The forest fire is spreading like the plague
What is fire? Usually it is defined as the physical chemistry of combustion. The definition is important because it prescribes how we think about fire and what we do with it. If fire is a chemical reaction shaped by its physical environment, then we can deconstruct it into its constituent parts.
Fuel plus oxygen plus spark equals fire. We can exploit it, put it in machines and contain it with physical countermeasures.
Another perspective could be that fire results from life – biological processes create oxygen and provide fuel. Fire breaks down what plants assemble through photosynthesis. The chemistry of fire is therefore a biochemistry.
Fire depends on the living world to flourish and facilitates a wide range of ecological effects. Maybe the fire is less like a Bunsen burner and more like a virus. Not living, but dependent on life, it spreads by combustion contagion. Often thought of as a natural disaster, the fire perhaps mimics Covid-19 more than a hurricane. If so, it responds to biological conditions, not just physical ones.
The analogy of fire as biology is surprisingly robust. When the ancestors of modern humans captured fire, it was more like domestication than tool-making. The tamed fire is more of a sheepdog than a torch.
The allusion seems odd because we are so used to imagining fire in strictly physical terms and because, while fire radiates metaphors, it rarely receives them. Fire is fire, elemental: other phenomena are compared to it, not it to others. A plague is spreading like wildfire. We don’t hear that forest fires are spreading like a plague.
Where urban spaces meet bushland – the built environment most vulnerable to fires – protection strategies are similar for wildfires and for Covid.
Cleaning up combustibles around structures is like practicing social distancing. Sealing homes against embers and direct contact is like wearing aerosol masks and washing your hands. Build firewalls against the spread – isolate infected people. Enough shielded buildings to limit damage from unshielded ones provides herd immunity.
Fire plagues result from breakdowns in the way people and the natural world interact. They emerge, like so many new viruses, from imbalanced environments, when natural reservoirs intersect with human interference. Wildfire flames are not so much wild as wild.
Thinking of fire in physical terms tells us how to stop a fire that blows and goes, but it doesn’t explain how to manage fire at a long-term landscape scale.
A strategy for living with fire would mend the ecological fractures upon which fire feeds and substitute controlled fire for wild fire. When disease outbreaks occur, a biological fire strategy can respond not only with physical counterfire, but also with analogues of public health measures like vaccines, quarantines, and disease-specific treatments.
Many fires occur in the underdeveloped world, and massive land conversion fires are a feature of developing countries (think Brazil and Indonesia). But uncontrolled conflagrations are a pathology of the developed world.
The rich countries that are most committed to an understanding of fire that deconstructs it into simple combustion and puts it into machines have the worst fire ecology, experience the worst fuel accumulation, and contribute the most to climate change. .
The Earth first experienced fire when plants began to colonize the continents. Fire and early life on Earth evolved together – call it first nature.
Then, human ancestors acquired the ability to systematically manipulate fire. Early people developed bigger brains and smaller digestive systems because they learned how to cook their food. With this second fire as a catalyst, man has created a second nature.
But it was one with internal checks and balances since the burning was contained within living landscapes. Always looking for more things to burn, people turned to lithic landscapes – once living plants, now fossilized – coal and oil.
These burned in special combustion chambers and lacked ecological barriers and buffers; they could burn day and night, winter and summer, in dry and wet weather.
The advent of the third fire results from the predominance of the physical model in science and practice. And this limitless combustion is destabilizing the climate, acidifying the oceans and forcing living landscapes to reorganize.
This third fire is remaking the planet, informed by fossil fuel-powered societies that sublimate fire into electricity, replace animals with machines, and rewire geochemical cycles with plastics and petrochemicals.
The third fire challenged the first two. Burning fossil fuels offered an alternative source of heat and light. It powers the machines to suppress the fire. He creates landscapes such as towns and farms meant to exclude the free flame.
But after a brief period of grace, the three fires began to get along.
It is as if the Ice Age world has passed through the looking glass and the ice has been replaced by fire. Everywhere, fire-catalyzed change drives out the remnants of ice. Instead of massive ice caps, there are fire-like ecosystems; instead of glacial outwash plains, there are puffs of smoke; instead of permafrost, biochar.
The sea level changes. A mass extinction is underway. The signature of humanity, long inked in charcoal and now in plastic, is becoming part of the geological record. A Fire Age replaces an Ice Age.
Earth has too much bad fire, too little good, and too much combustion overall. It is an artifact of humanity and the way we imagine fire.
We treated it as a physical event that we can separate from everything else like an ax or a harness on an industrial farm, rather than a process tied to living landscapes and a traveling companion. Fire may be our ecological signature, but it’s not up to us to do what we want with it. His power entails obligations.