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Not All Wildfires Are Disasters

New Report Gives Historical Framework of Fire


A recently published research paper sponsored by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at UCSB and generated by 18 international researchers gives a historical framework of fire. The paper explores the long history of fire and its relationship to humans, and posits that fire has played a significant role in the evolution of plants as well as in the development of some biomes, or habitats, in which human ancestors evolved. In a prepared statement, the researchers admit that it would be “impossible to date when hominids began to use fire,” but that it’s likely that such use aided in human evolution because it allowed food to be cooked early on in the human timeline.

The idea behind the paper came about last year, said Jennifer Balch, post-doctoral associate and second author of the paper, who explained that they wanted to “create a framework of how humans can change fire.” Humans remain reliant on fire, but Balch explained, “We’ve forgotten how strongly connected we are to fire.”

Over the years, humans have come to influence fire regimes in multiple ways, such as by igniting a fire in dry areas during extreme heat. Despite more knowledge and better understanding of fire, it is not always possible to control a fire and limit it to a certain area. Such uncontrolled fires can be “destructive, causing economic disruption, loss of life, damage to physical and mental health, and degradation of natural resources.”

Due to such devastation, wildfires are often viewed as major disasters, but it is important to differentiate between natural fires and fires caused by people. Around the world, people are dependent on fire and “fire is crucial for the functioning of many ecosystems.” It is not only California that battles wildfires every year. In fact, every continent except for Antarctica fights wildfires on an annual basis. In 2009, California alone was hit by a series of 63 wildfires. South Africa, southern Australia, and Russia have also recently experienced catastrophic fires and have suffered tremendous losses.

Whenever a large wildfire breaks out, the media is often all over it, and that contributes to “a widespread public perception that all landscape fires are ‘disasters’ that must be controlled.” As such, the U.S. Forest Service currently spends over $1 billion every year fighting fires.

The study’s lead author, David Bowman of the School of Plant Science at the University of Tasmania, argues that “the framework presented in the paper is key to planning for future fire risk and understanding the role of fire in natural ecosystems.” He further explained, “There are often needless debates about whether or not fire has any place in flammable landscapes. These debates are not helpful because of the intertwined relationships among humans, landscape, and fire throughout human history, which blur any distinction between natural and human set fires.”

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