Why California’s 2020 lightning fires got so big so fast
by Joseph Serna

“When state fire authorities announced recently that the CZU Lightning Complex fire had quadrupled in size in just one day, an audible gasp rose from the audience. Although lightning fires have been scorching the state since prehistoric times, the speed with which the SCU and LNU lightning complex fires became the second- and third-largest blazes ever recorded in California has startled emergency officials and strained firefighting resources. The fires have killed seven people, destroyed more than 2,100 buildings and made air unhealthy across the Bay Area.

“A screenshot of the PurpleAir map on September 11, 2020 shows the impact of wildfire smoke in California, Oregon and Washington.”

And things may only get worse in the future, experts say. “There’s a direct relationship between heat and fire, and increasing heat is inevitable for at least a few decades,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “If you like 2020, you’re going to love 2050.” So why have this year’s fires burned more than 1.4 million acres of the state’s scenic coastal mountains and hills surrounding wine country? After all, the Lightning Siege of 2008, when nearly 800,000 acres burned, was the first time the National Guard had been called in to help in 40 years as resources were stretched to the limit.

The answer is complicated. The destiny of all wildfires is shaped by the fire behavior triangle — fuel, weather and topography — according to Craig Clements, a professor at San Jose State’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory. But there were additional factors involved in this most recent outbreak. A summer heat wave magnified by climate change combined with tropical moisture and storm energy to create thunderstorms. The resulting lightning strikes pelted a region with a history of difficult firefighting and another area that’s seen numerous fires in the recent past. The state- and locally-maintained coastal mountains in Central California, where the CZU Lightning Complex is burning, have a history of challenging firefighters. In 2016, in Monterey County north of the current fire, a firefighter died helping contain the stubborn Soberanes fire, which burned 50 homes while flames lived for months in the range’s steep canyons and impassable terrain.

“burned vehicle in Boulder Creek with smoke from CZU Lightning Complex fire”

In 2003, south of Livermore, where a part of the SCU Lightning Complex is now burning, 53 firefighters were overrun in the middle of the night and used their shelters in what may have been the second-largest shelter deployment by crews in U.S. history, Clements said. In both instances, just as is happening now, temperatures did not drop significantly overnight nor was any ocean moisture reintroduced into the landscape’s higher elevations. In the summer, a high-pressure system settles over the Pacific and rotates, steering warm, dry air over the coastal range’s upper elevations while squeezing cool, moist air into the marine layer below, said San Jose State atmospheric scientist Alison Bridger. “It’s basically why we don’t get rain in the summer,” she said. Throw in an extreme heat wave, and fire risk rises significantly. “The fact we got such extremely large, fast destructive fires without any offshore winds is very unusual,” said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. “All of this hints at something which we know to be true … the state of the vegetation, the state of the fuels was pretty extraordinary.”

In fact, most of the areas burning in the three lightning complex fires are considered to be in moderate to severe drought, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday. Huge chunks of each fire’s footprint include areas that haven’t seen fires in decades and were jackpots of dead and dry tinder. “Unfortunately, as the climate continues to warm, the table is being set for these extreme fires more often,” Swain said. “It means the ceiling on how bad these fires can be is continuing to increase.” The night that the hundreds-of-miles-wide lightning storm set all these fires in motion, a “heat burst” before sunrise hit parts of wine country, sending predawn temperatures in areas such as Travis Air Force Base from 80 to 100 degrees in under two hours. While experts say it probably didn’t have a direct impact on the fires, it certainly didn’t help matters and foreshadowed the challenging conditions to come.

“In long exposure photograph, flames consume a segment of Lake Berryessa during the Hennessey fire, part of LNU Lightning Complex fire”

From Tuesday to Wednesday, winds flowed downslope into the Sacramento Valley from the mountains between Oregon and California, shedding moisture along the way. When they hit the wine country hills, they were bone dry and influenced the fire’s explosive growth, said National Weather Service meteorologist Cory Miller. The LNU Lightning Complex fire grew tenfold in 36 hours, from 12,200 acres the morning of Aug. 18 to 124,000 acres the following night, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Sarah Johnson and the Emerald Hills Horse Ranch, in Winters, were in the fire’s path. Johnson, 29, is originally from Ohio and knows thunderstorms, so two weeks ago she kicked back in a hammock to enjoy a flavor of the Midwest as lightning flashed across the horizon around Lake Berryessa and Mt. Vaca. But soon, the storms were replaced with smoke, and then falling ash. Johnson and her boyfriend were glued to their phones, listening to scanner traffic from first responders about the fire’s movements.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection website was working only intermittently, overwhelmed by a surge in web traffic from around the globe. As the fire made its late-night surge Aug. 18 and 19, Johnson’s boyfriend’s phone began ringing incessantly, the ranch’s boarders trying to reach him to warn him of the incoming fire. The couple woke up and sprung into action, waking neighbors, loading up horses as trailers arrived and helping to knock down small spot fires that dotted the ranch pasture. The ranch lost power sometime during the scramble. “It was incredibly windy and smoky and you could see a fire tornado forming, and the rate of spread was incredible,” Johnson said. “The fire was just so bright, that’s how we were able to see everything.”

“Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fire consume a home in unincorporated Napa County”

Over the next several hours, their neighbors’ homes burned. The fire was fast and the county’s emergency alert system didn’t reach many of them until it was too late, if at all, Johnson said. “I remember at one point I just stopped and looked and said, ‘Where are all the fire trucks?’ and it was just another surreal moment and I realized that nobody was coming,” she said. There’s a concern that as these fires hit the same areas again and again, they’ll permanently change California, and not for the better. A moderate fire can clear out underbrush and competing trees, giving a healthy forest room to breathe.

But if it visits again and again — as has happened in parts of Napa County in recent years — those native grasses and plants give up the fight and invasive plants move in, similar to what’s happened in Southern California. Oftentimes those new species can spread fire faster. California has choices to make since fire is inevitable and megafires are increasingly possible, said Gerrard, the Columbia climate law director. Building codes can be updated. Utility infrastructure can be modernized and better regulated. Decisions on where homes are built and how forests are managed can be made with fire risk and native ecology in mind. “It’s very much like managed retreat on the coastline,” Gerrard said. “The hope is that recurrent, related disasters will be a wake-up call.”




Living in the fire age : where humans can melt ice sheets and cook landscapes
by Stephen J Pyne

“At night, viewed from space, the cluster of lights looks like a supernova erupting in North Dakota. The lights are as distinctive a feature of night-time North America as the glaring swathe of the northeast megalopolis. Less dense than those of Chicago, as expansive as those of Greater Atlanta, more coherent than the scattershot of illuminations that characterises the Midwest and the South, the exploding array of lights define both a geographic patch and a distinctive era of Earth’s history. Nearly all the evening lights across the United States are electrical. But the constellation above North Dakota is made up of gas flares.

Viewed up close, they resemble monstrous Bunsen burners, combusting excess natural gas released from fracking what’s known as the Bakken shale, named after the farmer Henry Bakken, on whose land the rock formation was first discovered while drilling for oil in the 1950s. In 2014 the flares burned nearly a third of the fracked gas free. They constitute one of the most distinctive features of the US nightscape. We might call them the constellation Bakken. While the flares rise upward, the firefront is actually burning downward into the outgassing drill holes as surely as a candle flame burns down its tallow stalk. The flames are descending as rapidly as their fuels are rising. They are burning through deep time, combusting lithic landscapes from the geologic past and releasing their effluent into a geologic future. Eerily, the Bakken shale dates to the Devonian, the era that records the first fossil charcoal, our first geologic record of burnt material. Its gases will linger through the Anthropocene.

In 1860 the English scientist Michael Faraday gave a series of public lectures in which he used a candle to illustrate the principles of natural philosophy. Fire was an apt exemplar because it integrates its surroundings, and it was apt, too, because in Faraday’s world, fire was everpresent. Every nook and cranny of the human world flickered with flames for lighting, heating, cooking, working, and even entertaining. But that was starting to change. By then, Britain had 10,000 miles of railways and the US had 29,000. Those locomotives demanded more fuels than the living landscape could supply. Engineers turned to ancient landscapes – to fossil biomass, notably coal – and they simplified fire into combustion.

Today, a modern Faraday would not use a candle – probably couldn’t because the lecture hall would be outfitted with smoke detectors and automated sprinklers, and his audience wouldn’t relate to what they saw because they no longer have the lore of daily burning around them. For a contemporary equivalent he might well turn to a fracking flare, and to illustrate the principles behind Earthly dynamics he might track those flames as they burn down through the deep past of fire and humanity. Among the ancient elements, fire is the odd one out. Earth, water, air – all are substances. Fire is a reaction. It synthesises its surroundings, takes its character from its context.

It burns one way in peat, another in tallgrass prairie, and yet another through lodgepole pine; it behaves differently in mountains than on plains; it burns hot and fast when the air is dry and breezy, and it might not burn at all in fog. It’s a shapeshifter. The intellectual idea of fire is a shapeshifter, too. The other elements have academic disciplines behind them. The only fire department on a university campus is the one that sends emergency vehicles when an alarm sounds. In ancient times, fire had standing with the other elements as a foundational axiom of nature. In 1720, the Dutch botanist Herman Boerhaave could still declare that: ‘If you make a mistake in your exposition of the Nature of Fire, your error will spread to all the branches of physics, and this is because, in all natural productions, Fire… is always the chief agent.’

By the end of the 18th century, fire tumbled from its pedestal to begin a declining career as a subset of chemistry and thermodynamics, and a concern only of applied fields such as forestry. Fire no longer had intellectual integrity: it was considered a derivation from other, more fundamental principles. Just at the time open fire began retiring from quotidian life, so it began a long recession from the life of the mind. Fire’s fundamentals reside in the living world. Life created the oxygen fire needs; life created the fuels. The chemistry of fire is a biochemistry: fire takes apart what photosynthesis puts together. When it happens in cells, we call it respiration. When it occurs in the wide world, we call it fire.

