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 was aware that the frequency and severity of wildfires seem to be occurring across the world. International news told us they were burning, but never why or how. Smoke over Russia, Indonesia, Amazonia, Australia, Africa - it has begun to feel as if catastrophic fire is creating darker smoke than before. The Anthropocene and wildfire seemed to be accelerating one another, and I wanted to gain context. A fellowship from The Watson Foundation offered the means and platform to ask questions. I am incredibly grateful.
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.