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Island Press
Tending Fire: Coping with America's Wildland Fires / Edition 1

Tending Fire: Coping with America's Wildland Fires / Edition 1

by Stephen Pyne
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The wildfires that spread across Southern California in the fall of 2003 were devastating in their scale-twenty-two deaths, thousands of homes destroyed and many more threatened, hundreds of thousands of acres burned. What had gone wrong? And why, after years of discussion of fire policy, are some of America's most spectacular conflagrations arising now, and often not in a remote wilderness but close to large settlements?

That is the opening to a brilliant discussion of the politics of fire by one of the country's most knowledgeable writers on the subject, Stephen J. Pyne. Once a fire fighter himself (for fifteen seasons, on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon) and now a professor at Arizona State University, Pyne gives us for the first time a book-length discussion of fire policy, of how we have come to this pass, and where we might go from here.

Tending Fire provides a remarkably broad, sometimes startling context for understanding fire. Pyne traces the "ancient alliance" between fire and humanity, delves into the role of European expansion and the creation of fire-prone public lands, and then explores the effects wrought by changing policies of "letting burn" and suppression. How, the author asks, can we better protect ourselves against the fires we don't want, and better promote those we do?

Pyne calls for important reforms in wildfire management and makes a convincing plea for a more imaginative conception of fire, though always grounded in a vivid sense of fire's reality. "Amid the shouting and roar, a central fact remains," he writes. "Fire isn't listening. It doesn't feel our pain. It doesn't care-really, really doesn't care. It understands a language ofwind, drought, woods, grass, brush, and terrain, and it will ignore anything stated otherwise."

Rich in insight, wide-ranging in its subject, and clear-eyed in its proposals, Tending Fire is for anyone fascinated by fire, fire policy, or human culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781559635653
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 10/15/2004
Edition description: 1
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Stephen J. Pyne is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. He is the author of many acclaimed books, including Year of the Fires (Viking, 2001), The Cycle of Fire series (University of Washington Press), and How the Canyon Became Grand (Penguin, 1999).

Read an Excerpt

Tending Fire

Coping with America's Wildland Fires

By Stephen J. Pyne


Copyright © 2004 Stephen J. Pyne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55963-565-3


Why Fire?

* * *

THE AMERICAN FIRE community is not, by instinct, historically minded. It obsesses about the coming season, the imminence of blustering winds or dry lightning, about response time. It reacts, and trains hard to do so. If it contemplates historical change, its members are most likely to imagine the future, and run simulations by which to get there. The fire community wants to do.

How much of this indifference to history results from being steeped in American culture, and how much comes from being in the fire community, is unclear—and there are bureaucratic ingredients to knead in, as well. When the Brookings Institution canvassed high-level fire officers, that group declined to imagine a past before the 2000 fire season. Before then was prehistory, as archaic and useless as excavations of Neanderthals. Other inquiries suggest the same: three years is an average horizon. History's function is archival and bardic—to record and celebrate the great deeds of the clan.

Certainly, contemporary fire problems can be analyzed as just that. There is fuel and there is ignition and there are conditions that cause them to collide. The problem exists now; the solution is to break that combustion chain now. A leisurely narrative of how the problem evolved may pique the curiosity but it will not shatter the links that connect spark, oxygen, and fuel. Yet history is a powerful means of explanation, a thickening agent for description, and, while it may not be sufficient by itself, it may be necessary. Even ecologists have come to recognize that, like geology, their discipline is a historical science. The land looks the way it does not simply because it is a physical matrix of parts and processes but because those events and species have occurred in particular sequences. Fire history, broadly conceived, is not an indulgence: no proposed remedy will likely succeed unless it can tease out, analyze, and cope with the historical contingencies that have given the problem its precise shape.

There are many ways to parse American fire history. Perhaps the most punch for the prose comes, as suggested in the prologue, by considering it as the braiding of three narratives. There is the story of fire on Earth: call it fire's narrative. There is a story of public lands and the institutions to administer them: call it an imperial narrative. And there is a story of national particulars: call it America's narrative. In truth, there are thousands of stories; each place will have its own, as in ancient times every landscape had its unique genius loci. But the Big Three will block out the critical proportions. Their telling will push our historical horizon well beyond three years.

Fire's Narrative

The oldest story is that of fire itself. This saga comprises the ur-manuscript on which the others, with scribbles and erasures, inscribe a palimpsest. And it is a story. Fire has origins; has spread, particularly once allied with human activity; and, while its death is difficult to imagine, has subsided within recent times, a recession that is probably irreversible. Birth, growth, decline—that is the arc of fire's narrative. The story sculpts the boldest contours of combustion's contemporary presence on the planet.

