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How Humanity Lost Control of Fire

A conversation with Stephen Pyne, the world’s most prominent wildfire historian

Wildfire historian
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The world's most prominent wildfire historian found his way into his life's work by accident. A few days after he graduated from high school, Stephen Pyne had been brought on as a laborer on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and was signing his hiring papers when he was asked if he’d be interested in joining a forest fire crew on the North Rim instead.

“I said sure,” Pyne told me. “And it was transformative. Everything I’ve done since then dates from that time on the North Rim.”

Pyne spent fifteen seasons on the North Rim, including twelve as a crew boss, and went on to study fire for a living. He became a fire historian, practically the first of his kind, joined the faculty at Arizona State University, and wrote dozens of books about the history of fire around the world. He retired from teaching in 2018, but continues to work on books — he’s wrapping up one about Mexico at the moment.

I spoke with Pyne about the history of wildfires in the United States, and what the future could look like. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How have we historically thought about fire in the United States?

Well, it depends what time in history you want to go back to. The attitudes we have now are pretty recent, probably less than 100 years. The native peoples used fire widely, for all kinds of things. Heating, lighting, entertainment, agriculture, hunting, foraging, and self-protection. It was all over the place.

Europeans also had fire in their background, but always embedded within an agricultural context of pastoralism or farming. Nobody was particularly putting fires out unless it immediately threatened some asset of theirs, like their house or town. It was just sort of spring clean, part of maintenance of the landscape. So people were always around fire, it was just a constant companion. And then that changes when we began going to industrial combustion, powered by fossil fuels. Suddenly, we don't have fire around us anymore.

Where did it go?

Well, it went into machines. The burning is done off-site and we get the fire through electricity. Processed fossil biomass gave us a lot of the petrochemicals we use for agriculture, so we don't burn the fields for fertilizing and fumigating. We found all these substitutes and then we use machines to deliver those things. So it's taken fire out of the built environment.

When did the American policy of fire suppression really come into being? Was there a turning point?

A couple of things happened. Part of it is we have a long run almost 50 years after the Civil War of very large and disastrous fires. They were associated with clearing settlement, widespread logging, and a lot of it was catalyzed by railroads, which were also a source of these large, disastrous fires that were probably an order of magnitude larger than what we've seen in recent years. Hundreds of people were killed.

And then in the summer of 1910, a series of large fires sort of amassed into what became known as the Big Blowup. This was about three and a quarter million acres burned in the Northern Rockies, killing 78 firefighters the Forest Service had hired in six different incidents all at the same time, during the afternoon and evening of August 20. Traumatized the US Forest Service, which at the time was five years old.

Its leaders determined they were never going to allow that to happen again, and the two guys who were in charge of the firefighting in the Northern Rockies became chief foresters during the 1920s and 1930s. So it was just one generation of leaders, mostly younger men, who were traumatized, and the easiest way to sell the message of what they were doing was to eliminate all fires. The urban elites understood that message, because that's how urban fire services work.

So we spent about 50 years trying to take all fires out of the landscape. And we've spent the last 50 years trying to put good fire back in.

How’s that been working?

It turns out fire is one of these things that’s easy to remove and hard to reinstate. It’s like a threatened species — if you want to reintroduce a species to a landscape, you often find that a lot of conditions have changed. That’s tough to work with.

What are the conditions that have changed that made reintroducing fires so hard?

Well, a lot of it is just the forest changed. And this was a result of overgrazing. selective logging, or outright clear cutting, which allowed stuff to grow back in ways that are outside the norm. Sheep and cattle have stripped away the grasses that made light [more manageable] fires possible, and other stuff grew up in their place. Now you've paved the landscape with dense layers of pine needles and shrubs, and they don’t burn the same way, so you've created a fire trap. All of this actually started with westward expansion, before the Forest Service entered the scene.

And so that 50 year period of suppression must’ve made it worse.

Yeah, that was really disastrous. By the ‘60s, we see pushback. We’d seen the consequences. And I'll point out that this is well before global climate change is on anybody’s agenda. These landscapes were messed up ecologically. Trees and other species weren’t regenerating.

