July 4, 2013


The Misplaced War Against Fire (Stephen J. Pyne, 7/04/13, Project Syndicate)

Paradoxically, it is likely that there is not enough fire on the planet; but, thanks to fossil fuels, there is certainly too much combustion. Overall, the developed world has too few good fires, and the developing world has too many bad ones. Nearly every observer forecasts that this will continue over the coming years.

What to do about it depends on how we characterize the problem. The paradox of fire stems from its role as the great shape-shifter of natural processes. The reason is simple: fire is not a creature nor a substance nor a geophysical event like a hurricane or an earthquake. It is a biochemical reaction. It synthesizes its surroundings. It takes its character from its context.

Fire integrates everything around it - sun, wind, rain, plants, terrain, roofing, fields, and everything people do, and don't do. In this way, it indexes the state of an ecosystem. It is also our signature act as a species, the one thing we do that no other creature does. While we did not invent fire (it has been integral to Earth for more than 400 million years), we exercise a monopoly over its controlled use.

All of this makes fire universal, difficult to grasp, and tricky to wrestle into manageable shape. There is no solution to fire, because there are many kinds of fires, and they change with their context. Some fire problems do have technical fixes. We can build machines that reduce combustion to its essence and contain it. We can erect houses that resist burning. We can design cities that prevent fires from spreading from building to building. But these fires are fixable only because we construct their settings.

We cannot survive without fire; we just need it in the right ways. It is certainly a problem when it burns freely through cities. But it is also a problem when it is removed from wildlands that have adapted to it, because its absence can be as ecologically significant as its presence. The point is, urban fire is not a model for wildland fire.

Our prevailing templates for describing fire are similarly misdirected. They portray the burn as a disaster and the fight against it as a war story. The battlefield allusion leads observers to reason that there must be more sophisticated technologies than shovels and rakes with which to suppress the flames. We must meet force with greater force. Such metaphors matter, because they mis-define the problem.

Posted by at July 4, 2013 7:51 AM

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