel combustion has not abolished biomass burning, and in fact cannot do so. Changes in land use catalyzed by industrialization have in many places encouraged a proliferation of biomass, which in turn has led to renewed burning. And inevitably there is accidental fire, with lightning reasserting itself in recent decades as a significant source of wildland burning. Even so, the spread of fossil-fuel combustion, like the advent of fire-wielding hominids, marks a boundary that did not exist before.

The Fire from Europe

Encounters between peoples from different regions are also encounters between different fire regimes. In the first age of European imperialism, two historical processes involving fire came to influence colonies abroad.

One was the reconquest of Spain. In the same year that Columbus sailed to the West Indies, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, Granada, fell to Spanish arms. The conquistadors, trained through seven centuries of border conflict, soon reapplied their martial skills to the Mexicans. The year 1492 also witnessed a new charter of privileges from the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to the Mesta, the awesome sheep monopoly of Spain. In the name of pasturage and transhumance, the Mesta suppressed Spain's forests for centuries. This fate, too, was available for export: fire and hoof soon converted the landscape in the Valley of Mexico into something like the plains of central Spain. Most of the conquistadors hailed from Estremadura, in the heart of the lands dominated by the Mesta.

A rather different process -- also eventually recapitulated in modified form in Europe's overseas colonies -- was the agricultural reclamation of Europe from the post-Roman hunting, gathering and herding economy. In this centuries-long process, bouts of fiery landclearing were succeeded by a slow but steady strangulation of fire from heartland Europe. Agriculture restricted, then steadily expelled fire, as usage of every blade and stick intensified. In leaving the open commons for cultivated pastures and mowed grasses, herdsmen also left fire, except in Scotland, where sheep replaced cattle and heath burning persisted on a 10-year cycle.

By the time of large-scale colonization of the South, European agriculture was in the process of enclosure, privatization and intensification, not of expansion. The continent itself came to resemble a kind of fire, burned out in the center, flaming only along its perimeter. This trend was only reinforced when a counter-reclamation spurred by industrialization replaced farms by industrial forests, recreational suburbs and wildlands.

When Europe sought to export its agriculture, it was a model distrustful of free-burning fire that it promulgated. Europe's industrial heartland -- Germany, northern France, the Low Countries and England -- established itself as standard and censor of planetary fire.

The effects were varied. In some places, burning initially increased to epidemic proportions as immigrant fires mingled with indigenous ones, all now cut loose from traditional moorings. The results were often devastating -- seldom because of fire alone (evolutionary adaptations have seen to that) but because fire was magnified by hoof, axe, plough or sword. Historically, damage has been especially severe in borderline areas where biomes advance and retreat like glaciers under the oscillations of climate, or on marginal lands under multiple practices. These areas include infertile farmlands carved out of forests, ploughed, burned and abandoned; arid, overgrazed grasslands on which fire is either overapplied or too rigorously suppressed; mountainous brushlands maintained by fire as browse for domestic livestock; bogs burned during droughts or after drainage; commercially forested areas where climate and economics encourage a monoculture forest easily preyed upon by fire; turbulent frontiers where land rights are violently contested; and, often, marginal urban sites used for residential developments.

In other places affected by the export of European agriculture, fires flared, like a Bunsen burner speeding up a critical reaction, then ceased, the experiment completed. In still other places, fires vanished into field and ceremony, little more than vestigial symbols. No single formula can encompass all the outcomes. But in the end the effect has been to reduce the overall amount of open burning. The earth has far less free-burning fire now than when Columbus sailed -- perhaps a quarter or less.

Box 3: Fire Imperialism

In the US, fire, axe and plough compressed into 200 years what had taken 2,000 in Europe.

Extreme commodization of land, a weak state, high individual mobility, and laissez-faire logging and industrialization speeded agricultural settlement of lands that might otherwise have stayed wasteland. During the transitional period when fire practices and fire regimes mixed -- when, for example, railroads brought industrial-strength slash-and-burn to the north woods -- forested frontiers were a flaming front full of catastrophic blazes with names like Pesh-tigo, Miramichi and Black Thursday that left behind a landscape of more subdued, residual combustion. (The wholesale use of fire for land conversion in Brazil, as well as the giant conflagrations of 1997 around commercially-developing frontiers in Kalimantan and Sumatra, which spread smoke across much of Southeast Asia, are a contemporary variation on this theme.)

In 1868, fires of up to 300,000 acres raged around Seattle and other cities of the Pacific Northwest, and between 1840 and 1940 it is estimated that 80 per cent of Alaska burned at least once. At the same time, firing for range improvement continued in the south-eastern US. In the early 20th century, it was reported that 105 per cent of Florida burned in one year -- the improbable figure resulting from combined spring and fall firings. Throughout the 19th century, too, fires of a more traditional provenance continued to overrun the sparsely-inhabited New Jersey Pine Barrens about every 20 years.

