The Misplaced War Against Fire
TEMPE, ARIZONA – The simplest way to describe fire worldwide is that there is too much of the wrong kind, too little of the right kind, and too much overall. The wrong kinds are those such as the blaze that just killed 19 firefighters here in Arizona, or those that have put southeast Asia under a pall, that incinerate communities, befoul ecosystems with effluents, and trash biotas by burning at the wrong times and intensities. The right kinds are those that perform an ecological service by burning landscapes properly – and that stay in their place.
Paradoxically, it is likely that there is not enough fire on the planet; but, thanks to fossil fuels, there is certainly too much combustion. Overall, the developed world has too few good fires, and the developing world has too many bad ones. Nearly every observer forecasts that this will continue over the coming years.
What to do about it depends on how we characterize the problem. The paradox of fire stems from its role as the great shape-shifter of natural processes. The reason is simple: fire is not a creature nor a substance nor a geophysical event like a hurricane or an earthquake. It is a biochemical reaction. It synthesizes its surroundings. It takes its character from its context.