How we view fire will influence how we manage it. We used to consider fire physics. But, fire may be a biological phenomenon, much like a virus.
What is fire? Fire is usually defined as the physical chemistry that causes combustion. This definition is important because it dictates how we view fire and what we do. If fire is a chemical reaction that is shaped by its environment, then it can be deconstructed into its components. Fuel plus oxygen plus spark equals fire. We can harness it and put it into machines to contain it. Another perspective might be that fire results from life – biological processes create the oxygen and furnish the fuel. What plants have created through photosynthesis is broken down by fire. Fire’s chemistry therefore is biochemistry.
Fire is dependent on the living world for its survival and can facilitate a wide range of ecological effects. Perhaps fire is not as much a Bunsen burner as it is a virus. It is not alive but it is dependent on life. It spreads like a contagion. Fire is often referred to as a natural disaster. It may more closely resemble COVID-19 than a hurricane. It responds to biological conditions, not physical ones, if so. The fire-as biology analogy is quite robust. It was more like tool-making than domestication that fire was when the ancestors of modern humans first captured it. Tamed fire is more of a sheepdog and a torch than a torch. It is difficult to imagine fire in purely physical terms. Fire rarely receives metaphors. Fire is elemental fire: Other phenomena are not compared to it. A wildfire spreads plague like a wildfire. Wildfire spreads like a plague, but we don’t hear it. Where urban spaces meet the bush – the built environment most vulnerable to burning – protective strategies are similar for wildfire as for COVID. Clearing out combustibles from structures is similar to social distancing. Sealing houses against direct contact and embers is like wearing masks to protect against aerosols and washing your hands. Building firebreaks against the spread – isolating the infected. Shed immunity can be achieved by having enough buildings to protect against the spread of the virus. Fire plagues are caused by a breakdown in the way people and nature interact. Like many viruses, fire plagues are born from unbalanced environments where natural resources intersect with human interference. Wildfires are not wild, but feral.
Although it is possible to think about fire in terms of its physical manifestations, it does not explain how to stop a fire from blowing and going. A strategy to live with fire would repair the ecological fractures that fire feeds and create controlled fire for the wild. A biological strategy for fighting fire could respond to an outbreak with physical counterfire and analogs of public health measures such as vaccines, quarantines, or disease-specific treatments.
Many fires occur in the undeveloped world. In fact, large-scale land-converting fires have become a hallmark of developing countries (e.g. Brazil and Indonesia). Uncontrolled conflagrations, however, are a common problem in the developed world.
Rich countries that are most committed in understanding fire, deconstructing it into simple combustion, and putting it into machines, are the ones with the lowest fire ecology, have the highest levels of fuel accumulation, and contribute most to climate changes. Earth was first exposed to fire in the early days of plant colonization. Fire and early life on Earth evolved together – call it first nature. The ability to control fire was then inherited by our ancestors. Early humans had bigger brains and smaller digestive system because they learned how to cook their food. This second fire was the catalyst that created a second nature.
It was a system with internal checks and balances, since the burning was contained in living landscapes. Ever looking for more stuff to burn, people turned to lithic landscapes – once living, now fossilized plants – coal and oil. These were burned in special combustion chambers and had no ecological buffers or buffers. They could burn all year round, wet or dry, and could be lit even at night.
The dominance and practice of the physical model in science and medicine led to the emergence of the third fire. This unbounded combustion is causing the climate to become unsustainable, acidifying the oceans, and forcing living environments to reorganize. This third fire is remaking our planet. It is being fueled by fossil-fuel societies that subliminate fire into electricity, replace animals with machines, and rewire geochemical cycles with plastics, petrochemicals, and are generating new energy. The third fire was a challenge to the first two. Fossil fuel burning offered a source of heat, light and other energy. It powers machines that suppress the flame. It creates landscapes like cities and farms that prevent free-burning flame. After a brief grace period, all three fires began to collide. It’s almost as if the world from the ice ages has been seen through a looking glass. Ice is being replaced by fire. Fire-catalyzed changes are eradicating the traces of ice everywhere they go. Instead of huge ice sheets, there is fire-shaped ecosystems. Sea level is rising. Mass extinction is on the horizon. The geological record is now containing the signature of humanity, long inked with charcoal and now inscribed in plastic. A fire age is replacing the ice age. The Earth has too much bad and too little good fires and too much burning overall. This is an effect of human nature and how we think about fire. It’s been treated as a physical phenomenon that we can separate from everything else, much like an ax in a factory farm or harness in a harness. It is not a process interwoven with living landscapes and a companion on the journey. Fire may be our ecological signature but it is not ours. Its power comes with obligations. Definitions, it seems to me, matter.
(This story is not edited by Devdiscourse staff.