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The Story That Tore Through the Trees

Until we humans came along, some 200,000 years ago, nearly all that fire was started by lightning. Around the world, lightning strikes the ground roughly 100 times per second: eight million times per day, three billion times per year. The vast majority of those strikes don’t cause fires, because they occur during rainstorms or in flame-resistant places. But at that scale, even a tiny fraction of productive strikes will routinely burn a lot of the planet.

A planet that routinely burns for 420 million years is a planet of burn-adapted species. Today, the Earth is rife with organisms that can survive wildfires, and organisms that need wildfires in order to survive. Tubers store their food underground, where fire cannot reach it. Ponderosa pines shed their bark in wildfires while preserving their core, like a Soyuz burning up its outer modules on reentry. The cones of lodgepole pines, sealed shut by resin, melt open in the heat of fire to release their seeds. Giant sequoias germinate and grow only in abundant sunlight and ashy, fertile soil. So do many other conifers, as well as wildflowers, berries, and legumes. Likewise, plenty of insects, birds, and mammals thrive after wildfires, which leave behind open meadows, abundant nutrients, seeds, shrubs, flowers, mushrooms, saplings, standing dead trees (beloved of woodpeckers, bats, and birds of prey), and fallen dead trees (called nurse logs, because other species grow in their decay).

For all these species, then, and for the Earth, fire is a recycling process, a way to release the energy stored in organic matter back into an ecosystem. “The necessity for decomposition on a grand scale,” Stephen Pyne writes in Fire in America, “is such that if fire did not exist, nature would have to invent it.” Most people look at burned land and see nothing but loss and disaster. But, as conference co-organizer Ron Steffens told me, “A fire is only a disaster if there’s a house there.” For the planet, fire is just more life.

For us, too, fire was life for a very long time. We are the only species to master the trick of ignition, and, once we did, we had at our command a staggeringly versatile technology. We used fire for light, warmth, hunting, cooking, preserving, weeding, fertilizing, forging tools, firing clay, fighting wars, building boats, repelling insects, eliminating refuse, clearing travel routes, communicating from afar, and scores of more specific uses, from blowing glass to cauterizing wounds. “Columbus’s last glimpse of the Old World was flame on Tenerife,” Pyne writes, “and his first glimpse of the New World was a flickering flame at night.” We brought fire everywhere we went, and the sight or smell of it was a reliable sign of human presence.

Then, around the middle of the 19th century, the open flame began to disappear. With the invention of the internal-combustion engine, we had on our hands another staggeringly versatile technology—one that could do all the work of fire with less risk and less smoke. Today, virtually every job once done by fire is done by internal combustion instead. If you have a gas stove, you still use flame to cook. Otherwise, it has likely been relegated in your life to birthday candles, cigarette lighters, and the occasional winter evening by a fireplace.

Like so many technological changes, the move away from fire began with well-off urbanites, who soon came to view open flames as both physically and morally dangerous. Burning fields was dismissed as the primitive habit of backwater farmers. Burning woods was derided as “Paiute forestry.” As for wildfires—to William Greeley, third chief of the United States Forest Service and a devout Congregationalist, those were the work of Satan. To Bernhard Fernow, head of the USDA’s forestry division from 1886 to 1898, they were the result of “bad habits and loose morals.” To Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the USFS, they “encourage[d] a spirit of lawlessness.”

In 1935, the USFS institutionalized this anti-fire sentiment in what became known as the 10 a.m. policy. All fires begin as small fires, agency officials reasoned, and they wanted every one that was spotted to be out by ten the next morning. It was the “broken windows” theory of firefighting, and it dominated the culture and practice of the Forest Service officially until 1978 and unofficially for many years after.

Fire suppression was not at first popular with the general public, much of which was still rural and accustomed to living around open flames. But changing demographics and a powerful PR campaign gradually turned the tide. Many of the nation’s great environmental heroes spoke out in support of it, from John Muir, who claimed that fire was ten times more damaging than logging, to Aldo Leopold, who championed “absolutely preventing forest fires insofar as humanly possible.” But the greatest influence came from an unlikely quarter: the 1942 Walt Disney movie Bambi, whose traumatic early fire scene probably did more to affect the public perception of wildfire than anything else.