Yet European agriculture barely had time to establish itself in the US before a maturing industrial revolution encouraged a counter-reclamation restoring arable land to forest, brush and swamp. Fire exclusion became the watchword in attempts to restore wilderness. While the thrust of the fire introduced in prehistoric times by Asian migrants crossing the Bering Strait had been, on the whole, to replace forests with grasslands, the ultimate impact of the fire brought from Europe was to replace grasslands with farms and forests.

After the burst of fiery land-clearing, agriculture became sedentary and land usage more obsessive. Livestock left the woods and open ranges for individual farms or village commons as mowing gradually replaced burning as pasture management. New fuels built up with the new forests, and new ignition sources, such as electricity lines, began to lace the backcountry. Exacerbated by the counter-reclamation, the geography of fire became one of massive maldistribution: too much wildfire, too little controlled burning; too much combustion, too little fire. By the 1990s, public lands in the US were suffering from a fire famine, not a fire surplus.

In Asia and Africa, meanwhile, Europe's expansion brought new burning regimes to lands notoriously susceptible to fire -- to environments for which seasonality meant an oscillation between wet and dry, not cold and hot; to biotas salted with pyrophytes; to landscapes already baked in a hominid hearth. Yet when the smoke cleared -- as it soon did -- there was again typically less fire after settlement or colonial rule than before.

Source: Pyne, S. J., World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997; and Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997.

The Expulsion of Fire

It was this eventual expulsion of fire that, as often as not, was the greater cause of environmental degradation and social disintegration. Fire removal attacked the habitat of fire-reliant humans as it did that of such fire-adapted organisms as longleaf pine, eucalypts, kangaroos, geotrophic orchids and rhinoceroses. The more universal fire had been as a tool, the more devastating was its removal.

In Australia, the removal of aboriginal fire destabilized ecosystem after ecosystem, with fire exclusion by Europeans probably leading to floral and faunal extinctions. In the US, bison could not return to tallgrass prairies that, deprived of Indian fire regimes, had reverted to woods. In late 19th-century Britain, grouse sickened on moors decadent with unburned ling from which fires and grazing had been excluded by zealous wardens -- a fate shared by game birds in the southern US by the 1920s as roughage and woods took over from formerly seasonally-burned lands. In 20th-century Canada, woodlands marched south across the prairie at the rate of a kilometre and a half a year.

In Sweden, meanwhile, many of the niches in the crannies and cracks of a geography disturbed by wind, flood, ice, moose, drought, and various regimes of fire were erased by modern nature stewardship. Some 200 species are believed threatened by Sweden's brand of boreal forestry, including insects equipped with infrared-seeking organs that search out freshly-burned sites. Heath, moor, bog, fields, forest -- all have converged toward the slurred norms of a commercial woodland as biodiversity fades into a classless smudge. Here, as elsewhere, the loss of traditional landscapes has gone hand-in-hand with the loss of traditional land practices. The exclusion of free-burning fire has occurred simultaneously with the virtual extinction of earlier Swedish folk culture.13

Europe's Fear of Fire

In part, Europe feared fire in its colonies simply because it had grown so accustomed to tamped-down fuels and tame burning practices at home, where broadcast fires had long been reduced to token torches and symbolic bonfires, and wildfire tamed and enlisted for reclamation. When in the late 19th century the great folklorist Sir James Frazer came to catalogue European fire festivals in The Golden Bough, he was unable to imagine any empirical rationale for them, treating them as acts of superstitious purification rather than ritual reenactments of practically efficacious practices of land management and animal husbandry.14

Yet there was more to Europe's pyrophobia than just ignorance. With a few exceptions -- Virgil, Linnaeus, a handful of others who had grown up on farms -- professional agronomists, all trained in cities and housed in academies and bureaux, had long detested "unexploited" fallows and commons as a waste of productive land and an invitation to sloth.15 Burning the fallows -- killing trees, eliminating the litter whose accumulation signified fertility, destroying the humus which prevented erosion and on which all life depended -- seemed to them even worse. Far better to exploit biological agents such as sheep or cattle, or to fertilize with compost and dung rather than with ash, or to sponsor labour-intensive surrogates such as weeding. Anything but fire. Unable to see that the fallows were not burned because they had overgrown, but were cultivated in order to be burned, urban intellectuals assumed that the burning was little more than a reckless means of disposing of agricultural trash. Similarly, forest overseers hated and feared the fire which workers in the woods often exploited.

Even the most eminent observers who questioned the anti-fire dogma were slapped down. When, in 1749, at the height of his fame, the great naturalist Linnaeus praised agricultural fire as an aid to fertility and animal husbandry, he was forced by Sweden's high commissioner of agriculture to replace the offending passage with a long analysis of the value of livestock manure in supplementing forest composts.16 In the High Enlightenment, it seems, burning could not compete with bullshit.