This organic metaphor, moreover, has a firm basis in reality. What we know as fire is a creation of the biosphere and shares its properties. In simplest terms, fire exists because the Earth holds life. Life pumped the atmosphere with oxygen, life lathered the land with hydrocarbons. The chemistry of combustion is among life's most elemental reactions, for it simply takes apart what photosynthesis puts together. The "slow combustion" within cells we call respiration. The "fast combustion" outside organisms we call fire. From the level of molecules to the planet itself, biological controls shape fire's presence. It makes more sense to imagine fire not so much as a physical phenomenon that acts on a biological world than as a biological phenomenon that expresses itself as a physical process. Earthquakes, floods, windstorms, and other physical "disturbances" can happen without a particle of life present; fire cannot. It propagates through a biotic medium, subject to biological controls. It is a commonly used conceit that such-and-such a disease spread like wildfire. It is equally apt to say that such-and-such a fire spread like a disease. Fire behaves less as a hammer than as an epidemic.

The natural history of natural fire is full of lumpiness. In its basic dynamics, naturally ignited fire occurs in patches and pulses, patterns known as regimes. It is powered by a two-cycle engine of wetting and drying, waiting on lightning's lottery to kindle. A land has to be wet enough to grow combustibles and dry enough to ready them to burn. The possible combinations are legion. There are humid regions that occasionally dry, arid regions that occasionally wet, places that undergo annual rhythms of rain and drought, places that are rich in lightning but only scantily in a state to ignite, and places chronically ready to burn but rarely kindled. While ancient—for more than 425 million years fossil charcoal has littered the sedimentary record—fire is far from universal. Much of the Earth does not naturally burn. It is too wet, too dry, too disconnected from a routine source of ignition. Much of the historical Earth so failed to combust that vast quantities of biomass were simply buried. Nature's economy, in brief, lacked a broker that could match flame with fuel.

This changed with the arrival of the later hominids. It seems that Homo erectus could tend fire, could keep it alive in caves, or could hold it in torches or slow matches. Probably not until Homo sapiens, however, could humans start fire more or less at will. Still, it was easier to keep fire alight than to continually rekindle it. So it became with nature, also. The sputtering flame became constant, something that accompanied people wherever they went; and they went everywhere. One species acquired a monopoly over fire that it will never willingly surrender.

People exploited fire wherever they could to make their surroundings more habitable. Since the first tread of Homo sapiens, fire ecology has thus entailed human ecology. People sought out particularly those landscapes where flame could take most readily, and shunned those places where they could not amplify their firepower. Where fire was possible, they burned for their own ends. They inscribed lines of fire along routes of travel and fields of fire where they paused to hunt, forage, or cook; together these practices, deliberate and accidental, laid down a new mosaic. People preemptively burned, wresting fire away from purely natural forces, much as their myths spoke of stealing fire from selfish potentates. They littered landscapes with flame. They used fire as a force multiplier in foraging and hunting, promoting those plants and animals they most desired, shaping habitats favorable to themselves. Their firepower increased with the extinction of megafauna in fire-prone landscapes, an event that liberated more fuels for anthropogenic flame. People remade fire regimes, imposing new rhythms and inscribing new geography. Under the right conditions, their flame-mediated manipulation could resemble an intensive cultivation, famously characterized by Rhys Jones as "fire-stick farming."

Yet that power had limits. Not every spark took, not every fire could propagate. The fact is, tough limits remained on anthropogenic fire. Mostly, people could only work with what nature presented to them by way of weather and fuels. They could not often bring fire where nature would not allow it. They seized fire-rich sites and regions that lacked only ignition to burst into flame. They sought out places with vigorous wet-dry cycles that could crack open a biota the way a frost-thaw cycle could stone. But they could not break into shade-laden woods empty of dry tinder or hold the frontier against blurred seasons and chronic wetness. The fire stick could nudge vast ecosystems, as it did much of Africa, or even move whole continents, as it apparently did Australia, but only if it had a suitable fulcrum. Fire became more frequent, more pervasive, and, to human sensibilities, less damaging. By whatever reckoning, however, fire regimes were different and it was to these regimes that flora and fauna would have to adapt.

