The old proverb—fire makes a good servant but a bad master—has become too literal a guiding doctrine, for too long. This understanding characterizes fire entirely within the context of how humans relate to fire, while neglecting fires’ innate role within the natural environment, as an ancient earthly element, much older and perhaps much wiser than we human stewards, users, and fighters of fire. With or without us, fire will continue to shape our landscapes.

Historian Stephen Pyne captures this truth well, casting fire as a shape shifter, a creature of its context. Fire may share a singular chemical process, but exists as pluralistic phenomena varying greatly in ecological and cultural contexts throughout the world. Pyne conjures up politics to describe fire: while we may acknowledge fire as having global implications, ultimately all fires are local. 

Similarly, all fire “managers” are local. Viewing fire management as an international undertaking may raise some questions. Be this especially true if the words concerted, international, fire management, and efforts appear in the same sentence. However, as we know from our efforts locally, fire does not observe jurisdictions or national borders. To preface a discussion on international fire management politics and concerted action, a few of the contemporary impacts vegetation fires have across the globe, should be highlighted.

This past year wasn’t just a “bad” fire season for the Northwestern and Western United States and Canada, but devastating fire episodes hit the Mediterranean states, Russia, Northeastern China, and many Eurasian states as well; in Mongolia a handful of fires devoured nearly 13.6 million acres in the second half of April. Fires burned hot on the African continent, bringing devastation to Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. Later, Indonesia caught the world’s attention with local fire conditions escalating to a global dimension. Australia is suffering a deadly fire season. It is remarkable that such an enormous fire presence is experienced in all parts of the globe, virtually all at once.

Historically, an average of about 600 million hectares of vegetated lands burn—that’s over 1.5 billion acres, or roughly the amount of combined forest, grasslands and managed parklands in the United States (1). Worldwide, fires are trending toward longer burning periods, heightened fire severity, greater area burned and increased (mostly human-caused) frequency. These factors contribute to more damaging environmental impacts, increasing socio-economic costs including greater threats to human health and security, and higher shares of emissions into the atmosphere.

As Pyne notes, since the major evolutionary advancement of the Industrial Revolution, humans have induced irreversible climatic changes by “burning the lithic landscape”— fossil fuels. He claims we have entered into the Pyrocene—an era characterized by burning matter both above and below the earth’s surface. His theory is supported by one of the world’s leading climate scientists Schellnhuber –principle advocate of the 2 Degrees Celsius Limit theory – and who in his latest global analysis “Self-Immolation” draws a blunt scenario of the Weltenbrand (planetary blaze) as a consequence of burning-driven climate change (2).

Every year, global vegetation fire emissions typically constitute one-third of total releases of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping emission contributing to climate change (3). For example, fires burning in Indonesia alone, during the El Niño dry season in I997 and 1998 produced an equivalent of up to 40% of the global gross carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from fossil fuels for that year (4). 

Daily fire emissions from Indonesia (estimated) for 2015, show that on many days the rate exceeds that of fossil fuel emissions in the US (roughly 15 million ton CO2 per day). 

Source: Global Fire Emissions Database. http://www.globalfiredata.org/updates.html.

 

According to the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED), the recurrent Indonesian crisis of 2015 often put up daily CO₂ amounts higher than the entire U.S. industrial economy, and two months of burning nearly doubled Germany’s yearly carbon output from fossil fuels. These emissions do more than just contribute to climate change, they are literally killing people. 

Some models indicate that the annual average number of premature deaths resulting from vegetation fire smoke exposure, range between 180,000 and 339,000 (5, 6). During previous severe El Niño years like this one, that global average spiked to some 530,000 deaths (6). Documented this year alone, there have already been over 600,000 hospitalizations according to Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB). 

Evidently, although we are just beginning to understand the consequences of fire and smoke on human health, we have been impacted since human-harnessed fire was first used for heating and cooking. This is still the case for much of the earth’s population. Sustainable Energy For All (a United Nations initiative) reports that over 1 billion people live without electricity and 4.3 million people die from diseases caused by indoor smoke from fires to cook and heat, and oil lamps and candles to light. 

***

Today, most “keepers” of fire are land management agencies, forest and fire managers, and tangibly the boots on the ground: a line of sweat-stained yellow shirts pounding out a break in mineral soil or taking a stand with a leaky drip-torch. Men and women of the fire management community, whether they know it or not, are on the front lines of climate change—if only the solution was as straightforward as anchor and flank, or going direct. 