But the official line did have its logic. A recycling agriculture revolving around fire and fallow could not make something out of nothing. It was not improving. It spent nutrient capital rather than living off annual interest. So when pressures built up to increase productivity by boosting the reservoir of soil nutrients, fire was an obvious culprit. In the thought of Europe, progress was supplanting renaissance, closed cycles, and the Great Chain of Being as nature's informing principle.

In addition, fire threatened fixed property. Broadcast fire went hand-in- hand with nomadism -- the seasonal cycling of pastoralists, the long-fallow hegiras of swidden farmers, the treks of long hunters and trappers. Mobility of population made political control and taxation difficult and mocked the ideal of the garden that prevailed in central Europe, which demanded that every person, like every plant, have an assigned place. Finnish and Russian swiddeners fled king and tsar by burning into the boreal forest; North American pioneers and Boer pastoralists avoided tax collector and company edict by carrying their fire-powered economies into continental interiors; Greek, Corsican, Sardinian and other Mediterranean pastoralists ranged as freely as their flocks, defiant of political authority and confident in the power of fire to intimidate settled communities and harass agents of the state.

There was also the memory of how often Europe, and agricultural settlements in general, had been overrun by nomadic incursions. Urban intellectuals' experience of fire in cities, moreover, firmly associated it with social disorder, especially war, and wildfires seemed to appear most prominently during times of social breakdown. Suppressing such aberrations, and promoting enclosure and high-yield farming, seemed to mean eliminating freeburning fire, and vice versa.

Control over fire meant control over how people lived. Where peasants saw renewal, their fire ceremonies speaking to the dual virtues of fire to purge the bad and promote the good, intellectuals saw lost revenues, wandering swiddeners and pastoralists, squandered capital, incinerated soils, scorched timber, climatic disaster and social disorder.

European intellectuals thus hacked a great firebreak between the agricultural systems of the world. The side that held fire was "primitive"; that from which fire was excluded was "rational". Burning was justified only if, in the end, it led to fire-free cultivation. Fire, almost uniquely, defined the border between the archaic and the modern, between folk art and science. Fire and fallow cultivation was as little relevant to scientific farming and silviculture as were medicinal leeches in an age of penicillin. Over and again, intellectuals interpreted fire as the graffiti of ecological vandals, as the protest of a folk both sullen and prescientific. Fire's suppression, they believed, would liberate oppressed biotas, much as the suppression of famine, typhoid, and Thuggee could free backward societies to progress.

Forestry Imperialism and Fire Exclusion

Forestry absorbed these doctrines, and in its shock encounter with other oft-fired biotas hammered these precepts into a catechism of fire exclusion. From Europe's 19th-century alliance of forestry and imperialism came the attempt to suppress fire in large forest and wildlife reserves created in overseas colonies, which had been rendered "vacant" or "unexploited" in imperialistic theory or practice. From Europe's industrialization came the apparatus which allowed officials to take seriously, and begin to enforce, the agenda of fire abolitionists.

Colonial forestry glued together three things: Germanic silviculture (a species of engineering grafted onto the great rootstock of European agriculture), French dirigisme (a marriage of forestry and state power deriving partly from official attempts to take back control of communal forests following the French Revolution), and British imperialism (a medium for exporting the package). For its forestry work in Greater India, Britain hired German forest conservators, trained students at Nancy in France, and shipped British cadets throughout the Empire, generally beginning with a field apprenticeship in India. Thus the ecology of fire was recycled through human institutions. Through British foresters, the impact of teak burning in Burma could be transmitted to Sierra Leone, Tasmania or the fynbos of Cape Colony.

The influence of this institutional culture extended far beyond European possessions. In 1897, a special committee of the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that British India perhaps offered the best model for US forestry to follow. The top US forester Gifford Pinchot was advised on how to set up a state forestry organization by Dietrich Brandis, doyen of the Indian Imperial Forestry Service.17 Pinchot later drew attention to parallels between forestry in the far West of the US and French colonial forestry in Algeria.18

Indeed, forest reserves and colonial notions of fire control came to India and North America at around the same time. Like their counterparts throughout the world, US foresters considered the great challenge of fire protection to be the elimination of traditional fire practices that had had the effect of replacing forests with wild or domesticated grasses for pasturage or crops. They issued dark reminders that slash-and-burn firing had preceded the Mayan collapse; that forest felling and firing had brought the soil erosion that slid China into irreversible decay; that brush burning had caused the endemic impoverishment of Greek and Mediterranean cultures. When timber owners and stockmen proposed that foresters adopt the fire practices of native Americans, the suggestion was met with ridicule and incredulity.

