Essays - Spring 2008

Passing the Torch

Why the eons-old truce between humans and fire has burst into an age of megafires, and what can be done about it

By Stephen J. Pyne | March 1, 2008
Photo by Marcus Obal
Photo by Marcus Obal


The Olympics traditionally open with a fire ceremony. A torch kindled by natural sources (the sun reflects off a mirror onto the torch), and hence a pure fire, is passed from Olympia, the site of the ancient games, to wherever the modern games are to take place. Last year, nature seemed determined to return the gesture, as record-shattering blazes swept over Greece and even reached the ruins of Olympia itself.

These megafires came in three waves, each more savage than the last. The first outbreak commenced in late June and continued into July and most spectacularly burned two-thirds of Mount Parnis National Park, north of Athens. The second struck at the end of July with widespread points of ignition that overwhelmed the fire services and contributed the largest single fire in Greek history, a 74,100-acre burn near Aigialia in the northern Peloponnese. The third wave surged over the Peloponnese during the end of August; one, at Ilia, broke the new size record by reaching 99,000 acres, while another burned off the forest around Olympia. Altogether some 76 people died. The flames shook the political establishment and influenced a national election.

It is tempting to conclude that this outbreak, amid record temperatures and aridity, is another signature of global warming, that these are the sparks of a coming apocalypse. After all, similar types of fires forced evacuations in the American West, ripped through Portugal, invaded Brazil, and smothered Moscow in smoke. No valence other than global climate could possibly bond such disparate landscapes. So this, it would seem, is what the future holds: a rising sea of fire punctuated by ever more frequent tsunamis of flame.

But the Greek eruption was not a pure fire—not the simple expression of natural forces against which people can take preventative measures. As Gavril Xanthopoulos, Greece’s premier fire scientist, has explained, the 2007 fires were the outcome of nature and people interacting in ways both deep and nuanced. The outbreak, and its cognates around the globe, resemble a stock market crash more than a tidal wave. In truth the global economy contributed as much to the happening as the global climate did.

The wildland fire community, meaning those who manage fires and those who study them, habitually thinks in terms of triangles. Combustion results from heat, fuel, and oxygen; fire behavior follows from weather, fuel, and terrain. And in like fashion, the global epidemic of fires can be broken down into three contributing causes.

The first is the most obvious: climate. If it rains, the fires die out, and if the winds quiet, the flames cannot spread. In this respect wildfire joins that pantheon of iconic images that have come to characterize the public awareness of global warming. Longer fire seasons, higher temperatures, more savage droughts—all of these give burning a boost. The real index, though, is not warming per se but the pattern of moisture and drought, for this is what sets aflame landscapes that are normally too empty to burn and sends flames racing through forests normally too damp to combust. In the summer of 2007, Greece suffered its worst drought in a century of keeping records.

For the past 20 years, the American West has endured a sustained period of aridity, best announced by the Siege of ’87 in northern California and the 1988 Yellowstone conflagrations. Since then, the big fires have come with a roughly two-year rhythm. Nobody can say for sure how much of this agonizing bout of aridity is attributable to man-caused climate change and how much to the inevitable reappearance of dry spells in a region that has endured prolonged droughts for millennia. But certainly nature is not providing much relief. The relentless long drought has reduced options, shrunk room for maneuvers, and heightened the stakes. Its persistence could even allow landscape-sized conflagrations to catalyze a mass turnover of the biota, in which the organisms that presently inhabit the affected lands can no longer survive and will be replaced en masse. No one really knows.

Hot, dry conditions are only a necessary precondition for conflagration, however, not a sufficient one. Although they share heat as a causative factor, rising fires in Greece are not a simple complement to melting glaciers in Greenland. Ice melts from purely physical causes; melting can happen without a particle of life present. But fire cannot; it needs a biota in order to propagate. It feeds on that assembled biomass, and anything that shapes the biotic matrix will affect the kind of fire that results. Physical stresses must refract through a biotic prism, which has its own complex set of controls. Climate can only affect fire to the extent that its presence gets absorbed into the living world.

Moreover, the biota harbors a creature that can compete with lightning, climate’s firestick, as a source of ignition, and this introduces yet another prism through which fire must be refracted. Put simply, people can start and stop fires. While in one sense this makes fire seem less “natural,” it also brings combustion further within the realm of the living world.