The early keepers of the flame knew full well both their power and its limits. The possession of fire made them unique, distinct among creatures, yet their firepower itself flowed from nature, which inscrutably gave and withheld. Their fire starters were stone, wood, bone; their myths often told how fire leaped out of wood or flint when freed from its bondage by people. So, it seemed, had humans freed flame from nature's fickle thrall and then held it, as best they could, as their own.

This pattern of fire applied and fire withheld changed as people began to manipulate fuel as they did ignition. They could create kindling, on a landscape scale. They could slash, grow, chew and trample with their domesticated beasts, or otherwise cultivate combustibles. Fire is only as powerful as its fuel: now those fuels and their scope expanded. Almost any biomass could serve, if properly minced and dried—woods, scrub, sod, peat, stubble, dung, pine needles, even seaweed. To feed the fires meant searching out new sites for slashing, or allowing old ones to regrow, or in more desperate straits, hauling fuel from elsewhere to the site. In this we find a partial explanation for the practice of fallowing. The abandoned field was not burned as waste, but grown in order to be burned. Even a season's growth of weeds, grasses, forbs, and shrubs could support enough flame for fire to do its ecological duty. Whether the farm cycled through the landscape, as with slash-and-burn cultivation, or whether the landscape in effect cycled through the farm, as with field rotation, the site at some point in its ecological circuit needed fire. And fire needed fuel.

The domain of cultivated fire propagated widely. Fire spread to wherever cultivated plants or domesticated livestock could thrive. Throughout the Holocene, some variety of fire-fallow agriculture propagated across much of the Earth, from African rain forest to Andean plateaus, from grassy steppes to upland peat, from Mediterranean scrub to eucalypt woodlands. Everywhere fire regimes altered, as new practices rearranged the timing, the placing, the intensity, and frequency of burning. Fire existed in places that had not known it previously, and it morphed in places whose previous regimes now throbbed to new rhythms and arrangements. Most of the Earth's open burning today still resides within the dominion of fire-fallow agriculture.

Yet this system of fire use, too, had limits. One could only coax or coerce so much biomass from the land. To burn more fuels than could be regrown was to snuff out cultivated flame, not stoke it. If humanity craved more firepower, it would have to find another source of fuel, which it did in the form of fossil biomass—coal, petroleum, lignite, natural gas. In effect, people excavated whole landscapes from the geologic past in order to kindle a new world of combustion.

Burning unshackled its fuel fetters and became more or less unbounded ecologically, even as it became more intensely confined within special chambers. No longer was combustion limited by its sources (fuels) but by its sinks (the capacity of the environment to absorb its by-products). Throughout human history, the capacity to ignite fire has only been as powerful as the land's capacity to propagate it. Aboriginal burning could not penetrate where nature did not provide abundant fuels. Agricultural burning was predicated on the ability to fashion fuels where nature did not. An appeal to fossil biomass, however, broke that link. The sources of fuel were, for practical purposes, unbounded; so, then, was humanity's firepower. Yet a check appeared from the other side of the equation. The Earth could only absorb so much of the effluent combustion liberated, the gaseous emissions and aerosols, the unshackled chemicals. Industrial fire's by-products threatened to overload the atmosphere and clog ecosystems.

The ecological, economic, and social effects of this upheaval have been enormous. Industrial burning quickly substituted for most domestic hearth and manufacturing furnaces and even agricultural fallow, and then pursued open flame into the bush. Why industrial societies would wish to suppress free-burning fire in sites outside their machines and beyond their cities is unclear; it is just a historical fact that they do. It may be that they simply emulate the example of those nations that preceded them, which, being European, distrusted open flame. Regardless, this transformation, for fire history, is the meaning of the industrial revolution. By 1990 it was estimated that 60 percent of the global emissions from burning derive from industrial fire; and because industrial societies suppress open flame, that proportion must grow as more regions industrialize. By 2003 China exceeded the United States in its combustion of coal, with petroleum and gas likely to follow quickly. The burning of fossil fuels is the deep driver of contemporary combustion, the great biological rearranger of burning, the dark attractor of earthly fire.

The planet has been, and is likely to continue, segregating into two master combustion realms—one fed by living biomass, the other by fossil biomass. The two rarely coexist, and when they do—in places like Mexico and India, where rural villages stubbornly persist next to plentiful reserves of coal and oil—such comingling is likely transitional. Evening satellite photos depict an Earth fissioned into electric lights and fire lights. We have barely begun to understand, in any systematic way, what this means or how industrial fire cascades through whole landscapes. There is some consideration of how the outpouring might affect the atmosphere, particularly how it contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming. But there is no coherent assessment of how industrial fire shapes fire regimes on the surface, or even a general recognition that it shares in a common combustion history with fires feeding on living biomass. The fact is, industrial, anthropogenic, and natural fires compete. Each substitutes for, and evidently seeks to drive off, the others. How they do so may be the most fundamental three-body problem in fire scholarship.

