The devastating effects of wildfires paint a grim global outlook. Just this year, wildfires have burned more than 5 million acres in the United States — the equivalent of the state of Massachusetts. Last year’s extreme Australian bushfires released more than twice as much carbon dioxide than expected, feeding major wildfire-triggered algal blooms in the Southern Ocean. Places that have historically had fires are having more and nastier outbreaks, while places without routine fire are now experiencing it. Over the summer, blazes out West colored sunsets in New York.
In fire historian Stephen Pyne’s opinion, we’re living in an age he calls the Pyrocene, a period of rising global temperatures and wildfires on an unprecedented scale. “If we think about adding up all the ways we’re using fire, we’re creating the fire equivalent of an ice age,” Pyne, the author of the books Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America and To the Last Smoke, told Intelligencer. “Climate change, changes in sea level, mass extinctions, large shifts in biogeography — all these kinds of markers that we’ve used for the ice ages are now sort of passed through a pyric looking glass.”
Do you have any personal experience with fire?
A few days after graduating from high school in 1967, I found myself — by happy accident — on a fire crew at the North Rim of Grand Canyon. I returned for a total of 15 seasons, 12 as crew boss. Later, I spent two summers writing a fire plan for Rocky Mountain National Park and another summer at Yellowstone. I never studied fire in school — was never at a university that taught it (there were very few that taught it at all).
What does a fire historian do?
I think of a fire history in two complementary ways. One, it is a chronicle of fires and fire regimes. This is how most people imagine the topic: fire history as a history of fires. But, two, fire history can also be a way to retell human history. How does the long record of humanity look if it is viewed through a fire prism or organized around a narrative axis of fire? Fire and people become codependent.
Fire has long been intertwined with both earth and humanity’s history. When did our relationship with fire start?
One way to think about it is to consider three fires. The “first fire” is the fire created by nature — for instance, from lighting or from volcanoes. As soon as plants colonized continents, they began to burn. We have fossil charcoal over 420 million years old, so it’s important to realize that fire is a creation of the living world.
More recently, humans have been responsible for most ignitions to cook food and provide warmth. That becomes the “second fire”; it becomes important at the end of the last ice age — say, the last 10,000 years. You’ve got a fire-wielding creature who is encountering a fire-receptive world.
Then, a couple centuries ago, we began looking for more stuff to burn. That’s where lithic landscapes come in — once-living landscapes that have now become rock or oil, gas, and so forth. This really changes everything because it’s unbounded; there are no ecological borders. You can burn these materials day and night, winter and summer, wet or dry. We’ve overloaded with carbon dioxide the atmosphere, the oceans, and, in some ways, land. The Pyrocene has been going on for a long time, but when we started burning fossil fuels, it went on afterburners.
How does the concept of the Pyrocene and Anthropocene — a term used to describe the time during which humans have had a substantial impact on our planet — fit together?
Both are looking at the ways and magnitude of human impact on earth. I think Pyrocene is a different way of understanding. I’m happy with using the term Anthropocene but also hoping that by looking at this from a fire perspective, we can begin recognizing the positive aspects of fire to make the changes we need. I mean, fire has always been our best friend, and now it’s become our worst enemy.
Are there any solutions for living in this fire age?
We’ve demonstrated we can disrupt the climate. Now we have to show we can manage it. There’s no single thing to do; it’s a cocktail of treatments.
Over the past decade, the U.S. fire community has developed a national cohesive strategy for wildland fire. It has three components: create fire-adapted communities, create fire-resilient landscapes, and develop a workforce capable of implementing these goals. To that triad, I would add: begin work to contain climate change. The national strategy is pretty much a master plan for living with fire. If we wait until we tackle climate change before we mitigate the risk of fire in towns and countrysides, we will suffer lots of losses, some irreversible. If we only focus on mitigation, climate change will eventually overwhelm our efforts. We need all of it all at once.
The Pyrocene is not just a metaphor: Whatever we decide to call it, a fire age is upon us. Our fire behavior made the problem and will have to unmake it.
Going forward, what is the long-term fire future of the world? What could it look like if things continue unabated?
Well, fire will create more fire. We will see landscapes, biotas, change to accommodate. We can expect large changes in many cases, say the Southwest or other places that are prone to drought.
Fires will come to more and more places. The fundamental climate requirement for fire is to have a pattern of wetting and drying, so it’s got to be wet enough to grow stuff and then dry enough to burn. California has that. The Mediterranean climate is perfect for that. But places like the Northeast that don’t have regular wet-dry cycles may start getting them.
If we do nothing or continue as we are, it’s not much of a future. I mean, I’ve got grandkids. If I make it to average life expectancy, I may have great-grandkids, and I’m not very happy with the world they’re inheriting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.