The second cause of the global epidemic of fires is land use. Around the world, megafires cluster in nature preserves and on landscapes otherwise undergoing rapid change. Some instances of megafire, mostly in the developing world, involve forests forcibly converted to pasture or plantation. The clearing of rainforests and draining of peatlands in Borneo has sparked some of the largest, most noxious fires of the past 20 years. Other fires, vast in area rather than high in intensity, have helped transform Amazonian forest into ranches. In the developed world, public lands once managed for timber or pasture are being converted to nature protection and recreation and many formerly rural lands are being abandoned or subjected to exurban development. All of these changes in the landscape recalibrate the biotic prism through which fire is transmitted.

An unraveling agricultural countryside is the backdrop for the relentless increase in burning, decade by decade, in Greece. Here, and throughout the Mediterranean, the ancient economy has come unglued as people with ambition abandon the rural village for the metropolis and leave the landscape to delaminate like rotting plywood. This migration has quickened and stalled in different places at different times but is most profound in countries suddenly released from dictatorships, such as Greece at the end of the regime of the colonels in 1974, Portugal with the death of Salazar in 1968, and Spain with the death of Franco in 1977. The inflow of people to Athens and Thessaloniki has left a countryside fast overgrowing with combustibles and only the young and the elderly to tend them, and this remnant of the population continues fire practices that they can no longer control.

The Mediterranean basin is a perfect example of a fire-prone environment. What has historically kept its flammable flora in check is close cultivation by people. Once that human hand lifts, however, a revanchist biota soon blossoms. Since it entered the European Union in 1986, probably all of northern Portugal has burned, and Galicia, where a wetter climate gives drought more to work on, has suffered the equivalent of an ecological insurgency. In the past, these kinds of outbreaks happened after areas had been depopulated by wars or epidemics; today, they follow from a changing economy. The outcome is that there is more to burn, fewer people to do controlled burning, and more fires that go from tame to feral.

With time, this urban inflow produces a backwash, a migration of urbanites eager for recreational or retirement country houses. This counterflow adds to the burden of protection, since these exurbanites demand emergency responses yet typically ignore fire measures, particularly the landscape manicuring that traditionally held a riotous brush in check. In many Mediterranean countries including Greece, moreover, forest law only applies to wooded lands. A fire, regardless of cause, burns away the legal protections and allows for further exurban developments. Bulldozers may not be available against the flames, but they are present to level the still-warm ashes for construction sites. The current wildfires are thus not simply an expression of unhinged landscapes but a means of forcibly unhinging them.

The developed world is no less in turmoil. Throughout Europe, as in North America and Australia, an agricultural or commodity economy has been giving way to one of services and amenities. A once-rural landscape is being recolonized by an urban outmigration. Provence is regularly hammered by fire as its formerly pastoral landscapes morph into exurban settings. The Blue Mountains, which have become an exurban enclave of Sydney, now experience routine conflagrations. Particularly for settler societies, the old agricultural frontier that sparked a wave of fires has yielded to an urban frontier that is kindling a contagion of megafires. The intervening half century or so between the cessation of the agricultural fire frontier and the onset of its urban replacement, during which the land was brought under some kind of fire control, now appears to be an anomaly.

Today’s mass fires precisely track regions of massive land-use change. This is obvious where once-forested lands are converted to palm oil plantations as in Kalimantan on Borneo, or where logging has accelerated with new economic regimes in Manchuria and the Russian Far East, or where ranches nestled in woodlands or chaparral have been subdivided into housing complexes. (For the latter, “sprawl” may be too benign a term; “splash” might better capture the sense of scattered homesteading.) Slamming city and wildland together is an environmental equivalent of mixing matter and antimatter, and we should not be surprised to see regular explosions. Still, it is worth noting that fire is not the only risk. These housing enclaves are interbreeding with whatever hazards a site already offers, and none of these threats has blunted the thrust of internal resettlement. Fire is not unique among the disasters that can follow, and is certainly not the most damaging; fire’s destruction is roughly comparable to that wrought by tornadoes. But fire is among the most telegenic of crises and can propagate across TV screens and in the public mind in ways that wind and wave cannot.

Ranchettes along the Colorado Front Range and exposed peatlands in Malaysia create similar opportunities for fire. In Third World settings, agricultural fire practices often introduce fires that burn without the ecological baffles—the patchiness, the enormous variability in structure and density—that the prior landscape featured. Remember that fire does not flow through such sites in the ways that ice or water would but literally feeds on the biomass and takes its strength accordingly.