In the view of the colonial forestry apparatus, transforming irregular wildlands and tangled "jungles" into regularized, rational woodlands was not only a way of linking forests to the railroad economy and subordinating rural villages to a central industrial authority. It also symbolized the way institutions of European jurisprudence would reorder and discipline the jungle of folk mores in the service of a higher purpose. In this endeavour, fire control was as fundamental to colonial rule as military garrisons and plantations. By helping to eliminate a blight on lands mired in inertia, it promised both humus and progress. In the US, "light-burning" advocates who held out in favour of smoking forest trees as a precaution against insect infestation sounded to official ears like a page from The Golden Bough.

Some wildfire, of course, would inevitably occur from the striking of native flint and European steel, and from arson and accident -- when, for example, railroad-powered logging sent its iron tentacles everywhere. Some broadcast burning, too, might be unavoidable in the early years of institution-building. But the ultimate ambition was an orchard of saw wood and pulp, a forest free of the superstitious fires which infested the land like malaria or packs of wild dogs. Nor was wildfire to be allowed in the official wildlands which imperialism began to create in the 1860s on environmental, aesthetic and nationalistic grounds.

Indeed, after 1863, when Brandis urged the beginning of the fire suppression experiment, Europeans became more fanatical about dousing flames in India than they ever were at home. They were encouraged by several factors. First, European powers could control colonial peoples in ways they could not control, say, agroforestry-practising French peasants, who burned forests in the Ardennes until the First World War and woodlands in the Midi until the 1920s. Second, foresters did not themselves have to live in and off forest reserves. That made the task of removing fire from them seem reasonable to them. Finally, European foresters had observed that when humans introduced fire to previously-uninhabited islands such as Madeira and Mauritius, forests had gone up in smoke, local climates had become droughty, springs had dried up, and rare flora and fauna had perished.19 They jumped to the conclusion that excluding humans from reserves would prevent such disasters.

At the same time, they failed to draw lessons from the fact that much of what was attractive about colonial landscapes elsewhere had resulted from long human manipulation, including anthropogenic fire and homegrown means of controlling it. In the disease-, war-, disruption- or relocation-emptied lands of North America, Australasia and Siberia, reservation occurred just at the moment when the indigenes were fading and the colonizing Europeans had not yet arrived in great numbers. In such seemingly wild landscapes, relic bands of indigenes appeared no more competent to shape the scene than did those minor streams that occupied the great valleys previously scoured by Pleistocene glaciers. (The picture presented to early 20th century European visitors to the Amazon basin was similarly misleading.)

Thus it was not recognized that to remove anthropogenic fire in favour of lightning fire alone would not be to restore a former, prelapsarian state, but to fashion an ecosystem that had never before existed, to exchange one human-crafted set of fire practices for another.

Resistance and Recantation

In India and other places where biotas were dramatically non-European and where indigenous peoples and livestock outnumbered European imports, traditional burning persisted in defiance of European desires. Even if natives retained political access to reserved sites, unless they had fire they lacked biological access to the potential resources these lands held. Setting fires was at once a protest, a way of voiding edicts, fences, and patrols, and an attempt to restore traditional lands to customary purposes. The extravagance of Indian fire that seeped, simmered, probed, flared and raged annually throughout the land made a shambles of any presumption to reorder forests along European models. Behind the backs of their white superiors, even native fire control staff fired forests in order to fertilize, promote grasses, cleanse soil, and assist hunting and foraging, well aware of the necessity of conserving the intricate ensemble of biomes that was made by, and that in turn made possible, Indian society. In the end, colonists or local officials frequently adopted native fire practices, or hybridized with them in mutual hostility to the edicts of colonial administrators and the theories of European intellectuals.20

In Burma, British colonial foresters had to acknowledge officially at the turn of the 20th century what local residents had known all along: that in the absence of traditional fire -- slash-and-burn cultivation, routine underburning -- Burmese teak refused to regenerate due to pests and diseases. One official proclaimed in 1896 that fire was "one of the forest officer's most useful agents as long as it is his servant and not his master".21

By 1914, conservators of forests of sal trees (Shorea robusta, from which timber and dammar resin is obtained) likewise recognized that regeneration "had ceased throughout the fire-protected forests of Assam and Bengal and that no amount of cleanings and weedings would put things right".22 They tried to reintroduce fire, but fuels had changed so much that it was no longer possible to run benign light fires through the understory; the taungya system by which swidden fields were restocked with planted timber trees evolved as a partial compromise.

Chir pine (Pinus longifolia)-- familiar from India, Burma and northern Thailand -- was also found belatedly by Europeans to be reliant on routine fire, so that nearly everywhere field foresters introduced some form of "early" (that is, spring) burning of grassy understories for fire protection, and integrated regeneration burns into silvicultural cycles. Whatever the causes for the failure of natural regeneration, one forester sheepishly admitted, "fire appears to be the only real cure".23 In Australia and South Africa, too, controlled burning soon had to be absorbed into official doctrine.

Box 4: The Parallels between Fires and Floods

Trying to eliminate free-burning fire has proved to be somewhat like trying to eliminate floods.