As soon as plants colonised land in the Silurian period about 440 million years ago, they burned. They have burned ever since. Fires are older than pines, prairies and insects. But nature’s fires are patchy in space and time. Some places, some eras, burn routinely; others, episodically; and a few, only rarely. The basic rhythm is one of wetting and drying. A landscape has to be wet enough to grow combustibles, and dry enough, at least occasionally, to allow them to burn. Sand deserts don’t burn because nothing grows; rainforests don’t burn unless a dry spell leaches away moisture. Biomes rich in fine particles such as ferns, shrubs and conifer needles can burn easily and briskly. Landscapes laden with peat or encumbered with large trunks burn poorly, and only when leveraged with drought.

As life and the atmosphere evolved, so did fire. When oxygen thickened in the Carboniferous period around 300 million years ago, dragonflies grew as large as seagulls, and fires swelled in like proportion such that 2 to 13 per cent of the era’s abundant coal beds consist of fossil charcoal. When grasses emerged in the Miocene, they lavished kindling that quickened fire’s spread. When animals evolved to feast on those grasses, fire and herbivores had to compete because that same biomass was fodder for each: it could go into gullets or up in flames but not both. Today, ecologists refer to landscape fire as a disturbance akin to hurricanes or ice storms. It makes more sense to imagine fire as an ecological catalyst. Floods and windstorms can flourish without a particle of life present: fire cannot; it literally feeds off hydrocarbons. So as atmosphere and biosphere have changed, as oxygen has ebbed and flowed, as flora and fauna have sculpted biomass into new forms, so fire has evolved, morphing into new species.

Yet there was one requirement for fire that escaped life’s grasp, the spark of ignition that connected flame with fuel. Ignition relied on lightning, and lightning’s lottery had its own logic. Then a creature emerged to rig the odds in favour of fire. Just when hominins acquired the capacity to manipulate fire is unknown. But we know that Homo erectus could tend fires and, by the advent of Homo sapiens, hominins could make fire at will. A revolutionary phase-change all around. Until that Promethean moment, fire history had remained a subset of natural history, particularly of climate history. Now, notch by notch, fire gradually ratcheted into a new era in which natural history, including climate, would become subsets of fire history. In a sense, the rhythms of anthropogenic fire began to replace the Milankovitch climate cycles which had governed the coming and going of ice ages. A fire age was in the making.

Earth had a new source of ecological energy. Places that were prone to burn but had lacked regular ignition (think Mediterranean biomes) now got it, and places that burned more or less routinely had their fire rhythms tweaked to suit their human fire tenders. Species and biomes began a vast reshuffling that defined new winners and losers. The species that won biggest was ourselves. Fire changed us, even to our genome. We got small guts and big heads because we could cook food. We went to the top of the food chain because we could cook landscapes. And we have become a geologic force because our fire technology has so evolved that we have begun to cook the planet. Our pact with fire made us what we are.

We hold fire as a species monopoly. We will not share it willingly with any other species. Other creatures knock over trees, dig holes in the ground, hunt – we do fire. It’s our ecological signature. Our capture of fire is our first experiment with domestication, and it might may well be our first Faustian bargain. Still, ignition came with limits. Not every spark will spread; not every fire will behave as we wish. We could repurpose fire to our own ends, but we could not conjure fire where nature would not allow it. Our firepower was limited by the receptivity of the land, an appreciation lodged in many fire-origin myths in which fire, once liberated, escapes into plants and stones and has to be coaxed out with effort.

Those limits began to fall away as people reworked the land to alter its combustibility. We could slash woods, drain peat, loose livestock – in a score of ways we could reconfigure the existing biota to increase its flammability. For fire history this is the essential meaning of agriculture, most of which, outside of floodplains, depends on the biotic jolt of burning to fumigate and fertilise. For a brief spell, the old vegetation is driven off, and a site is lush with ashy nutrients, and – temporarily – imported cultivars can flourish. In 1954, the US anthropologist Loren Eiseley likened humanity itself to a flame – spreading widely and transmuting whatever we touch. This process began with hunting and foraging practices, but sharpens with agriculture. Most of our domesticated crops and our domesticated livestock originate in fire-prone habitats, places prone to wet-dry cycles and so easily manipulated by fire-wielding humans. The way to colonise new lands was to burn them so that, for a while, they resembled the cultivars’ landscapes of origin.

Yet again, there were limits. There was only so much that could be coaxed or coerced out of a place before it would degrade, and there were only so many new worlds to discover and colonise. If people wanted more firepower – and it seems that most of us always do – we would have to find another source of fuel. We found it by reaching into the deep past and exhuming lithic landscapes, the fossil fallow of an industrial society. Instead of redirecting or expanding fire, the conversion to industrial burning removed open flame, simplified it into chemical combustion, and stuffed it into special chambers. Instead of being constrained by the abundance of fuels, anthropogenic fire was constrained by sinks, the capacity of land, air and ocean to absorb its byproducts. The new combustion was no longer subject to the old ecological checks and balances. It could burn day and night, winter and summer, through drought and deluge. Its guiding rhythms were no longer wind, sun and the seasons of growth and dormancy, but the cycles of human economies.