In the industrial world, programs of fire protection can prevent even useful fires, with the outcome that combustible materials grow and mingle with houses that, as viewed by fire, are indistinguishable from piles of logging slash. In places like the American West, moreover, developments often abut public wildlands, leaving the land polarized between two charged plates ready to arc; it is this unstable situation that prevents the application of simple solutions drawn from the traditional practices of either city or wildland. (The wildland fire community wants the houses to go away, and the urban fire community wants to abolish fire; neither addresses the odd, unstable compound that is the actual problem.) And some sites are simply the fire equivalent of floodplains. Santa Ana winds rush down the Santa Monica Mountains to Malibu just as the Missouri River routinely floods Minot, North Dakota, or Atlantic hurricanes flush the Carolina Outer Banks.

Less obvious perhaps is that the same sorts of problems can result from granting special legal protection to a site. Moving a landed estate from private to public ownership or from state-sponsored forestry to state-sponsored preservation can alter the arrangement of flammable materials. This was in fact the point of those national (or imperial) forestry bureaus that were once the vanguard of conservation, as well as a relic of colonial rule, with their self-proclaimed mandate to shield favored sites from “fire and ax.” A century of experience with aggressive fire control across a constellation of fire-prone landscapes, however, has repeatedly demonstrated the ecological damage that excluding fire can do. In recent decades, such agencies have been disestablished or devolved or have been dedicated to new purposes. Lands have gone to legal wilderness, national parks, biosphere reserves, or other designations that place them beyond the grasp of commodity production, just as their founders intended, and have stemmed the compulsive instincts of fire suppression. But the problems don’t go away; they simply move, often with unintended consequences.

Vast fires are pounding these repurposed lands no less than others. Yellowstone, Kruger, Kosciusko—the flagship national parks of America, South Africa, and Australia—have all endured whopping, single-year burns across 45 to 75 percent of their territory. At first blush this seems counterintuitive, if not perverse: the point of reclassifying the land was to protect it and to subject it to a gentler, greener administration. But in fire-prone settings, big parks become permanent habitats for fire; left to themselves they will burn, often more ferociously than at any time in their history. Reining in fire control does not eliminate the need for fire management; rather, it changes the task from protecting against fires you don’t want to promoting those you do. Otherwise the giant reserves simply stockpile combustibles for an inevitable conflagration.

This paradox leads to the third contributor to the megafire plague: humanity’s fire practices. People start most fires, decide how to respond to natural ignitions, determine which burns are good and which are bad, and elect by what they do and don’t do what kind of fires will reside on the land. The correlation between fire policies and programs and the amount of area burned is unnervingly close.

Nature, it turns out, kindled none of the fires that swept over Greece. Some resulted from the persistence of traditional burning amidst what have become untraditional conditions. Some were Greece’s version of arson for profit: burned forestland, now liberated from the grasp of forest law, instantly converted to villas. Some were surely (as critics charge) an expression of political arson. Since the rule of the colonels ended, the major outbreaks of fire in Greece have corresponded precisely with national election years, as partisans of both the Left and the Right contribute to a general anarchy of flame. The Right burns to show the incompetence of the Left to provide for public safety. The Left burns to provoke an overreaction from the Right. The dispossessed burn in inchoate protest.

If the incentives to burn have increased, the capacity to contain the fires that result has diminished. In 1998, Greece transferred responsibility for fire protection from its forest service to an urban fire corps reasonably adept at fighting building fires. This corps proved wholly inept, however, against fires propagating across garigue-clothed hillsides, olive groves underlain with grass, and conifer woods. The situation was made worse in March 2007 when the Greek Fire Corps dismissed many of its top officers. Fires escaped initial attack, fires once contained and abandoned then rekindled, and firefighting forces skipped from one hot spot to another, apparently driven by political gestures and media interest. Some fires broke out again and again, as firefighting followed news cameras. Yellow CL-215 air tankers provided good political theater, and Erickson Air Cranes circled heroically, but in firefighting (as in warfare) only boots on the ground provide true control. The troops weren’t there. Russia and the European Union responded with aid, mostly in the form of aircraft but also with 402 token firefighters; yet this assistance could only apply pressure if men and materiel had adequate oversight. They didn’t.

