Commentary: California wildfires signal arrival of a planetary fire age

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Society has organised itself around burning fossil fuels, ignoring the fire latent in living biomass, says an observer.

Even without climate change, a serious fire problem would exist. US land agencies reformed policies to reinstate good fire 40 to 50 years ago, but outside a few locales, it has not been achievable at scale.In effect, once released, the lithic overlies the living and the two different kinds of burning interact in ways that sometimes compete and sometimes collude.

Sometimes it confronts a sharp curve called climate change. Sometimes it’s a tricky intersection where townscape and countryside meet. Sometimes it’s road hazards left from past accidents, like logging slash, invasive grasses or postburn environments. That set into motion a “pyric transition” that resembles the demographic transition which accompanies industrialisation as human populations first expand, then recede. Something similar happens with the population of fires, as new ignition sources and fuels become available while old ones persist.In the US, the transition sparked a wave of monster fires that rode the rails of settlement – fires an order of magnitude larger and more lethal than those of recent decades.

Meanwhile, society reorganised itself around fossil fuels, adapting to the combustion of lithic landscapes and ignoring the fire latent in living ones.Now the sources overload the sinks: Too much fossil biomass is burned to be absorbed within ancient ecological bounds. Fuels in the living landscape pile up and rearrange themselves. The climate is unhinged. When flame returns, as it must, it comes as wildfire.

In the developed world, industrial combustion arranges agriculture, built environments, peri-urban settings and reserves for wildlands – all the stuff available for landscape fire. Societies even fight landscape fire with the counterforce of industrial fire in the form of pumps, engines, aircraft and vehicles to haul crews.The interaction of the two realms of fire determines not only what gets burned, but also what needs to be burned and isn’t. It changes the road fire drives down.

 

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