“Firefighters responding to the CZU Lightning Complex fire in Boulder Creek assess a structure fire.”

The transformation – call it the pyric transition – was as disruptive as the coming of aboriginal firestick and fire-catalysed farming, but it was more massive, much faster, and far more damaging. Some landscapes burned to their roots. Seasonally, skies were smoke palls. Frontier settlements vanished in flames. The pyric transition runs through fire history and Earth’s pyrogeography like a terminator. Eventually, as the new order prevailed, as it wiped flame away by technological substitution and outright suppression, the population of fires plummeted, leading to ecological fire famines. The transformation might have left Earth with too much generic combustion, and too much of its effluent lodged in the atmosphere, but the industrialised world also left too little of the right kind of fire where it’s needed.

Promoting the steam engine developed with his business partner James Watt, in the late 1770s, Matthew Boulton boasted to the biographer James Boswell that they sold what all the world wanted – power. In 1820, a year after Watt died, Percy Shelley published Prometheus Unbound, in which he celebrated the unshackling of the unrepentant Titan who had brought fire to humanity. By then, the use of coal, and later oil, was liberating a generation of New Prometheans. This newly bestowed firepower came without traditional bounds. For a million years the problem before hominins had been to find more stuff to burn and to keep the flames bright. Now the problem became what to do with all the effluent of that burning and how to put flame back where it had been unwisely taken away.

The new energy revolution leveraged every activity, like fire itself creating the conditions for its spread, each reinforcing the other. But the collateral damage in the form of wrecked landscapes could not be ignored. Engineers sought to keep fire within the machines, not loosed on the countryside. Countries, particularly those with extensive frontiers, public lands or colonial holdings, sought to shield their national estate from fire. They set lands aside to shelter them from promiscuous and abusive burning and sought to control fires when they occurred. State-sponsored conservation had considerable currency among progressive thinkers. When Rudyard Kipling wrote ‘In the Rukh’ (1893), a story that explained what became of The Jungle Book’s Mowgli after he grew up, he had him join the Indian Forest Department and fight against poaching and ‘jungle fires’. Only later would the paradoxes become palpable. Only later would overseers realise how hard they would have to struggle to reinstate fire for its ecological benefits.

But the flames were only the visible edge of a planetary phase-change. The slopover that followed once Earth’s keystone species for fire changed its combustion habits is best known for destabilising climate. But humanity’s new firepower has a greater reach, and the knock-on effects are rippling through the planet’s biosphere independently of global warming. The new energy is rewiring the ecological circuitry of the Earth. It has scrambled ecosystems and is replacing biodiversity with a pyrodiversity – a bestiary of machines run directly or indirectly from industrial combustion. The velocity and volume of change is so great that observers have begun to speak of a new geologic epoch, a successor to the Pleistocene, that they call the Anthropocene. It might equally be called the Pyrocene. The Earth is shedding its cycle of ice ages for a fire age.

The traditional view of North Dakota, as of the Great Plains generally, divides it into humid east and arid west with the border between them running roughly along the 100th meridian. It’s a division by water but it works for fire as well. It also marks a potential boundary between Pleistocene and Anthropocene. For Pleistocene Dakota, look east to the prairie pothole region. It’s a vestigial landscape of the ice sheets. The retreating ice left a surface dappled and rumpled with kettles, drumlins, eskers, potholes, kames and ridges that slowly smoothed into a terrain of swales and uplands. The swales filled with water. The uplands sprouted tallgrass prairie. Those ponds make the region a vital flyway for North American waterfowl. But keeping the wetlands wet is only half the management issue. The birds nest and feed in the uplands and, being clothed in tallgrass prairie, the uplands flourish best when routinely burned.

Few of these fires start from lightning; the only viable source is people, who followed the retreating ice and set fire to the grasses. Those fires are themselves relics of a bygone epoch. They annually renew the living landscape that succeeded the dead ice. For Anthropocene Dakota, look west to the Bakken constellation. Not only is it a symbol of industrial combustion, but a major source of greenhouse gases and a catalyst for land-use change and all the rest of the upsets and unhingings and scramblings that add up to make the Anthropocene. The flares speak to the extravagance of industrial fire – burning just to burn in order to get more stuff to burn. It’s both a positive feedback and an eerily closed loop that accelerates the process and worsens its consequences. Instead of seasonal waterfowl, vehicles powered by internal combustion engines traverse the landscape ceaselessly.

East and west represent two kinds of fires and two kinds of future for humanity as keeper of the planetary flame. One is a Promethean narrative that speaks of fire as technological power, as something abstracted from its setting, perhaps by violence, certainly as something held in defiance of an existing order. The other is a more primeval narrative in which fire is a companion on our journey and part of a shared stewardship of the living world. Sometime over the past century, we crossed the 100th meridian of Earth history and shed an ice age for a fire age. Landscape flames are yielding to combustion in chambers, and controlled burns, to feral fires. The more we burn, the more the Earth evolves to accept still further burning. It’s a geologic inflection as powerful as the alignment of mountains, seas and planetary wobbles that tilted the Pliocene into the cycle of ice ages that defines the Pleistocene.