Such breakdowns might seem no more than the idiosyncrasies of a small country unused to megafire; but this is only a partial explanation, because the major powers, the United States, Canada, and Australia, are moving in a similar direction, all seemingly unable to restrain construction in inappropriate settings. Everywhere the old forest services are being disbanded or fundamentally realigned, removing them from the kind of hard-core fire suppression that had been their specialty. A sudden collapse in firefighting capabilities after the implosion of the Soviet Union led to spikes in burning across Eurasia. Mongolia, which had fielded an aerial firefighting corps on the Soviet model, instantly found itself awash with fire, as social disintegration sent urbanites onto the steppes and left firefighters stuck on the ground; the one set fires that the other could no longer contain. In the United States, early retirement (after 20 years) and court-mandated diversity hiring have created an ongoing crisis by stripping many agencies of older firefighters who have experience in on-the-ground firefighting.

Meanwhile, pressures mount to convert wildland fire agencies into all-hazard emergency services, which is the evolutionary track that urban fire agencies have followed. Rather than training as firefighters, crews become first responders, trained to deal with threats such as hazardous materials, tornadoes, explosions, or terrorist attacks. This new emphasis can make for better crisis management before and after fires—it deals with the social trauma caused by an event—but does little to oversee the land itself. It’s a formula better conceived to protect against the fires you don’t want than to promote those you do, and it threatens what has been the singular achievement of America’s 40-year fire revolution: the bonding of fire with land, which is what has made fire “management” distinct from fire “protection.”

The problem in this design is that it considers fire as one of many natural disasters. In some cases this is true; in many it is not. Worse, the strategy discourages the use of those fires that many landscapes crave. The politician’s payoff lies in attending to affected voters. The prime audience is an urban one that expects that fire services along the urban fringe will resemble those at the core. This rechartering of fire institutions explains much of Australia’s continual crisis, where fire control has shifted from the backcountry to the urban bush. It’s a model that Canada is actively pushing. It’s what Greece did. In America it could make for an improved fema but a poorer public domain.

So far the United States has been spared schemes to transform its federal fire establishment into a coast guard for the interior. But it has experienced another trend, almost exclusive to our country, that has taken up the slack: a passion to reintroduce fire. Nature kindles fires galore, but reforms in American fire policy and practice also account for much of the escalation in burning on public lands, which is where nearly all large fires now reside. Federal agencies have for several decades sought to promote fire in the name of ecosystem management: Fires that would have been suppressed are left to burn. Fires are deliberately set. Fires have escaped. In the name of firefighter safety and ecological benefits, crews in more remote landscapes are backing off and allowing or assisting lightning-kindled fires to burn out whole basins or hillsides. Fires they would have hammered at a quarter acre or fought grudgingly acre by acre now swell to thousands.

Yet this would seem to be the point of America’s recent fire policies: more fire doing what fire naturally should. But these policies also have unintended consequences. Today’s fires do not burn as those of the past did; they have to accommodate more than a century of human-wrought changes. Nor is it obvious that they will yield the expected outcomes in biological goods and services. After all, with the climate changing, the past is no longer an adequate guide. The sudden reliance on large fires in the public domain is comparable to economic shock therapy in Eastern Europe. Fire is not ecological pixie dust that can by itself magically transform the degraded into the wondrous. It can only act on whatever is present. We are long past the time when every burned acre must be labeled “destroyed”; we are not yet to the point of recognizing that not every acre burned is “enhanced.” Turning fire management over to fire likely belongs in the realm of faith-based ecology.

Arizona’s current cycle of megafires commenced in 1996, when an abandoned campfire set the top of Four Peaks ablaze. It was early in the season, crews were sparse, most of the mountain apart from the forested summit was chaparral or desert, and the Matazal range is a formidable terrain. Fire officers elected to let the fire back down the slopes, with protective burning along lower-elevation roads. The so-called Lone fire swelled to 60,000 acres and its smoke shut down Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport for an afternoon; this was the largest fire by a factor of three ever recorded in modern Arizona. In 2004, lightning kindled a blaze in the Matazal Wilderness, further north. Again, this was a rugged landscape, covered with brush and scattered woods on the ridgeline, ripe with exotic grasses, and bounded by legal restrictions on what kind of force might be appropriate. Officials opted to pull back to roads and backfire, leaving the bulk of the mountain to burn itself out during the height of summer. The final burned area: 119,000 acres. A year later lightning, again acting on a desert flushed with exotic grasses thanks to some winter rains, started a midsummer fire. Once again, officials elected to herd the fire away from developed areas, permitting it to burn more freely over desert and into the Matazals. The final reckoning: 248,000 acres. Within 10 years, the area of Arizona’s largest single fire had doubled twice. In this way the statistics behind the perceived advent of megafires disguise the reasons behind them and thus obscure possible solutions.