Both of these soil-fertilizing events are ultimately determined by weather and climate; flooding results from extreme precipitation just as fires will burn under extreme atmospheric conditions. A river regime, in addition, shows a typical pattern of floods as a fuel complex does for fire. A river adjusts its channel geometry, pattern and gradient to provide just the right velocity needed for its waters to transport the debris delivered to it. Fires behave similarly, displaying a shape and intensity in accordance with the fuel available to them. The most stubborn fires burn in fuel complexes most in need of decomposition; the fires most readily extinguished are, in terms of the ecosystem's energy requirements, the least important. Under natural conditions, the intensity and frequency of fire varies according to the work required of it: the greater the litter, the more intense the fire; the more frequently litter is built up, the more frequent the fire.

Wildland fires and wildland floods, in addition, show the same logarithmic distribution by size and frequency. One can speak of 10- or 100-year fires just as of floods. Steep topography and heavy rain squalls cause periodic flooding in central Pennsylvania just as rugged topography and high winds result in periodic fires in Southern California. From a management point of view, the problem in each case is not one of exclusion but of redistribution.

Another resemblance is the environmental problems that have resulted from protection efforts. A prominent function of rivers is to transport debris. A dam impounds the flow of sediment, and silting ultimately renders the dam useless. Similarly, a function of wildland fire is to decompose forest litter. But success in "damming" all wildland fires only impounds this litter with its nutrients into a large reservoir of fuels, slowing down the growth of many ecosystems and making possible future fires of catastrophic intensity.

Protection thus tends in some degree to be self-defeating. It introduces new elements of instability into the system it proposes to regulate. Zealous attempts to eliminate the effects of all floods, including minor ones, has unwittingly encouraged conditions in which even moderate floods (as judged by volume of water) have exhibited effects associated with major ones. For example, overdeveloped engineering structures confining the Mississippi too closely have deprived the river regime of the flexibility it needs for self-regulating mechanisms to work. Likewise, the refusal to tolerate small, low-intensity fires makes otherwise moderate fires likely to behave more erratically by increasing the amount and rate of energy released. Organized wildland fire protection, like massive "river control" projects, are very recent phenomena, both expressions of a specifically industrial civilization.

Today, both fire and flood protection seem to have reached a plateau. The costs of further technical development appear exorbitant, and extending organized protection into more remote landscapes is economically and environmentally questionable.

Source: Pyne, S. J., Fire In America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997 and World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997; Reisner, M., Cadillac Desert, Penguin, New York, 1986.

The Stubborn Case of North America

In the more depopulated lands of North America, the European colonial experiment of fire exclusion dragged on several decades longer before its ecological and economic costs became overwhelming. In 1889, Gifford Pinchot called for an outright ban, thundering that the "question of forest fires, like the question of slavery, can be postponed, at enormous cost in the end, but sooner or later it must be faced".24 In the 1930s, farmers from the southern US protested that:

"Woods burnin''s right. We allus done it. Our pappies burned th' woods an' their pappies afore 'em. ... Fires do a heap of good. Kill th' boll weevil, snakes, ticks, an' bean beetles. Greens up the grass. Keeps us healthy by killin' fever germs."

A psychologist hired by the US Forest Service dismissed their explanations as rationalizations for the residues of an "old culture" combined with a desire for "recreation" and emotional release.25

In North America, far more than in India, it proved possible for years to eliminate indigenous fires, suppress long-smouldering fires, and reduce blazes through aggressive firefighting. Mechanized firefighting held out the promise of exclusion for even longer. This cost money and wrenched biota into successively greater distortions, but it could be done. But the grace period would not last. Either the land had to be converted to some other, less flammable condition, as had happened in Europe, or else some species of controlled burning had to be introduced.

The mistake was not the suppression of wildfires but the elimination of controlled fires, the exclusion of folkways that fire exclusion demanded. It was decades of fire prevention efforts, for example, that made possible the unusual accumulation of fuel loads which stoked the unprecedented conflagrations of 1988 which burned most of Yellowstone National Park.

Inevitably, in North America as in India, there was in the end a recantation of the doctrine of fire exclusion. Prescribed burning was reintroduced to industrial forestry from two sources: Indians still practising their ancient arts on reservations, and the progeny of southern frontiersmen who had been isolated in the piney woods of the South.

Scientific forestry gave the old practices a new justification, denying the legitimacy of their earlier incarnation, and shaped them into a new cycle of firing, one adapted to an industrialized society. On wildlands in the US, the best minds and most aggressive programmes over the past two decades have sought to restore fire in order to resuscitate damaged forest ecosystems.