Comparing the human and ecological balance of past fires is important for remembering we have coexisted in an ecologically “sustainable” way. However, these understandings have limited usefulness as doctrine for understanding and managing fire in the future. By nature’s perfect design, fire does not degrade the landscape; yet human wants and needs have altered and degraded the global ecology extensively, so that the long-term consequences of both our actions and inactions leave us questioning whether Nature or Man masters fire. There was a time in American history, when either by arrogance or ignorance Man thought he controlled fire—evidently Man was wrong, and this human-fire relationship was little more complex.

The big question then, is how to manage fire to support the long-term biological integrity of a particular landscape, while still meeting diverse human needs? Our big challenge is answering this question while considering that in just a handful of generations humans have completely altered fire’s natural habitat. We have fragmented and degraded ecosystems, drained or dried out the land, excluded fire from its native spaces, or introduced it to where it doesn’t belong. If fire were an animal, it would be cornered, angry, and trying to find new habitat. 

The fire we face today is undeniably fierce and destructive. It spreads in patterns and at rates never seen before. Most alarmingly, through human ambivalence, fire is colonizing new habitats through amplifying positive feedback cycles in sensitive areas. These sensitive ecosystems, primarily the Arctic tundra (7), peatlands (3), and tropical rain forests (8, 9, 10), harbor ancient highly concentrated carbon stocks, which are rapidly released during fire events (like in Indonesia). Fire is not a natural process here, and it has devastating effects, locally and globally. 

Expanding infrastructure, industrial activities, human exclusion and suppression of fire among other factors, have hindered fire—preventing it from fulfilling its ecological function. Clearly, fire has become an obstacle to humans too. We see this clash—this human environmental conflict—most poignantly in the wildland urban interface (WUI) or where other human values become threatened. Enter politics.

2. A New Fire Management Paradigm

While fire has been a part of culture for thousands of years, it has only been a century that we have attempted to mix fire with politics. Any fire manager who must reconcile these two in say—the Southern California WUI or in border crossing fires between hostile countries—understands this nightmare. These present-day complexities suggest that a multi-level governance approach is necessary to ensure that fire management policies and practices are appropriately fitted to address everything from local firefighter and public safety, regional border-crossing fires, large-scale smoke episodes, radioactive fallout from contaminated areas scorched by fire, to impacts of fire emissions on the global atmosphere.

A former Soviet tank has been retrofitted with various firing devices and suppression capabilities, including a 600 gallon water tank to safely carry out prescribed burning on former military terrain contaminated by unexploded ordnance in Teltow-Flaeming County, Germany. The use of fire has contributed to shape landscape patterns of high ecological and cultural diversity in Germany and elsewhere. Armored fire suppression technology, with offsite incident management via drone, help to decontaminate dangerous areas. Photo: GFMC

 

A management structure must be at least as complex as the system it seeks to manage. Yet bureaucracy tends to compartmentalize crosscutting issues, like the common disconnect between prevention and suppression. Communication and collaboration between multiple sectors, stakeholders, and agency departments is precisely what is needed to holistically address fire management. In broader terms, a horizontal cross-sectorial and multi-level approach, which includes top-down structures as well as local-level (bottom-up) participation, is the aim of an evolving new paradigm of fire management. Integrated Fire Management (IFM), as it has become known, is a top priority identified by the international community. An important component of IFM is community participation, which applies equally to the Californian WUI as it does to remote savanna communities in Sub-Sahara Africa, Central Brazil, Mongolia or Northern Australia. 

Community-led fire management decentralizes authority in areas were centralized management structures would be ineffectual, inefficient, or both. It is also social by nature by being rooted in the cultural interaction and use of fire; it incorporates indigenous knowledge and thousands of years of human experience—the most time-tested form of fire management. Civilizations evolved with fire, learning its benign use, balanced application and continuous management. 

According to Val Charlton, managing director of Kishugu, South Africa’s largest fire organization, “we should be paying serious attention to indigenous peoples, indigenous needs in the landscape and fire in the context of ecosystem integrity and long term functioning.” This approach of IFM, inclusive of participatory methods represents technical fire management principles of the future, joined with intuitive and sustainable fire management principles of the past. 

Integrated Fire Management must address challenges not only rooted in current and previous management structures, but also particularly in well-established cultural norms. The most problematic practice is the use of fire as a land conversion tool. Two more 21st century buzz-concepts are aimed at addressing another level of complexity for socio-economic, cultural, and political drivers of fire problems: knowledge transfer and capacity building. 

Johann Georg Goldammer, Director of the Global Fire Monitoring Center and coordinator of the UNISDR Global Wildland Fire Network, cites Nepal and Ghana as notable examples of capacity building and knowledge transfer in fire management. In what he terms effective horizontal fire management, communities learn from and help each other address local wildfire challenges, sometimes independent of state or national government help...

Read the rest of my piece at: http://wildfiremagazine.org/article/local-fires-global-worries/

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