The mechanisms behind this transformation, by which industrial fire arrives and begins shouldering aside anthropogenic fire, are not understood—have scarcely been studied. But we can give it a name, the pyric transition; and we can note that the fire problems of the developed nations are largely those inherited from their passage through the pyric looking glass from open to closed combustion. So, too, knowledge about this passage holds considerable meaning for developing nations as they maneuver through the same transition. What institutions do they need? What policies are useful, which misguided, which irrelevant? Which fire practices should be preserved, at some cost if necessary, and which should be gratefully discarded as a country moves from a context of aboriginal and rural fire to one dominated by industrial fire? Does the pyric transition itself reveal patterns—offer suggestions about how to seize the opportunities and slip through the obstacles?

It does. The primary process seems to be one of technological substitution. Fire as a tool—combustion as a source of heat and light—is amenable to flameless replacements. Domestic fire goes, followed by manufacturing fires and agricultural burning. Yet industrial societies typically extend their reach, the apparatus of contained combustion, into wildlands as well. Here the substitution takes the form of an active suppression, whose consequences are paradoxical and often deleterious.

Within this upheaval, there seems to exist a demographic transition in fire similar to that for humans. The old fire practices remain, while new ones proliferate, with the upshot that the population of fires explodes. Eventually, industrial fire supplants the old versions, and the population fails to replace itself. Early industrializing nations thus have a surplus of fires, including many abusive ones. (Arid lands are an exception because they lack a sufficient background count of biomass fuel. The sudden onset of industrial fire typically arrives through steam transport, which stimulates a burst of livestock herding, which simply crushes flame from the land.) By contrast, mature industrialized nations may lack those burns they need for biotic purposes. During their early industrial evolution, nations seek to suppress the excess fires; later, they try to overcome the shortfall. Fire agencies have little direct control over these processes. Rural fire vanishes, ultimately, because rural populations depart along with the economy that sustained them. Fire did not disappear from much of the United States, for example, because Smokey Bear hectored adults and seduced children. It disappeared because society found combustion alternatives to open fire as a tool and because a rural economy, which had relied on open burning, withered away.

Societies dependent on industrial fire have their combustion maladies. The removal of fire may be as ecologically powerful as its introduction; many such countries suffer a fire deficit within their nature reserves. The urban recolonization of rural landscapes, ardently accompanied by an abolition of open flame, has slammed the wild and the urban together, a collision of environmental matter and antimatter, with frequent explosions. Flame makes little distinction between dried wood bunched together into a thicket and cellulose hammered into a cabin. For whatever reasons, industrial (and industrializing) nations spawn large metropolises, which in turn fling out a sprawl of outlier settlements, still fundamentally urban although they may reside amid former agricultural or wild lands. In fire-prone settings, industrial societies have often discovered they have exchanged an annoying domesticated fire for a demonic feral one. Fire, they have learned, is not simply a tool to be handled or discarded by people at will, like a stone plucked off the ground. It is also an ecological process whose extinction can unhinge whole landscapes, so that even as flame vanishes from everyday life, it reappears in episodic eruptions.


Excerpted from Tending Fire by Stephen J. Pyne. Copyright © 2004 Stephen J. Pyne. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Seeing Meaning in the Flames

Chapter 1. Why Fire?
-Fire's Narrative
-An Imperial Narrative
-America's Narrative
-Rhythms and Reasons

Chapter 2. Torch and Shovel: The Means of Fire Management
-Option 1. Let Burn
-Option 2. Suppress
-Option 3. Prescribe Burn
-Option 4. Change Combustibility
-The Elements Compounded

Chapter 3. Sparks and Embers: Ideas in the Wind
-The Big Fire
-Firestop II and Firestart I
-Fire in the Mind
-Fire as Community

Chapter 4. Flash Points: Fire Scenarios for the Future
-The Fires This Time, and Next
-The Not-Quite Vestal Fire on the No-Longer Virgin Land
-The Big Burn

Epilogue: Imagining Fire
Appendix: Fire's American Century: By the Numbers
Further Reading

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