“Kija Rangers conduct prescribed ‘cool’ burning in East Kimberley in dry season”

The era of the ice is also our era. We are creatures of the Pleistocene as fully as mastodons and polar bears. Early hominins suffered extinctions along with so many other creatures as the tidal ice rose and fell. But humans found in the firestick an Archimedean fulcrum by which to leverage their will. For tens of millennia we used it within the framework bequeathed by the retreating ice, and for more than a century we have been told that we thrived only in a halcyon age, an interglacial, before the ice must inevitably return. Gradually, however, that lever lengthened until, with industrial fire, we could unhinge even the climate and replace ice (with which we can do little) with fire (with which we can seemingly do everything). We can melt ice sheets. We can define geologic eras. We can, on plumes of flame, leave Earth for other planets. It seems Eiseley was right. We are a flame.”




Stephen J Pyne is an emeritus professor at the school of life sciences at Arizona State University. His latest book is Fire: A Brief History (2019). 

The planet is burning : Have humans have created a Pyrocene?
by Stephen J Pyne

“From the Arctic to the Amazon, from California to Gran Canaria, from Borneo to India to Angola to Australia – the fires seem everywhere. Their smoke obscures subcontinents by day; their lights dapple continents at night, like a Milky Way of flame-stars. Rather than catalogue what is burning, one might more aptly ask: what isn’t? Where flames are not visible, the lights of cities and of gas flares are: combustion via the transubstantiation of coal and oil into electricity. To many observers, they appear as the pilot flames of an advancing apocalypse. Even Greenland is burning.

But the fires we see are only part of our disturbed pyrogeography. Of perhaps equal magnitude is a parallel world of lost, missing and sublimated fires. The landscapes that should have fire and don’t. The marinating of the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. The sites where traditional flame has been replaced by combustion in machines. The Earth’s biota is disintegrating as much by tame fire’s absence as by feral fire’s outbreaks. The scene is not just about the bad burns that trash countrysides and crash into towns; it’s equally about the good fires that have vanished because they are suppressed or no longer lit. Looming over it all is a planetary warming from fossil-fuel combustion that acts as a performance enhancer on all aspects of fire on Earth.

So dire is the picture that some observers argue that the past is irrelevant. We are headed into a no-narrative, no-analogue future. So immense and unimaginable are the coming upheavals that the arc of inherited knowledge that joins us to the past has broken. There is no precedent for what we are about to experience, no means by which to triangulate from accumulated human wisdom into a future unlike anything we have known before. Yet a narrative is possible. Where once there was one kind of fire on Earth, then two, there are now three. That’s the narrative. Between them, they are sculpting a Fire Age equivalent in stature to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. That’s the analogue. Call it the Pyrocene.

The Pleistocene began 2.58 million years ago. Unusually among geologic periods, it is characterised by climate. The Earth cooled and, atop that trend, it repeatedly toggled between frost and thaw, as 40-50 cycles switched between glacial ice and interglacial warmth. Some 90 per cent of the past 900,000 years have been icy. Our current epoch, the Holocene, is one of the interglacial warm spells, and most calculations reckon that the Earth is due – maybe overdue – to swing back to ice. The Little Ice Age (starting somewhere between 1350 and 1550, and ending in 1850) suggests what that transition might look like. The world chilled, winters lengthened, glaciers and ice packs spread, crops failed and famines flourished. The Pleistocene is also the age of humans.Homo appeared near its onset, brachiated into a clad of hominins, and by the end of the last glacial shrank to only one, H sapiens.

The term Ice Age (Eiszeit) was popularised by Louis Agassiz in 1837. The Little Ice Age had expanded Alpine glaciers, and Agassiz realised that he could explain much of what the newly invented science of geology was discovering by extrapolating the realm of ice beyond its mountain niches. Ice sheets had once covered much of North America and northern Eurasia, Greenland and Antarctica; glaciers had spilled down mountains from the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California to the Karakoram Range to Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya; and Arctic and Antarctic oceans were frozen. Vast outwash plains filled with sand and loess. And everything around the ice felt its presence. The mounding ice sucked enough water out of the world ocean to drop sea levels by 100 metres on four occasions, exposing vast swathes of the continental shelves, and so joining Siberia to Alaska, Britain to France, and Australia to Indonesia. Under the crosscut of climate, one of the five great extinctions in geologic history occurred, as alternating bouts of frost and thaw shrank habitats, isolated ecological sanctuaries, and compelled forced-march migrations over and again. Only a handful of megafauna have survived; among the hominins, only one.