Fire Indigenism

Many people find it difficult to accept that the earth has far less free-burning fire now than in pre-Columbian times. One reason is that this observation runs against the grain of Western colonial mythology, populated by Noble Savages and Virgin Forests, which requires that a discovered world of innocence be ravished by a decadent and cynical Europe. The fire policy of the US's National Park Service, for instance, still seeks to restore a "state of nature" that existed prior to First Contact -- a definition that includes lightning and the native peoples who burned sequoia groves annually but not the German immigrants who swatted those fires out with pine boughs.

This attempt to fashion a cultural ideal out of natural materials is every bit as much an artifact of 20th-century US society as Michaelangelo's statues are of Renaissance Italy or the Gothic arches of Mont Saint Michel are of medieval France.26 Noble Savage myths, moreover, dehumanize their subjects, ignoring their history and autonomy and reducing them to ideological resources to be reconstructed, enlisted, or abandoned depending on political expediency and prevailing cultural winds.

Thus in the US, when the tenets of industrial forestry triumphed and the "natural" way was determined to mean fire exclusion, it was easy to assume that native Americans did not intentionally broadcast burn and that they were careful with fire. By the mid-19th century, fire was generally considered an environmental evil, and as children of nature, native Americans could not deliberately have damaged their environments.

It seems fantastic now that this belief could have ever been held, given the evidence for aboriginal burning in nearly every landscape of North America. Indeed, it is only the fact that the Noble Savage and Virgin Forest myths were false that made the spread of Western civilization across the American continent as rapid as it was. Fire-sculpted grasslands -- the continent's dominant cover at the time of European "discovery" -- were the arteries of European diffusion and provided game and good farmland. It was only in the wake of European settlement that the Great American Forest grew up. The Virgin Forest was not encountered in the 16th and 17th centuries; it was invented in the late 18th and early 19th.27

Yet for decades, anthropology texts and ethnographic studies ignored fire except as a tool of swidden agriculture, seemingly forgetting the values of broadcast fire known so well to hunting, gathering and herding societies around the world. Enchanted by the powerful mirage of the Virgin Forest myth, historians also ignored aboriginal fire.

US foresters' field experience was usually insufficient to dislodge these cultural prejudices, especially since they rarely had direct knowledge of indigenous peoples. Their contact was with stockmen, miners, railroaders and loggers, who often ingenuously insisted that they were only continuing native American ways. Professionals trained in eastern academies of forestry and prepared to look on such people as capitalist exploiters and robber barons were understandably skeptical.

Merging Indians into the Landscape

Later on, when prescribed fire was again accepted as an appropriate tool in the management of natural systems, it was discovered that, indeed, native Americans in their ancient wisdom burned. Also rehabilitated was the woods-burning knowledge of Southern "crackers" -- much of which had been derived from native practices.

Yet these native fires, like the natives themselves, simply merged into the landscape. Native Americans in particular were seen as either part of the natural order or as unable or unwilling to influence it in any serious way. Possessed of an almost mystical insight into the inner harmonies of the landscape, they were held to be incapable of doing anything to violate the delicate equilibrium of the ecosystem.

Ignored on both views was the human reality of native American history and political conflict, including the rise and decline of early civilizations such as the mound builders in the Ohio valley, the Anasazi of Mesa Verde, and the Hohokam of the Southwest. In later times, similarly, the sheep- and goat-herding economy that Navajos adopted from the Spanish devastated many of the richest grazing lands of the western US, and was checked only as long as it was subject to the depredations of raiding Apaches, who were, like the livestock, relatively recent arrivals.28

Acknowledging such realities would have contradicted the assumption that when the Europeans arrived, the landscape was in finely-tuned balance, only to be disrupted by the corrupting habits of civilization. This assumption was essential to a judgement on Western civilization's presence in the New World -- which of course was new only to Europeans.

When fire was considered an environmental evil, the use of careless and broadcast fire by European and American settlers was excoriated; when it was considered an inevitable and even desirable part of the ecosystem, fire control practices were criticized. Controversies over whether to burn or under what conditions are still clouded by appeals to the supposed fire practice of the Asian immigrants to the Americas who superimposed their culture over whatever might have existed before they arrived. The evidence has not changed, but its cultural context has.

Globalized Fire and Global Warming

Despite fire indigenism's bogus show of "respect" for non-European practices, it is remarkable the extent to which fire regimes and norms have continued to flow one way -- from a pyrophobic, industrialized Europe outward. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has dispatched Germans, Finns and French to Mauritania, Nepal and Patagonia to advise on forestry and fire, but has not sponsored Senegalese and Filipinos to help reintroduce fire to Sweden and Austria. Nor has this trend been qualified overly much by the emergence of North America as a global fire power, given the latter's long acceptance of the anomalous European fire scene as normative.

