Did you know that Earth has a pyroscape? Well, it does, and that’s changing too.

There are a lot of terms used to describe aspects of our planet. “Ecosystem” is a generally familiar one, and any minecraft players will be familiar with the concept of biomes. “Pyroscape” was one that I hadn’t encountered, but if you think about it for a second, it makes perfect sense. Fires have always been a part of life on Earth, so it stands to reason that there would be a “natural” pattern for fires over time – one that can be traced and analyzed, as Daniel Immerwahr writes:

Fire flourishes where life does, and the two depend on each other. There are pyrophilous (“fire-loving”) plants and animals that organise their lives around fire, such as the beetles that lay eggs in burned trees or pine cones that need flames to release their seeds. More than individual species, whole ecosystems depend on fire to clear space. In many habitats, fire is “as fundamental to sustaining plants and animals” as sun and rain are, a 2005 scientific survey found.

The most successful pyrophilous species is Homo sapiens. Early humans used fire for light, warmth, social gatherings and protection from predators. Fire lets us absorb nutrients quickly through cooking, rather than spending hours chewing every day as our primate cousins do. Chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas all eat raw food, and they all have much smaller brains. The caloric boost of cooking underwrites our large, resource-heavy brains. Simply put: no fire, no us.

No us in an evolutionary sense, and no us in a historical one, too. Every known human society has used fire. Our ancestors didn’t just dispel darkness and prepare food with it, they shaped their environments: repelling pests, flushing out game and making clearings. With spears, they could hunt individual animals; with firesticks, they could alter whole landscapes.

The article is a deep dive into the history of fire on Earth, and as in integral part of who we are as humans. I think it’s a useful perspective to have, given all the news about massive wildfires, and the less sensational discussions about the importance of things like deliberately setting seasonal fires as part of ecosystem management. I also think the historical perspective is important, because climate change has once again given us a rather counterintuitive scenario: Between 1998 and 2015, the total amount of land on fire in any given year decreased by a quarter, and this is not a good thing.

 The main reason fires are dwindling is that humanity is expanding. Sprawling settlements and industrial farms act as firebreaks in the savannas of South America and Africa and the grasslands of the Asian steppe. Livestock consume vegetation that otherwise might feed big burns. “A shift toward more capital-intensive agriculture has led to fewer and smaller fires,” the authors of the 2017 Science study concluded. And that decrease – especially in flame-reliant landscapes in sub-Saharan Africa and northern Australia – outweighs the uptick in headline-grabbing megafires.

It might seem that extinguishing wildfires has made the world safer. But what it has really done is made the fires stranger. Where flame grows rare, biomass that would normally have regularly burned instead piles up as kindling. Decades of fire suppression is enough to build timebombs, and the supercharged blazes that do break out are more severe and harder to control. This is what the US now experiences every year: overall, the number of its fires is shrinking, while their size and the cost of fighting them are growing.

I’ve talked before about the need to engage in active ecosystem management, and I think it’s fair to say that there’s a degree to which all of our current environmental problems come from us abandoning ecosystem management, in favor of a more adversarial relationship with the ecosystems that support us. Since there’s apparently been some confusion among my readers, let me be clear – I think that our only way out of the current crisis is forward, not back. I think we need to embrace technology as a part of who we are, rather than a way to make money or exert power. I also think that we need to pick up some “pre-industrial” practices like deliberate ecosystem management, and integrate those into how we live. We’re not separate from the rest of life on this planet, so we need to stop acting like it before we destroy ourselves.

That said, as terrifying as the “mega-fires” of recent years have been, relatively few people are actually killed by the flames. Far, far more die due to fire’s contribution to the ever-present companion to climate change: air pollution. Immerwahr continues:

It’s not that fires are harmless. It’s rather that the ways they harm people aren’t the ways that come most readily to mind. Unless you’re a firefighter, you’re extremely unlikely to die in a big blaze. But you might shave years off your life by inhaling the particulates and chemicals that fires release.

The death toll from wildfire smoke is enormous: 339,000 die a year from such smoke-related maladies as strokes, heart failure and asthma, according to the Australian public health scientist Fay Johnston and her fellow researchers. A few die in the affluent places known for their telegenic fires, such as North America and southern Australia (more than 400 from Australia’s 2019–20 Black Summer, Johnston and her colleagues have estimated). But the vast majority die in poorer places, where fires are smaller, yet chronic: sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia.

What’s more, fires are burning in new places, thanks to both climate change, and more direct human intervention. In both Southeast Asia, and in the Arctic circle, fires are now burning massive reservoirs of plant matter like peat, releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere, driving up the temperature, and hey look it’s another feedback loop!

Immerwahr is right to point out that for all a towering inferno captures our attention, the danger of climate change is not death by fire. The reality will be far more drawn out. I think we have a grim few decades ahead of us, but the fact that this is a slow process, by human terms, means that there’s a lot we can do to change course and improve our future, if we can build the political power to do so.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at patreon.com/oceanoxia. Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month (that’s like three pennies a day!) ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to some of the fiction and some other content.


  1. StevoR says

    Wasn’t familiar with the ‘Pyroscape’ term before but it makes sense.

    I guess you are already aware of the key role played by so-called “fire-stick farming” done for many tens of millennia by Australia’s First Peoples shaped the Aussie Bush ecology? :


    Even making the first European explorers think of and describe the lands they were “discovering” as being like a well cultivated European parkland albeit with, to them, strange Australian flora and fauna :


    Which has, of course, now been massively changed and things made worse by the European invasion and colonisation of Country. However, it isn’t entirely a lot art and an aspect of Indigenous culture that non-Indigenous Aussies now are increasingly coming to appreciate, value and think of re-establishing at least in more scientifically and environmentally aware quarters* :


    * Not implying literally 1/4 or more of populcae or the housing sense of the word.

  2. planter says

    @1 Your comments are spot on. In central North America it is exactly the same situation. Indigenous peoples used fire for many purposes including to manage bison movement.

    If you have a few hours, I would highly recommend this CBC podcast examining the the issues at the human – fire interface from all sides. https://www.cbc.ca/listen/cbc-podcasts/422-world-on-fire

    I sometimes work with conservation agencies trying to reintroduce fire. It can be challenging to get ranchers who have been taught all their lives that fire is a destructive force, to accept that sometimes the best thing for a grassland is to deliberately use fire.

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