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Filmed on Tuesday February 9, 02016
Stephen Pyne is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University and author of over 20 books, including Between Two Fires. His areas of research are environmental history, the history of exploration, and the history of fire.
Once humans took charge of fire, fire remade humans and commenced remaking the world. “We got small guts and big heads because we could cook food,” says Stephen Pyne, the world’s leading historian of fire. “We went to the top of the food chain because we could cook landscapes. And we have become a geologic force because our fire technology has so evolved that we have begun to cook the planet.“
The understanding of wildfire as an ecological benefit got its biggest boost from Pyne’s 1982 landmark book, Fire in America. Since then he has encompassed the whole of fire history--from analysis of the chemical reaction that “takes apart what photosynthesis puts together” to study of the massive industrialization of combustion in the last two centuries. “The Anthropocene might equally be called the Pyrocene,” he says.
A professor and “distinguished sustainability scholar” at Arizona State University, Pyne is author of 15 books on fire, including Fire: Nature and Culture and Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America.
“We are uniquely fire creatures,” Pyne began, “on a uniquely fire planet.” Life itself is a form of slow metabolic combustion—which eventually created oxygen and burnable vegetation that allowed fast combustion, ignited by lightning. Humans came along and mastered fire for warmth, food preparation, and managing the landscape, and that made us a keystone species. Humanity’s ecological signature on the world is fire.
Then we made fire the all-purpose catalyst for craft (clay, glass, metal) and eventually industry, shifting to the vast geological resource of fossil fuels. That “pyric transition” made humans dominant on the earth, even to the point of affecting climate. We used fire to clear much of the world’s forest for agriculture.
Then came a century of misdirection about wildfire. The forests of Europe are mostly too wet to burn, but by the late 19th century the leading foresters in world came from there and taught their ignorance to foresters in North America and India, where the land depends on seasonal fire for ecological health. National governments set about suppressing all wildfire, with catastrophic success. In the absence of the usual occasional local fires, massive fuel loads built up, and destructive megafires became the norm. There was an alternative theory of a “restoration strategy” to manage wildfire in way that would emulate how lightning and native American burning kept the landscape ecologically healthy, but it has been applied haltingly and fractionally, and megafires still rule.
“The real argument for fire is that it does ecological work that nothing else does,” Pyne concluded. “Charismatic megaflora” like redwoods need fire. An ecologically rich mosaic of forest, savannah, and meadows needs fire. Healthy prairie needs fire or it gets taken over by invasive woody plants. People trained only as foresters are blind to all that. Wildfire practice now works best when it is guided by wildlife biologists who insist that red cockaded woodpeckers need fire-dependent longleaf pines, that grizzly bears need the berries that grow in recent burns, that pheasants need grassland burned free of invasive eastern red cedar.
The techniques for prescribed burns for a bioabundant natural landscape are now well honed. They need to be applied much more widely. When in doubt how to proceed, ask the ecologists, who will ask the animals.--Stewart Brand
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