AFE Discovers Anthropogenic Fire

It’s a breakthrough. The latest issue of Fire Ecology [here] is all about anthropogenic fire.

Fire Ecology is the ‘zine of the Association of Fire Ecologists (AFE). You may remember the AFE from their infamous 2006 3rd International Fire Ecology & Management Congress held in San Diego [here], during which they “voted” to adopt a Declaration which stated “climate plays a central role in shaping fire regimes.” The Declaration recommended Let It Burn incineration of America’s forests today (the Holocausts Now philosophy), because later on it might get warmer and then the fires will be really big, hoo boy.

The 2006 AFE Declaration (don’t you just love it when allegedly scientific organizations issue political declarations?) also blamed humanity (you and me) for messing up the “natural” fire regimes — they declared, “Human activities [recently] have significantly increased the number of ignitions in temperate, boreal, and tropical regions.”

As I pointed out at the time, that accusation is totally false. In fact, human beings (and/or our close relatives) have been the principal fire igniters on Earth for approximately 1.6 million years, and modern man is nowhere near the fire bug that we were a mere 500 years ago.

Now, nearly five years later, the AFE has seen the light. Finally they have crept out of the darkness and embraced the actual scientific truth about fire, which is that most fire on this planet has been anthropogenic for many hundreds of thousands of years, through at least 15 Ice Age glaciations (~105,000 years long each) and 15 interglacials (~10,000 years long each).

To be clear, the authors of the articles are experts who have long been cognizant of the importance of anthropogenic fire. It’s the org (AFE) that is crawling towards the light. The authors have already been in the light for decades. Surprisingly (perhaps) the org has not been run by actual fire ecologists, but instead by political operatives with limited understanding of fire ecology, although that may be changing.

Some highlights of the new Fire Ecology issue (Volume 7, Issue 1 - 2011) are

Introduction - 4th International Fire Congress: Fire as a Global Process [here] by Francisco Seijo, Robert W. Gray, and Sandra Rideout-Hanzak

Debates about the scale, ecological effects, and motivations of pre-scientific anthropogenic burning have been present since the inception of the scientific study of landscape fires as the following quotations show. Local communities have in many places burned the land for centuries. …

Fire-prone flammable ecosystems cover about 40% of the Earth’s land surface, including some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet (Bond et al. 2005). Over the last quarter of a million years [note: actually 1.6 million years, but let's not argue about it], some, and in many cases all, of the fires affecting ecosystem structure and composition in these flammable ecosystems have been ignited by humans. …

Australia - A Model System for the Development of Pyrogeography [here] by David M.J.S. Bowman and Brett P. Murphy

A growing body of research has shown that Aboriginal fire use is skillful and responsible for the functioning of ecosystems that were encountered by European colonists (Bowman 1998). A prime example of the importance of Aboriginal fire management concerns the ecological effects when this tradition of fire management is disrupted. …

The survival of cypress pine was a consequence of Aboriginal patch burning that occurred for a number of reasons, including but not limited to preserving patches of wild yams (Russell-Smith et al. 1997), managing country for spiritual obligations (Yibarbuk et al. 2001), preserving unburnt areas for fire drives of wild game later in the year (Haynes 1985), and maintaining grazing habitat for game (Murphy and Bowman 2007). It seems that the creation of habitat heterogenity was critical for the survival of a range of plants and animals that are currently undergoing precipitous declines following the cessation of Aboriginal fire management (Franklin 1999, Woinarski et al. 2010). …

European settlers have struggled to comprehend the ecology of fire in Australia and have made only halting progress toward the accommodation of fire in their environment. The extreme fire events in southern Australia since the beginning of the twenty-first century highlight the vulnerability of Australian society to catastrophic fire. There remains a heated debate about the cause of these extreme events, with a Royal Commission inquiring into the bushfires in Victoria on 7 February 2009, which saw the loss of 173 lives, 3,500 structures destroyed, and 450,000 ha burnt by over 400 individual fires. ..

[R]esearch in northern Australia has revealed an underlying logic to Aboriginal landscape burning (Lewis 1982, Head and Fullagar 1997, Russell-Smith et al. 1997, Bowman and Prior 2004, Vigilante and Bowman 2004, Murphy and Bowman 2007), although appreciation of the full complexity remains beyond our grasp.

Burning at the Edge: Integrating Biophysical and Eco-Cultural Fire Processes in Canada’s Parks and Protected Areas [here] by Clifford A. White, Daniel D.B. Perrakis, Victor G. Kafka, and Timothy Ennis


Currently, high intensity, large-area lightning fires that burn during droughts dominate Canada’s fire regimes. However, studies from several disciplines clearly show that humans historically ignited burns within this matrix of large fires. Two approaches for fire research and management have arisen from this pattern: a “large-fire biophysical paradigm” related to lightning-ignited fires, and an “eco-cultural paradigm” related to human-caused burning. Working at the edge between biophysically driven fires and eco-cultural burns, and their associated management and research paradigms, presents unique challenges to land managers. We proceed by describing fire frequency trends across Canada, and how an interaction between changing climatic and cultural factors may provide better causal explanations for observed patterns than either group of factors alone. We then describe four case histories of fire restoration into Canadian landscapes moving through evolution, or deliberate intent, towards increasing emphasis on an eco-cultural paradigm. We show that use of cultural burns maintains this facet of the long-term regime while providing greater capacity for larger, higher intensity fires to occur with fewer negative ecological and socio-economic implications. Key lessons learned by practitioners restoring fire to landscapes include: 1) fire is only one process in ecosystems that also include other complex interactions, and thus restoration of fire alone could have unintended consequences in some ecosystems; 2) recognizing long-term human roles of not only fire managers, but also hunters and gatherers is critical in restoration programs; and 3) this diversity of past, present, and future ecological and cultural interactions with fire can link managers to a broad constituency of stakeholders. Bringing this variety of people and interests into the decision-making processes is a necessary pre-requisite to successful fire management at the edge.

The latter paper is truly excellent, paradigm-shattering, and worthy of deeper study and review — and we will do so in a subsequent post. Please read it now, however, as homework, so you will be ready when we present our review. Thank you.

Score one for AFE. They are approximating relevancy at last. Kudos to all involved in the new issue.

25 Apr 2011, 8:50am
by Mike

I hoped a reader might notice and comment, but because no one has so far, I will.

Not one of the articles in AFE Fire Ecology issue regarding anthropogenic fire dealt with the United States.

Canada is the closest (an excellent article by Cliff White et al.)

The AFE is mainly a U.S. organization. Here in this country is where most AFE members live and work. But for some inexplicable reason, the history of fire in the U.S. is not on their radar screen.

Just thought I’d mention it, since no one else did.

25 Apr 2011, 2:04pm
by Bob Zybach

Mike: Good call! I am another reader who didn’t notice the lack of US representation. That IS pretty interesting and I am curious about the omission.

Researchers prefer traveling out of country to do their research?

The politics of Wilderness-correctness that permeates our universities and funding agencies?

A lack of recent research focus, perhaps involving either or both of the above?


It does seem very curious that significant research isn’t taking place and being published regarding US lands, given the recent history of catastrophic wildfire events and costs.

Shouldn’t the Joint Fire Sciences Program be making a greater effort in this regard?

Reply: of course, but they aren’t going to unless we drag them kicking and screaming up the Learning Curve. I favor public caning of the entire JFSP leadership, but that’s not going to happen. So we are left with browbeating them unmercifully. It seems that AFE is now flinching in response to repeated smacks to their collective forehead, so our efforts in that regard have not been entirely ineffective.



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