A view of fire rarely seen.

Video courtesy of Northwest Territories ENR and FPInnovations Wildfire Operations Group

In 2019, I received a unique opportunity through a Thomas J Watson Fellowship  to pursue an international project of my own design. As a wildland firefighter, I knew severe wildfires occurred throughout the world, but never who they impacted, or the effects of those flames on human and natural landscapes. Smoke over Russia, Indonesia, Amazonia, Australia, Africa - it began to feel as if catastrophic fire is creating darker smoke than before. The Anthropocene and wildfire accelerating one another, but without context. 

A fellowship from The Watson Foundation offered the means and platform to ask questions. I am incredibly grateful.

Funded through a Thomas J Watson Fellowship, "The Ecological and Societal Balance of Wildfires" is a project based upon the principles of wildfire history, ecology, and management. An international comparative survey to study different environmental management approaches to balancing the duality of fire. The Watson Foundation funded this project for one year to examine how various nations attempt to answer and solve a paradox: how can wildfires exist to serve their ecological purpose, without extensive loss to life and property?

Also: How can nations without previous wildfire operations experience and resources counter future wildfires-induced challenges? How will climate change exacerbate fire behavior and alter ecosystems? Are their avenues for knowledge and best-practices to be shared across the world? What social narratives exist that hinder or enhance progressive approaches to wildfires?

The Thomas J Watson Fellowship allowed me the freedom to design my own year - as its purpose is to spur a year of personal development through intentional, experiential learning. Contractual obligations for the year include the production of several reports and a final thesis, but largely the expectations are to grow as a global citizen, in which there are no metrics. 

My own experiences with fire began as a child, watching wildfire roam freely in the Southern California chaparral. It would progress through my fire seasons working for the US Forest Service as a wildland firefighter, and in my fieldwork as an aspiring ecologist. Shortly before the beginning of the Thomas J Watson Fellowship, my community was decimated by California's sixth most damaging wildfire. Through these lenses: as a firefighter, survivor, and ecologist, I began an international year of wildfire-focused study.

This page serves as the brief version of my crystallization from nine months of immersive study of wildfire governance systems. More in-depth chapters may be found in the drop-down menu in the right hand corner of this page.

All of the photos are my own - taken through the various wildfire-focused experiences I compiled.

Fire - a physical process dependent on terrestrial life, that determines the fate of species and ecosystems, but not itself alive. Through the synthesis of oxygen, fuel, and heat, wildfires have permeated and defined earth’s natural system. The oldest evidence of burnt vegetation can be dated back 420 million years ago - 415 million years before the origin of the first Homo species. Consistently ignited by lightening, wildfire frequencies fluctuated throughout time dependent on atmospheric oxygen contents. The evolutionary step of terrestrial plants oxygenated the world, and fire reined - inciting mass extinctions, spurring biodiversity, and dictating carbon and nutrient cycles. The effects of a burning planet designed existing natural systems, and fire, the great disturbance, influenced the spread of earth’s plant species. The ecological mechanisms of fire favored certain evolutionary traits and the world’s systems separated into fire-sensitive and fire-adapted types. Today, fire-adapted ecosystems cover over 46% of available land surface, and are responsible for the creation and maintenance of all grasslands, shrublands, savannas, and boreal forests. Since it’s inception on our flammable planet, wildfire has been one of earth’s “master variables”, as it continues to shape the world’s biotic evolutionary path.

The human link to fire is inextricable as it defined the progression of our species as well as landscapes we live within. The ability to interact with fire - first through anticipation of fire behavior, then the desire to capture and carry fire, and finally to create it - marks the first technological advancement of our species. Fire advanced the development of human brains as cooking unlocked accessibility to deeper nutrients within plants and animals necessary for neural progression. Its heating and light properties permitted human migration to colder regions, and wielding it allowed for protection against predators. Over time, human proficiency with fire would rise and inevitably permit a single species to possess the power to design entire landscapes.

An agent of great change, the use of fire would define humans’ ecological niche as they manipulated shaped more habitable environments. The single species monopoly over fire forced all other organisms to adjust as new fire regimes (natural cycles of fire) were created by human firesticks. The ecological capacity for fire-prone landscapes to regenerate made them more favorable for human presence - as disturbed landscapes offered suites of important ecosystem services. Stephen Pyne calls the merger of humans and fire a “Faustian bargain”; as humans aspired to control their monopolized agent, they became aware of the dual nature that fire possesses The tool that substantiated human management of their environments could destroy their progress if mishandled or misunderstood. A Finnish proverb captures the essence of fire’s duality - “Fire is a bad master, but a good servant”. To curtail the detriments of fire, and emphasize its amelioratory potential, many societies developed cultural knowledge and practices to ensure safe use of fire. Societies constructed identities around properties of fire and its presence diffused itself into numerous human disciplines such as: art (cave dwelling paintings), religion (Prometheus), family structure (hearth), warfare (gunpowder), energy (fossil fuels), and far more. The “bargain” formed between humanity and fire would radiate, directly or indirectly, into all defining characteristics of human development.

In "A Modern Greek Tragedy"- A site of loss, Mati is a town and broken community that has been burned by wildfire in the worst way. They are not questioning if it will happen again, but when. Persistent wildfire destruction is an unsustainable course of action.