Everywhere industrial combustion integrates once-unconnected landscapes to a global market which in turn profoundly influences the distribution of surface biomass and the fire practices that are applied to it. Large, uncontrolled burns have recently ravaged landscapes as diverse as Borneo and Canada, Australia and Manchuria, Siberia and Oakland, Malibu and Florida -- the causes ranging from large-scale, high-speed land conversion to industrial logging or plantations to the encounter of exurban settlements with wild or abandoned biota overgrown with trees and brush. Elsewhere, anthropogenic fire has established itself like a naturalized weed. Still other landscapes, grasslands, brushfields and forests suffer a fire famine. Fire has receded everywhere in the "developed" world: from domestic life, industrial pyrotechnologies, agriculture and forestry. Smoke is no longer desired. With the relative decline in anthropogenic fire, lightning fire is set to reassert itself in the boreal forests, in the abandoned fields of the Mediterranean, and in nature preserves.

The transition from torch to furnace has demanded novel indices by which to measure the new world order of fire. The magnitude of industrial combustion is forcing biomass burning to compete with fossil-fuel burning for limited airsheds; the atmosphere stirs local burning into a common cauldron of global combustion in ways that were not true before. Europe can now project its air pollution across the globe, just as in centuries past it projected the reckless destruction of its soils. Burning forests in Indonesia or Siberia vie for CO2 sinks with autos in California, a firestick-kindled savannah in West Africa with coal-fired steel mills in the Ruhr.

The role humus served as an index of environmental health for agricultural societies, the atmosphere has assumed for industrial states. Combustion is held to be bad or good depending on whether it aggravates or ameliorates airsheds, and though them, planetary weather and climate. Climate, like cancer, has become a universal touchstone to condemn unwanted environmental practices.

The continued condemnation of fire, and particularly biomass burning, by international environmentalism -- from nuclear winter to greenhouse summer, from fire as an emblem of social disorder to fire as a perverter of biodiversity -- reflects an identifiably European viewpoint. The public imagery of fire has become both vivid and confused, with conflagrations applauded at Yellowstone and denounced in Amazonia. Nearly everywhere, freeburning fire is identified with global environmental havoc, a torch ready to kindle the accumulated fuels of the Apocalypse. It is also seen as its result. The 1997 droughts and fires in Indonesia, Mexico and Florida, for instance, are often partly blamed on the shift in the El Niño phenomenon associated with global warming.29 What is missing is distinctions between different kinds of fire of the kind people make between different kinds of water. Few people confuse an irrigated field with a flood disaster, but many conflate (for example) benign surface fires with stand-replacing crown fires.

Open Fire and the Atmosphere

Atmospheric abuse presents humankind with one of its most pressing problems. But it would be tragic if global powers once again misapplied their ignorance and categorically sought to expunge fire from the landscape.

Carbon cannot be sequestered like bullion. Biological preserves are not a kind of Fort Knox for carbon. Living systems store that carbon, and those terrestrial biotas demand a fire tithe. That tithe can be given voluntarily or it will be extracted by force. Taking the carbon exhumed by industrial combustion from the geologic past and stacking it into overripe living woodpiles is an approach of questionable wisdom.30

There can be net changes in the earth's fire load, but to speak of eliminating burning is not only quixotic but dangerous. Eliminate fire and you can build up, for a while, carbon stocks, but at probable damage to the ecosystem upon the health of which the future regulation of carbon in the biosphere depends. Stockpile biomass carbon, whether in Yellowstone National Park or in a Chilean eucalyptus plantation, and you also stockpile fuel, the combustion equivalent of burying toxic waste. Refuse to tend the domestic fire and the feral fire will return -- as it recently did in Yellowstone and Brazil's Parc Nacional das Emas, where years of fire exclusion ended with a lightning strike that seared 85 per cent of the park in one fiery flash.

Fire can countermand certain greenhouse effects, and may, in the future, be a thermostat for global climate. If free-burning fires release greenhouse gases, they also deposit elemental carbon as a residue. The biota recapture the gases, while the carbon persists, in partial compensation for the exhumation of ancient hydrocarbons burned as fossil fuels. Proper burning in forest and shrubland can improve long-term productivity and net carbon storage. Aerosols and sulphur emissions reflect incident radiation, thus enhancing cooling. Fire effluents often serve as nuclei for clouds, further altering the radiation balance.

It could be argued, plausibly, that anthropogenic fire has retarded -- or may be necessary to retard -- the advent of a new ice age, which has been the climatic norm 80 per cent of the time since the Pleistocene (even much of the last millennium was dominated by the Little Ice Age). At the very least, the environmental consequences of blanket hostility to open burning need to be weighed carefully. In Pará, Brazil, replacing slash-and-burn agriculture with industrial forests has led to charcoal production on a monumental scale and a worsening of problem emissions. In the desert city of Phoenix in the US, new fire codes require residents, instead of burning off their dead lawns in the spring, to collect debris in black plastic bags and have it carted off to landfills, where it slowly decomposes into methane.31

How much industrial combustion can be added, and how much wildland burning withdrawn, without ecological damage? A good case can be made that there is not enough fire, or rather that there is a maldistribution of fire -- too much of the wrong kind of combustion in the wrong kind of places, too little of the right kind of burning in the right places or at the right times. Too often, lightly inhabited lands are suddenly opened to fire, while newly uninhabited lands are abruptly closed to it. Too often, rural landscapes invaded by exurban sprawl become overgrown with fuels in a way fire services are unaccustomed to handling.