How to characterise the interglacial during which we sapients stormed across the globe, pitched cities on Antarctic ice, guided vessels to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, and went off-world? Geologists first named it the Recent, then morphed it into the Holocene, and now debate whether to spin it off as an Anthropocene. Other than the fact that it’s our time, and we are sufficiently special in our own eyes to merit our own era, there is little cause to have split it off from the Pleistocene. The grand conditions that set into motion an Ice Age – the arrangement of mountains, interior seas, continents and oceans, and the suturing of Panama that shut off ocean currents between Atlantic and Pacific – remain unchanged. Above all, the Milankovitch cycles that describe the wobbles, stretches and swings in the Earth’s rotation and orbit around the Sun, and that cause perturbations in the amount of sunlight received, endure unaltered. By the metrics that established the Pleistocene, the Pleistocene persists. Only humanity’s vanity insists on a secessional epoch. The ice will return.

“uneven distribution of worldwide lightning strikes, with color variations indicating average annual number lightning flashes per square kilometer”

Or not. Something seems to have broken the rhythms. That something is us. Or more usefully, among all the assorted ecological wobbles and biotic swerves that humans affect, the sapients negotiated a pact with fire. We created conditions that favoured more fire, and together we have so reworked the planet that we now have remade biotas, begun melting most of the relic ice, turned the atmosphere into a crock pot and the oceans into acid vats, and are sparking a sixth great extinction. If this sounds familiar, as though having passed through a looking glass, it’s because fire has become as much a cause and consequence as ice was before. We’re entering a Fire Age.

All analogies fail, and some become silly, but consider, as a thought experiment, how a Fire Age might compare with an Ice Age. The big difference is that ice is a substance easily seen and fire is a reaction quickly passed. Ice exists in masses; an ice sheet is a plateau of frozen water, glaciers are slow-moving rivers of ice, and outwash plains are swathes of sand and silt from meltwater and wind. By contrast, flame is ephemeral; its evidence lies primarily in its effects on the living landscape. Instead of ice sheets, glaciers and periglacial environments adjacent to the ice, a Pyrocene manifests itself with fire-informed biotas, fire-starved biotas, hot spots where fire is the dominant energy source, peripyric landscapes where humans equipped with pyrotechnologies have reshaped the scene, and of course a warming atmosphere and unhinged climate that passes over the planet. Nothing on Earth would be unaffected – certainly not the planet’s keystone species for fire, ourselves.

Let’s put details to the analogues. The Pleistocene had its hemispheric ice sheets, its pluvial lakes, its glaciers, its periglacial terrains that constituted second-order ice effects. What would be the equivalent for the Pyrocene? The great steppes, savannas and prairies that, stripped of fires, soon overgrow with trees; boreal forests routinely overturned and renewed by flame; fynbos heathland and Mediterranean shrublands – these are analogues of ice sheets. Montane forests and grassy woodlands no longer subject to regular fire and so transfiguring into woody jungles could be the echo of pluvial lakes. Cities and biotic patches such as pitch pine-oak resemble ice caps and glaciers. And for peripyric landscapes, think Cerrado, moor, rainforest, temperate forest converted to fire-catalysed agriculture, or the outwash plains of smoke or even electrical blackouts.

And then consider the ways in which the rhythms of fire engines are replacing the Milankovitch pacemaker. The Milankovitch rhythms acted as a rheostat that modulated the swings into and out of ice. The wholesale combustion of fossil biomass is similarly recalibrating the Earth’s climate and redefining how people in the developed world live on the land. By burning fuels from deep time, we are redefining the options available for generations to come. We are taking carbon from lithic landscapes of coal and petroleum buried in the geologic past, passing it through today’s living landscapes, and releasing it into the geologic future. Little of the planet is unaffected.

It’s not that Earth will go up in flames – it won’t, any more than Pleistocene ice plated the entire planet. Most of the effects will be indirect; a good deal of what fire does is catalyse other processes; it’s the ultimate interactive technology. It’s that the pact between humanity and fire is reshaping the planet as thoroughly as ice had before. Our combustion habits are driving out the last surface expressions of Pleistocene ice, save in refugia such as Antarctica, and even opening up buried reservoirs such as organic-rich permafrost. In the process, the oceans are rising, the climatic frames for life are rapidly deforming, and a wave of extinction is rippling over the planet. An ice-informed Pleistocene is yielding to a fire-informed Pyrocene. As an idea, the Pyrocene gives us a usable narrative, a crisp analogy, and a new way to imagine our fast-morphing world. It furnishes the historical continuity that Cassandras of a climate-addled Anthropocene prophesise the future will lack. Our fire habits are the weld that binds past with future.

The process by which the Pyrocene has been created didn’t begin with coal-fired engines. It began with aboriginal peoples burning to keep grasslands, shrublands and woodlands open, which stalled carbon-sequestering forests from overrunning them. Through successive iterations, the firestick morphed into an Archimedean lever by which to move the planet. It ratcheted up with agriculture, especially where forests were cleared and peatlands slashed and burned, and where wet-rice paddies and livestock pumped out new volumes of methane. The spread of agriculture aligned roughly with the stabilisation of the global climate. Curiously, the onset of the Little Ice Age might have responded to the mass die-offs of Indigenous peoples in the Americas and to the plagues that emptied much of Eurasia, which allowed forests to spread widely, partly resetting the historic cycle in which global refreezing would follow a thaw. The Little Ice Age receded when forests were recleared and fossil fuels began to measurably boost greenhouse gases. With the shift to coal, the engines of the Pyrocene got afterburners. This time, however, there was no check on the process.

