3 Mar 2010, 1:08pm
Cultural Landscapes Fire History
by admin

Where Have All the Fires Gone?

Stephen J. Pyne. 2000. Where Have All the Fires Gone? Fire Management Today, Vol 60, No. 3, Summer 2000

Full text:

IN the United States, few places know as much fire today as they did a century ago. Fires have fled from regions like the Northeast that formerly relied on them for farming and grazing. They have receded from the Great Plains, once near-annual seas of flame, ebbing and flowing with seasonal tides. They burn in the South at only a fraction of their former grandeur. They have faded from the mountains and mesas, valleys and basins of the West. They are even disappearing from yards and hearths. One can view the dimming panorama of fire in the same way that observers at the close of the 19th century viewed the specter of the vanishing American Indian.

Missing Fires, Missing Peoples

And with some cause: Those missing fires and the missing peoples are linked. The fires that once flushed the myriad landscapes of North America and have faded away are not fires that were kindled by nature and suppressed, but rather fires that people once set and no longer do. In some places, lightning has filled the void. But mostly it has not, and even where lightning has reasserted itself, it has introduced a fire regime that can be quite distinct from those shaped by the torch.

Anthropogenic (human-caused) fire comes with a different seasonal signature and frequency than natural fire. Moreover, it is profoundly interactive. It burns in a context of general landscape meddling by humans—hunting, foraging, planting—in ways that shape both the flame and its effects. So reliant are people on their fire monopoly that what makes fire possible generally makes human societies possible. What prevents one retards the other. Places that escaped anthropogenic fire likely escaped fire altogether.

Pre-Columbian Fire Practices

Did American Indians really burn the land? Of course they did. All peoples do, even those committed to industrial combustion, who disguise their fires in machines. The issue is whether and how those fires affected the landscape. Much of the burning was systematic. Pre-Columbian peoples fired along routes of travel, and they burned patches where flame could help them extract some resource — camas, deer, huckleberries, maize. The outcome was a kind of fire foraging, even fire cultivating, such that strips and patches burned as fuel became available. But much burning resulted from malice, play, war, accident, escapes, and sheer fire littering. The land was peppered with human-inspired embers.

The aboriginal lines and fields of fire inscribed a landscape mosaic (see Lewis and Ferguson (1988) for a different terminology). Some tiles were immense, some tiny. Some experienced fire annually, some on the scale of decades. In most years, fires burned to the edge of the corridor or patch and then stopped, melting away before damp understories, snow, or wet-flushed greenery. But in other years, when the land was groaning with excess fuels and parched by droughts, fires kindled by intent or accident roared deep into the landscape. People move and fire propagates; humanity’s fiery reach far exceeds its grasp of the firestick. Remove those flames and the structure of even seldom-visited forests eventually looks very different.

What Burning Meant

How effective were these burns? That, of course, depends. If the land was fire prone, people could easily seize control over it. They simply burned before natural ignition arrived, sculpting new fire regimes, forcing the biota to adjust. The aboriginal firestick became a lever that, suitably sited, could move whole landscapes, even continents. The outcome was particularly powerful where places had the ingredients for fire but lacked a consistent spark. That people supplied. They made flame an environmental constant, which left fuel and climate as the principle variables in determining how extensively fire burned. This is worth repeating: People transformed ignition from chance into choice, from something that was sparked through lightning’s lottery into something as chronic as sunshine.

People were less effective in places that were fire intolerant, that lacked wet–dry climatic rhythms, that favored shade forests with scant understories of sun-hungry vegetation, that had neither spark nor adequate combustibles. The solution, of course, was to make fuel—to slash woods into kindling, to open canopies, to grow fallow. And this, from a fire ecology perspective, is the meaning of agriculture. One could fashion fuel, dry it, and burn it, more or less in defiance of natural biases. Forests broke into a kaleidoscope of fields and fallow, a multitude of new habitats for flame. Not least of all, agriculture could complement an aboriginal economy and thus carry anthropogenic fire almost everywhere. The eastern half of the United States knew fire precisely for these reasons. Only the most inhospitable landscapes escaped.

Missing Megafauna

Still, complications always exist. Human history is lumpy — its kindled flame flickers with the winds of migration, war, and disease. Humanity’s restless hand, moreover, fiddles compulsively with the land on scales that range from fire-pruning blueberry bushes to fire-scouring densely packed conifers. Not least of all, what people do to a biota, quite apart from how they use fire, can affect fire regimes. This is most clearly seen in the human impact on and through animals, which both shape biotas and crop off biomass. What grazers and browsers consume through the slow combustion of respiration cannot feed the rapid combustion carried by flame.