So what starts happening in the ‘60s?

We saw civil society begin to create an alternative to state-sponsored fire suppression. There was a ranch north of Tallahassee that began hosting fire ecology conferences in 1962, they really introduced the term fire ecology. That same year, the Nature Conservancy conducted its first burn at a prairie because they couldn’t maintain the prairie without burning.

It was a real David versus Goliath story. Forestry was too dyed-in-the-wool hostile towards fire. They had sort of made their public identity as firefighters. But all kinds of things started coming together and there was the sentiment that fire should be restored just like wolves and grizzlies.

You mentioned burning had historically been done by the indigenous communities. How involved were those communities in these discussions? Were they involved at all?

Almost none. There were some people who was reintroducing fire to indigenous reservations, but they were foresters with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But it’s only much more recently that [Native American communities] have sort of taken on cultural burning as a way of restoring their identities and their traditions and maybe even claiming back some of their lands.

We often say that colonialism suppressed indigenous knowledge. Well, that’s true. But something that gets lost, I think, all the time, is that there was a quarrel between the elites and traditional knowledge. Europe’s elites treated Europe’s peasants with disdain as well. Many of the white settlers who weren’t elites used fire as well, but the elites didn’t like that.

Obviously in the last couple of weeks Hawaii has been on everyone's mind. What’s the history of fire in Hawaii?

Before it was colonized, Hawaii was fairly immune to fire. The forests don’t seem to have been particularly responsive to it. You have lightning caused fires, you have volcanoes that set fires but then the lava was the bigger problem there.

Fire in Hawaii starts with human contact, when they begin clearing the forest and introducing exotics. This started with Polynesians before Europeans got into the act. There was a lot of extermination particularly of flightless birds and they introduced pigs and rats and other things. But then it really began accelerating with European contact, when they converted large areas to plantations for sugar and pineapples or grass pastures to raise cows, and so forth. So you have larger scale land clearing that goes on.

But Hawaii was not built to burn in the way California is. We created more combustible landscapes. Tropical grasses grow very well there and burn very well, and once they burn they create conditions that are more favorable to themselves. So it’s a positive feedback system.

We’ve seen a lot of coverage about how climate change is going to intensify wildfires. What do you, as a person who studies wildfires from around the world, think needs to happen going forward?

I mean, these really nasty megafires we've seen recently and that are doing a lot of damage to communities are really a pathology of the developed world. You don’t you don’t see these in the developing world. They have lots of burning, but they don’t have these massive fires.

I think we need to do three things, and we need to do them at the same time. The first is to protect our communities. It’s totally absurd that we have so many fires started by power lines. There’s no reason for towns to burn, and we know how to keep them from burning. So hardening our cities is the first step. The second is we need to recover the countryside. Not just wild lands, but the countryside. We have to put it into a shape that makes fire control easier and will probably also enhance the biology of the site. There are a lot of controversies around that, and there’s but we have got to have ways of negotiating all those values and perceptions. But that’s something that can be done.

The third thing we need to do is tame climate change. We can do a lot of mitigation but at some point unless the accelerating climate upheaval isn’t stopped and even reversed, it will override all the other stuff we do.

Do you think of fire as something to fear?

I think there’s bad fire. Bad fire kills people, it destroys towns, it can trash ecosystems. Fire can do a lot of damage, but it can also be absolutely essential. So it’s not either good or bad.

We have a species monopoly over fire. We made a mutual assistance pact with it a long time ago. You have to tend it, you have to feed it, you have to train it, you have to clean up after it. You have to integrate it into social activities. It’s not just a physical tool like a hammer or an axe that can be picked up and put down. It’s something we domesticated in a way. And we’ve lost control over what’s been a companion that we’ve had for all our existence as a species.

We are fire creatures. You know, we use fire in a way that no other creature does. We’ve abrogated that role. We’ve abused it. But it’s only in the last century or so that we have lost the capacity to manage fire. So this is just us reclaiming our heritage and taking responsibility for the power that our relationship with fire gave us. It’s not beyond our ability to deal with it.

Read more about wildfires:

Most Wildfires Aren’t Forest Fires

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read More

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