Locally such reforms can be profound. Some 89 percent of the area burned since 1959 on the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon has occurred in the past 15 years, corresponding perfectly with changes in policies, programs, and personnel. After assembling the data for an honors thesis at Cornell, Garrett Meigs concluded that the two drivers of large fires were ignition and high winds, and that ignition followed from fire officers’ decisions to attack or leave lightning starts or to kindle fires themselves. In 2002, the fires that blasted Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona were the largest on record, and not only were they begun by people, they were begun by people associated with the fire community itself. Colorado’s Hayman fire was set by a forest service technician charged with preventing fires; New Mexico’s Cerro Grande, by a fire crew attempting a prescribed burn at Bandelier National Monument; and Arizona’s Rodeo-Chediski fire by a local man who wanted to be hired to help fight it. The blowup was then compounded by a lost hiker who lit a signal fire, and the two fires tripled the total acreage because they could not be fought singly but had to be allowed to merge. Without a favorable climate, those ignitions could have gone nowhere. But it is a climate of opinion as much as drought that has boosted the record amount of burning tabulated in national statistics. We have chosen to see and fight fire differently. The motive power behind the burned mega-acres is less global warming than the power of the human head and hand to shape fire on the landscape.

Current statistics don’t parse those factors, leaving burned area to correlate only with temperature, drought, and longer seasons. These inadequate metrics help account for the paradoxical stance of the wildland fire community that wildfires have gone beyond their control and that more fire needs to be encouraged through setting prescribed burns and by fighting fires differently. There are incentives that underlie this paradox: if fire officials pull back and allow fires to burn out, even if this increases the final size of the fire by an order of magnitude, they can use emergency firefighting funds to do the job; if they decide to prescribe the burning of that same patch, they will have to use budgeted monies and assume personal liability if the burn goes sour. This becomes a powerful goad to increase the overall amount of burned area through what enters into accounting ledgers as the “suppression” of “wildfire,” which now swells into megafires. There is nothing cynical or devious about these maneuvers. Fire officers are doing what their best understanding of fire ecology, firefighter safety, and a wilderness ethos—in brief, professional best practices—call for. They are meeting agency targets. They are “getting out the burn” the way an earlier generation “got out the cut.”

Such distinctions are lost in the reporting. Instead, simplistic correlations offer explanations that align with prevailing beliefs: the growth in burned area seems to be in sync with the rate of climate change. The immediate conclusion is that the first must follow from the second. Of course climate is a powerful factor in fire starts and in the behavior of fires, and global warming has furnished political cover to encourage certain fire-management decisions while allowing climate to take the blame. But climate’s influence has been refracted through a complex of cultural prisms that govern policy, funding, personnel, legal liability, collective self-image, and an ambition to “restore” fire to the public domain. The fires have indeed returned. Be careful what you wish for.

In this story of a coming age of megafires, the Greek fires of 2007 can stand as synecdoche. What at first blink seems an implausible connection between an old, long-cultivated landscape in the Mediterranean and much newer quasi-wildlands in the North American West and Australian bush appears upon closer inspection to be a cipher on a future of global change. In particular, the Greek fires remind us of both fire’s power and our own, not least because of our species’ monopoly over combustion. If the potential for a catastrophic fire is great, so also is our capacity to shape fire into forms we want, for it is our own actions that have taken tame fire and turned it back into feral fire and it is within our capacity to blunt the blows of megafires and even redirect them to our purposes as we wrestle with the prime causes of global warming. In the end, the phenomenon of megafires can be attributed to one common cause—us. Even global warming is apparently an outcome of our combustion habits.

Fire is not like other forces of nature—glaciers or hurricanes. For a hundred millennia its presence and ours have been intertwined; we have shared a common history. Humanity after all did not invent fire; we seized it from nature. But it is people who now carry the torch, decide where it will go, and what will happen along the way. We can rekindle the Olympic fire font or burn down the stadium. Between the internal combustion of an SUV and a crown fire soaring through the Selways, a lot of hands are passing the torch.

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