The ice ages obeyed grand geophysical forces. As ice retreated, biotas advanced, storing carbon, interacting with the wobbles and swaying of sunlight, and thus encouraging the next round of ice. Fire-wielding humans seem to have disrupted the process, keeping global temperatures higher than the historic rhythms would have predicted. Still, there were limits to human-enabled burning. Burn too much, too quickly, and living landscape cannot recover, and the fires ebb. Once humans started burning fire’s lithic landscapes – fossil fuels – there seemed to be no such limits. Fuels were essentially unbounded, and they can be fired without regard to such ancient ecological barriers and baffles as seasons and sunshine, wet and dry spells, winds and terrain, the combustion character of grasses and woods. The ancient quest for fire had been a search for new stuff to burn. Today’s crisis is what to do with all the effluent. The sources have overwhelmed the sinks. There is nothing to stop the burning except human will. But while we have rewired the Earth’s energy system, we have not rewritten the operating manual. Instead, fire sparks more fire.

All fires take apart what photosynthesis puts together. But not all fires behave the same way. Three fires now exist, and they interact in a kind of three-body dynamic. The first fire is nature’s. It has existed since plants first colonised continents. It can be lumpy in space and time; it depends on lightning’s lottery to kindle suitable fuels. The second fire is humanity’s. It’s what humans have done as they moved from cooking food to cooking landscapes, and because it feeds on the same grasses, shrubs and woods as first-fire, the two fires compete for fuels: what one burns the other can’t, and neither can break beyond the ecological boundaries set by their biotic matrix. Second-fire can extend the domain and timing of burning – can recode the patches and pulses of fire on living landscapes. Third-fire transcends the others. It burns fossil biomass, a fuel which is outside the biotic box of the living world. Where third-fire flourishes, the others don’t, or can burn only in special preserves or as genuinely wild breakouts. After a period of transition, third-fire erases the others, leaving ecological messes behind. Because it doesn’t burn living landscapes, those combustibles grow and pile up and create conditions for more damaging burns; because it isn’t in a biotic box, its smoke can overwhelm local airsheds and its emissions can clog the global atmosphere.

Third-fire doesn’t play well with the others. Wherever it and second-fire meet, it substitutes for or suppresses flame. This is especially so in the built environment. Electric lights replace candles; heat pumps, propane heaters and fuel-oil furnaces substitute for open hearths; electric or propane stoves supplant fires and wood-burning stoves. Except for ceremonial purposes such as birthday candles or candle-lit dinners, open flame disappears. The same occurs in factories and offices. The substitution of third-fire for second-fire spread to agriculture. Tractors fed by diesel shove aside oxen and mules fed on grains grown on fire-renewed fallow; herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilisers replace the fertilising and fumigating effects of fire. Contrary to European agronomic thinking, fallow is not a superstitious practice worsened by then burning the rested fields; the ecological jolt of fire is the purpose.

Since fire needs fuel, in an agricultural system that means growing it, which is the function of fallowing. Now, fossil fallow serves that role. It supplies a stored surplus that we can burn to enrich fields indirectly and avoid setting part of the agricultural landscape temporarily aside. The mosaic created by fallowing held most of a rural landscape’s biodiversity. Fallowed fields, hedgerows, woodlots – such sites dappled agricultural lands with a kaleidoscope of habitats. In abolishing the practice, third-fire demanded that people invent an alternative place for biodiversity in the form of nature reserves. Initially, this meant eliminating open flame in the preserves as well. Yet suppressing fire, or even attempting to remove it, from places accustomed to it can profoundly disrupt ecosystems. Eventually fire will return; the issue is whether it happens deliberately through controlled burns or through wildfires. But fire there will be.

Paradoxically, ours has become a great era for first-fire and for second-fire gone feral. The loser is traditional second-fire, the primary means by which humans have over tens of millennia crafted a working habitat. Wildfire, machined fire – these dominate the developed world. The developing world is transitioning to third-fire as speedily as possible. Even without climate change, third-fire has scrambled the Earth’s pyrogeography. It has created a damaging deficit of fire in living landscapes and a corrosive surplus of combustion from lithic ones. The three fires we see today – nature’s; those fires that people set in living landscapes; and those burning lithic landscapes – are competing and colluding in weird ways. The polar bear on a shrinking ice floe has become an iconic image of climate change stoked by fossil-fuel combustion. But the bears spend part of their lives on land for denning and birthing. On the western shores of Hudson Bay, wildfires are thawing the permafrost that overlies the dens, causing them to collapse. On land and sea, the bears are caught between three fires.