In "The Firefighter Trap" -Europe's growing concern of climate change induced wildfires reveals a common reactionary pitfall. Engaging nature through militaristic confrontation is short-sighted. Mediterranean nations, experienced in wildfire realities, seek to exchange knowledge and best practices with those just beginning to enter their first fire seasons. This chapter explores how collaborations of nonprofits, governments, and local land-users work to restore rural economies to create holistic landscape mosaics.  

In this photo: Pau Costa Foundation and Fire Shepherds work together to conduct fire mitigation the pastoral way.

In "Canadian Incongruity" -Ecosystems influenced by millenniums of indigenous practitioners are now subjected to bureaucratic processes. Forms of environmental interaction that once followed ecological rules, now champion economic ones. A system of management once treated holistically, is now separated and siloed. Extremely proficient in technology development, resource allocation, and incident operations, Canadian wildfire agencies are some of the most efficient firefighting organizations in the world. However, their limitation lies within the inability of other political and economic sectors to identify with environmental management objectives. Tasked with the formidable responsibility of reducing wildfire impacts, organizational narratives have solidified on reactionary methods. The trajectory of wildfire behavior will exceed suppression capacities, and many advocate for new approaches. Individuals within Canadian environmental governance are frustrated by the incongruence; their ability to innovate and communicate within and beyond their agencies may be the determining factor in Canada's wildfire future.

In this photo: Conducting fire effects monitoring prior to a prescribed fire, deep in the Banff backcountry.

In "Fire in the Fynbos" - Wildland firefighters and other fire practitioners exist at the edge of an discordant relationship between society and its environment. Constructing proactive forms of wildfire management will necessitate the elevation and professional recognition of fire practitioners.

In this photo: Masande gives me a look after a dramatic windshift blew out our fireline.

In "Communities and Wildfires" - Humans, fires, and landscapes are inextricably interconnected. Community-based Fire Management offers potential for remediating discrepancies between people and their natural hazard, while supporting livelihoods. Engaged and educated communities provide far more consistent forms of fire management that state run agencies. The equipment of local communities with the capacity to set their own fire management objectives is a critical step in improving proactive approaches. However, this participatory approach requires a strong support structures with consistent funding and sponsorship. 

In this photo: FireWise members conduct alien vegetation and fuel management around their homes.

In "Integrating Fire Managemet" - The duality of fire, its ability to be both beneficial and detrimental, is at the heart of its ecological and societal balance. Addressing a mega-fire future may require rethinking of wildfire governance frameworks and the distribution of risk management and responsibility. Portugal constitutes one of the first nation's to commit to an integrated fire management approach. It may serve as a template for other nation's to follow.

In this photo: Practitioners in South African forestry use fire regularly.  Prescribed and stack burning are cost-effective functions that allow for land-use practices, or ecological maintenance. Fire is a landscape management tool. The creation and continuation of Fire Protection Associations provide beneficial platforms for knowledge exchange and coordinated fire management among landowners.

In this photo: High temperatures late at night in the Cederberg Wilderness had the team working until the following evening.

The pace is quickening, fires will grow larger and hotter in many parts of the world. The long term impacts on human health, ecosystem, and atmospheric are bleak.

In this photo: Deep inside a World Heritage Conservation Site, wildfires have burned an ancient Gondwanan forest. Stands of Pencil Pines (Athrotaxis cupressoides) were burnt near Lake Mackenzie in the 1960's and 2016. Research is ongoing to learn if it is possible to rehabilitate this non-fire adapted species. Climate shifts will increase their fire exposure. Can they be brought back? If not, can they be protected?

Fire-sensitive ecosystems make up approximately 36% of available land area. These areas contain some of the most biodiverse regions in the world. As wildfires become increasingly frequent and severe, the integrity of these systems will be compromised. To what degree remains unknown. Understanding primary and secondary fire effects is crucial for fire-sensitive ecosystems.

In this photo: The presence or absence of bush encroachment permeates throughout food chains. The frequency of wildfire dictates habitat for mega-fauna. Prey species in grasslands seek grasses for forage and predator defense. 

Prioritizing management objectives that champion ecological integrity is an important step to improving human-environmental interactions.

However, the inflammation of nature only occupies a small portion of the broader, collective conscious. There are far greater social afflictions at the front our minds.

By 2050, fire frequencies are projected to increase by 27% (relative to 2000 levels) and pose the largest threat to earth's forests.

This rise can be attributed to both an altering climate and land-use interactions. As atmospheric conditions become increasingly unpredictable and the health of forests degrades, fire behavior will continue to reach unprecedented levels. Wildfires will burn hotter, more frequently, and they will challenge our previous perceptions of what is possible and what is not. The 1-3% of fires (in U.S, Canada, Australia) that currently escape to become mega-fires can already exceed suppression capacities, and their volatility is not forecasted to diminish. These mega-fires will release millions of tons of carbon emissions, contributing to a positive feedback, ensuring their future prevalence. Even the most viable and feasible avenue to addressing climate change, afforestation, is threatened by future wildfires.

 As conversations continue on climate change, land degradation, and other environmental issues, wildfire management continues to be viewed as a disconnected issue. Mega-fires are an inflammation from a disproportionate relationship between humans and their environment. An ecological phenomena that is becoming increasingly precarious cannot be peddled off to stand-alone government agencies. 

Mitigating and managing future wildfires cannot be seen as a detached discipline, as earth's natural systems are intrinsically connected. Improving wildfire management approaches directly contributes to climate change action, and it cannot be solved in isolation. Navigating a mega-fire reality requires new ways of thinking about current interactions between human dimensions and environments.

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