Fire is an ecological process, not simply a dispensible tool. It is possible to replace a wood-burning hearth with an electric stove, and improve domestic health. But internal-combustion bulldozers and chain saws are no substitute for a forest fire. Nor can the industrial combustion of fossil biomass replace, biologically speaking, the burning of living biomass. In the built environment, it may be possible to substitute other technologies for open burning. But problems can develop when humans try to do the same outside built-up areas.

What are the appropriate standards for anthropogenic fire? Its longevity and pervasiveness condemn the quest for a non-human, "natural" norm as meaningless. Humans exert an influence not only by kindling fire but also by suppressing it, or by refusing to set the kinds of fires that have long shaped the land.

Of course, there are good reasons to reduce, or temporarily remove, fire from certain places at certain times. There are equally good reasons to reintroduce or continue fire elsewhere. But criteria for deciding what the "right" fire regime might be for a particular place or time cannot be read off from an imaginary "nature" or the doings of Noble Savages. They are neither obvious nor uncontested.

Whatever the fate of the quest for a more reasonable norm for fire, it remains true that in the industrialized world the case for anthropogenic burning has not found an advocacy equal to that for fossil-fuel combustion. No Smokey the Torch has emerged to argue the case for its legitimacy, utility, or necessity or to advance an iconography of fire as shield, filter or global hearth. It is perhaps time for such a counterimagery to be reforged. Earth remains a fire planet, and humans fire creatures. Neither can forsake fire and be what they are.

Notes and References

1 Pyne, S. J., World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997, pp.31, 64, 300ff.

2 Op. cit., p.111.

3 Quoted in Pyne, S. J., Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997, p.75.

4 Barsh, R. L., "Fire on the Land", Alternatives, Fall 1997, pp.36-40.

5 Quoted in Pyne, S. J., op. cit. 1, pp.306-7.

6 Komarek, E. V., "Principles of Fire Ecology and Fire Management in Relation to the Alaskan Environment," in Slaughter, C. W. et al. (eds.), Fire in the Northern Environment: A Symposium, US Forest Service, 1971, p.15.

7 Pyne, S. J., Fire in America, op. cit. 3, p.128; Pyne, S. J., Vestal Fire: An Environmental History, Told through Fire, of Europe and Europe's Encounter with the World, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997.

8 Spurr, S. H. and Barnes, B. V., Forest Ecology, (2nd ed.), Ronald Press, New York, 1973, pp.347-8.

9 Ibid.

10 Pyne, S. J., World Fire, op. cit. 1, p.73.

11 Pyne, S. J., Vestal Fire, op. cit. 7.

12 Pyne, S. J., Vestal Fire, op. cit. 11, pp.178-80.

13 Pyne, S. J., World Fire, op. cit. 1, pp.76-94.

14 Frazer, J. G., The Golden Bough, Macmillan, New York, 1923.

15 Bloch, M., French Rural History, trans. by J. Sondheimer, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1966.

16 Pyne, S. J., Vestal Fire, op. cit. 11, p.251.

17 Guha, R., "An Early Environmental Debate: The Making of the 1878 Forest Act", The Indian Economic and Social History Review 27, 1, 1990, pp.65-84.

18 Pyne, S. J., Fire in America, op. cit. 3, p.134.

19 Grove, R., Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995.

20 Pyne, S. J., World Fire, op. cit. 1, pp.149-70.

21 Slade, H., "Too Much Fire Protection," Indian Forester 22, 1896, p.176.

22 Pyne, S. J., World Fire, op. cit. 1, p.165.

23 Op. cit., pp.160, 165.

24 Quoted in Pyne, S. J., op. cit., p.184.

25 Pyne, S. J., Fire in America, op. cit. 3, p.143. See also Langston, N., Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1995, pp.252-53.

26 For British parallels, see Rackham, O., The History of the Countryside, Dent, London, 1986 and Ancient Woodland: Its History, Vegetation and Uses in England, Edward Arnold, London, 1980.

27 Pyne, S. J., Fire in America, op. cit 3, pp.46, 80, 83-84, 89, 97.

28 Pyne, S. J., Fire in America, op. cit. 3, pp.78, 519-20.

29 Vidal, J., When the Earth Caught Fire, The Guardian Weekend (London), 8 November 1997, pp.14-24.

30 "The Dyson Effect: Carbon 'Offset' Forestry and the Privatization of the Atmosphere", Corner House Briefing No. 15, July 1999.

31 Pyne, S. J., World Fire, op. cit. 1, pp.68, 74.