So are we. The 2016 fire that burned Fort McMurray in Alberta roared out of the wildlands to slam into a city maintained by fossil fuels – in fact, created to mine tar sands. The prevailing images are of refugees fleeing by car, and of cars melted on their driveways. The fires that burned into Gatlinburg in Tennessee (2016) and that incinerated almost all of Paradise in California (2018) started from powerlines. So did most of the bushfires that savaged the Australian state of Victoria on Black Saturday (2009); of the 173 people killed, 162 died from fires set by powerlines traversing the landscape from the Hazelwood powerplant which burned brown coal that made it, until it was finally decommissioned, the greatest single source of Australia’s greenhouse gases. Eventually, the open mine itself caught fire.

It is not just that town and countryside meet like matter and antimatter. It’s that the source of ignition often comes when lines of power cross both worlds and when the landscapes can burn with a savagery beyond their natural order because third-fire has changed how people interact with them. It isn’t just that third-fire has unmoored the climate, it’s that it fundamentally shapes how we live on the land – how we get around, how and where we grow food, what kinds of housing we prefer, whether the countryside is rural or wild, how we get and use power. Those melted cars in the driveways of Fort Mac and Paradise are the pyric doubles of the bears at the burning garbage dump at Churchill. The bears are not alone.

There is a tendency in Western thought to identify a single grand cause or theory for whatever catches the imagination. It is an inclination so recurrent that it seems to emanate from cultural DNA, perhaps a secularisation of Judeo-Christian theology. We like to prune and push and probe until we have identified a sole, jealous motive that binds all and will have no other purpose before it. So, while fire seems to appear everywhere as a cause for our unsettled future, a consequence of our past habits, and a catalyst for our present condition, it is not everything, nor does everything point to it. But granting it an organising role in history can allow many of humanity’s actions to come together thematically. We hold over fire a species monopoly, after all. Our fires uniquely trace our ecological agency. Fire is not all, but not much that humanity touches is untouched by it.

What do we get by the notion of a Pyrocene? We can track a chronicle of fire that traces back to the earliest plants on land. We get a narrative that stretches back to our origins as a species. We can see how a recourse to fossil-fuel combustion evolved – the initial steam engines, after all, burned wood. We can shift away from the clotted discourse over climate change since climate history has now become a subtheme of fire history. We can understand better how the three fires interact, and where we can intervene usefully to prevent bad fires and promote good ones. We get a vivid mental image of how and why our world looks as it does. We can even appreciate the paradoxes of our fire power.

Between ice and fire, ice is the more terrible. It obliterates what it mounds over; it crushes and drives off life. By contrast, fire is a creation of the living world: life gave it oxygen and fuel and, with people, ignition. Its fundamental chemistry is a biochemistry that takes apart what photosynthesis puts together. It cannot exist without life. We can manipulate fire, directly and indirectly. We can’t ice. We survive ice by leaving. We survive fire by living with it. If at times it seems our worst enemy, it is also our best friend. We can’t thrive without it. Left to itself, it seems the Earth would slowly spin into another glacial epoch. It might be that only our fire habits, however inadvertently, however much entangled in the unsavoury bond that joins us to fossil-fuel combustion, are preventing a planetary winter from returning. That imperative has passed. We need to shut down as quickly as possible our binge-burning of fossil biomass and clean up as much of the mess as we can. A full-blown Fire Age will not be a pretty picture. If we want to survive it, we’ll have to renegotiate the Faustian bargain with fire that gave us big heads and small guts, and then took us to the top of the food chain.

But that is not the end of our role as the Earth’s keystone species for fire. We had a fire crisis before climate segued clearly out of past norms. In the 1960s and ’70s, the United States, for example, underwent a revolution in fire policy to reinstate flame, not just to prevent bad fires but to promote good ones. We needed to renegotiate the balance between first-fire and second-fire, and that meant a lot more burning in living landscapes. It might mean perhaps an order of magnitude more fire on the land than we have now. It means letting more of nature’s fires burn. It means setting lots of fires to tweak biotas into more habitable forms. It means getting passably good fires now to help buffer against the worst fires sure to come. It means widespread burning. Endless burning. Burning in perpetuity.

Third-fire upsets the choreography between natural and anthropogenic fire directly by competing with second-fire and indirectly by altering the climate. Even if fossil-fuel burning and its legacy vanished overnight, we would still have deep obligations to get fire right in living landscapes. The consequences of our effluent-gagged atmosphere will linger for decades, perhaps centuries into a deep future. But as we ratchet third-fire down, we need to ratchet second-fire up. Third-fire adds to Earth’s carbon load. First-fire and second-fire recycle what exists. Still, fire’s three-body problem will persist. Unless the Milankovitch cycles dim and the oceans and continents abruptly rearrange themselves, the cold will remain camped outside the gates, waiting for a crack that it can wedge into another ice age. At some point in the future, we will have to rekindle third-fire. For a few generations, it needs to remain in the ground as fossil fallow. Then we will see if our fire powers will destroy or save us. Our history has been a story of how we and fire have co-evolved. The same holds for our future.”




Leave a Reply