Evicting those animals — and three-quarters of North America’s megafauna disappeared as pre-Columbian peoples spread across the continent — left more biomass unconsumed and shifted the character of what remained. In fire-prone places, the outcome was more fuel for flame and a rapid shift to increasingly open and grassy landscapes. The beasts that continued to flourish could not consume the “surplus,” leaving a kind of grazing gap into which fire poured. Likely these creatures survived because they could accommodate the new fire regime.

In fire-intolerant places, however, the reverse could occur. Eliminating the animals helped eliminate fire. Without their crunching, trampling, and rooting, shady woodlands could overgrow the scene, filling the cracks through which flame could enter the landscape. In North America, the missing megafauna did not return until Europeans introduced domestic livestock, which found a bonanza of ready-made pastures and proved invaluable in rolling back the shaded woods. Open landscapes that had once fed fire now fed horses, cattle, sheep, swine, and donkeys. Closed landscapes that had driven fire to the margins now saw flame’s return.

The Mystery of the Missing Flame

Fire is as effective removed as applied, and therein lies much of its ecological (and moral) magic. Places that had known regular fire, perhaps for thousands of years, suffered when those fires vanished. Set aside and protected as reserves, the public lands have witnessed staggering biotic changes that could not have occurred had fire continued. And it is obvious that fire did not continue: The evidence is scrawled like woody graffiti all over the land itself.

The usual explanation is that Europeans stopped the fires; in a loose sense, they did. A further explanation is that Europeans introduced an unholy trinity of environmental evils—overgrazing, crude logging, and systematic fire suppression. All this is also true, and misleading. It ignores the adoption of Indian fire practices by settlers and the attempted adaptation of European fire habits to a New World. The critical divide was not between Indians and Europeans but between city and country, between those who resided on the land and those who lived in urban areas, between those who grew up with their hand on a torch and those who knew fire only in stoves or through books. It is worth recalling that the greatest challenge to early fire control was the doctrine of “light burning,” deliberately promoted as the “Indian way” of forest stewardship. Ultimately, what snuffed out freeburning fire was not simply the removal of the American Indian but also the failure to replace the Indians’ fires with others. That brash experiment could only have happened through full-bore industrialization.

Worse, that too-simple explanation for the missing flame sustains a problematic myth: that Europe found a wilderness and tried to render it into a garden. Closer to the truth, the critics can well reply, is that Europe found a garden and has tried to render it into a wilderness. Yet the myth has power, and the choice between stories has meaning for fire management. The first story argues that nature alone can restore itself; the second, that anthropogenic fire must return.

Keeping the Flame

The missing fires are those that were once set by the now missing peoples, the Indians who were removed and the newcomers who, on the public lands, failed to pick up the Indians’ fallen torches. The reasons for putting some of that flame back are compelling. But returning fire to the land in hopes of restoring pristine pre-Columbian vistas is not one of them. We must reinstate fire because we cannot sustain the landscapes we value without burning. We should reinstate fire because burning is what we do as human beings, as holders of a species monopoly over flame, for whom fire neutrality is not an option. We have no choice, no more than did American Indians, Australian Aborigines, or European peasants. We must decide how to apply and withhold fire in the landscape because we still remain — all of us, all peoples, across a hundred millennia — the keepers of the planetary flame.

A chronology of charcoal preserved in sediments off the Pacific coast of Central America (Suman 1991). Note that the greatest input occurred in the 50 years prior to the Spanish Conquest ca. (1523). When the native population crashed, so did the fire regimes. Analogous events probably occurred across most of North America.

Literature Cited and Suggested

Boyd, R., ed. 1999. Indians, fire and the land in the Pacific Northwest. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press.

Lewis, H.T.; Ferguson, T.M. 1988. Yards, corridors, and mosaics: How to burn a boreal forest. Human Ecology. 16: 57–77.

Powell, J.W. 1878. Report on the lands of the arid region of the United States. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Pyne, S.J. In press. The story of fire: An introduction. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Suman, D.O. 1991. A five-century sedimentary geochronology of biomass burning in Nicaragua and Central America. In: Levine, J.S., ed. Global biomass burning. Boston, MA: MIT Press

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