‘What Australia Needs Is More Fires, But the Right Kind’

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American fire expert Stephen Pyne says that humans have lost their relationship to fire. In an interview, he discusses the lessons that can be learned from Australia.

Interview Conducted by Johann Grolle

DER SPIEGEL: Professor Pyne, Australia is on fire. What do the images in the news mean for you as a fire historian? Do you see it as a catastrophe of historic proportions or just a series of major fires of the kind Australia has known for centuries?

Pyne: Australia is a continent of fire. Almost every part of the country has been burning for tens of thousands of years. And yet what we are currently experiencing is extraordinary. Over the past 20 years, the fires have become more frequent, more violent and longer lasting.

DER SPIEGEL: Are there any specific examples to illustrate the change?

Pyne: Two fire episodes embody the contemporary situation: On the one hand, there was “Black Saturday,” a day in 2009 when fires raged with horrific vehemence north of Melbourne, killing 173 people. It was more than a tragedy, it was a trauma for Australia. Many people felt it was like a terrorist attack directed against them by their own land. And then there are the present fires. What’s special about them is that they’re so pervasive and so persistent. They burn and burn and burn. Usually a big fire takes days, this time it is taking months. This year’s fires started before the normal fire season, and they will probably not stop until there is enough rain.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you explain the extraordinary severity of such fires?

Pyne: For more than a year, Australia has been suffering a severe drought, and has recently experienced record temperatures. This facilitates both kinds of fires: the nasty-explosive ones and the permanent-inextinguishable ones.

DER SPIEGEL: Whose fault is it? Arsonists? Climate change? Mismanagement?

Pyne: If it was only that simple! Some people are using the fires to strengthen their climate change agenda, others prefer to blame arson. This helps distract from systemic problems. It’s about climate change, but also the way people live in such landscapes. About their power supply, their agriculture, their settlements …

DER SPIEGEL: That means that these fires could have been prevented?

Pyne: Prevented, no. Altered, yes. The controversy is how to affect the bad fires in smart ways. Australia has a long-standing debate about how much deliberate burning people should do to reduce fuels, but also to promote ecological integrity, and more recently for cultural reasons. There are, of course, people who see no reason for fire. The whole subject remains controversial. After World War II, Australian foresters switched to a strategy of large-scale, prescribed burning. But then, unfortunately, controlled burning fell into disrepute.

DER SPIEGEL: Why?

Pyne: Many reasons. It was a rural practice, and Australia was becoming more urban. Forestry was challenged by ecology. The controlled fires were propagated for “hazard reduction,” which reduced the landscape to mere fuel, a viewpoint many critics didn’t like. They were interested in seeing Australia’s unique fauna and flora, kangaroos and koalas, in more pristine nature. Torching it all in the name of safety challenged those values. So Australia has struggled to find the right mix of firefighting and fire lighting. Americans face the same issues, but here, it was environmentalists who argued for deliberate burning. Besides, fire is so vivid that there is always a certain amount of political theater.

DER SPIEGEL: Will an inferno of the kind Australia is currently experiencing change politics ?

Pyne: It might. I hope it does. But it will have to happen quickly. Even after Black Saturday, there were expectations that it would be a lasting shock for the country, but the fundamentals didn’t seem to change. I give the Australians six months to act, maybe a year. Because politics are similar to slash-and-burn agriculture: You can plant in the ashes, but if you wait too long, it will be too late.

DER SPIEGEL: You said earlier that Australia is a continent of fire. What did you mean by that?

Pyne: Australia has been exposed to fires for millions of years, and its flora and fauna is well adapted to them.

DER SPIEGEL: What kind of adaptations?

Pyne: Oh, there are plenty. There are shrubs that seal their seeds with wax – which then melts in fire so that the seeds fall into a freshly prepared ash bed. The only documented case of a non-human species using fire also comes from Australia. Raptors in northern Australia have been seen picking up burning branches to set fires elsewhere to expose their prey.

DER SPIEGEL: The ongoing rescue operations for koalas raise some doubts that they are well adapted to fire.

Pyne: Koalas normally live in the treetops, where they can survive fires spreading on the ground. But it’s true: They are unfit for intensive fires that reach all the way up into the treetops and spread over vast areas.

DER SPIEGEL: Some environmentalists fear that some species could go extinct as a result of the fires.

Pyne: It’s too early to know for sure. The numbers you hear are staggering, but are they true? It may be many weeks before the smoke clears enough to find out for sure.

DER SPIEGEL: What roles do Aborigines play in Australia’s history of fire?

Pyne: It’s a key role. Evidence suggests that they burned the landscape for 50,000 years after humans first found their way to Australia. These fires resulted in a new equilibrium. But when the arrival of the Europeans caused the Aboriginal population to collapse, this equilibrium was thrown off. Among the many changes, woody vegetation increased in some places, which provided more fuel for the flames. That shifted the system towards larger, more intense fires. In a landscape dominated by Aborigines, there would be more charred areas, but fewer intense fires. What Australia needs is more fires, but of the right kind. We see too many bad fires, and too few good ones.

DER SPIEGEL: The Aborigines were hunter-gatherers. Why did they start fires?

Pyne: There were many reasons. The fire forced prey out into the open and exposed the nesting places of lizards. It also allowed humans access to certain tubers. Beyond that, there was also the concept that the land had to be cleaned: If it is overgrown and full of debris, it was an indication that you don’t care well for your land.

DER SPIEGEL: Hunters and gatherers felt obliged to care for their territory?

Pyne: Absolutely. Some early observers considered them to be vandals, not caring what their fires did. But if that were true, they couldn’t have survived.

DER SPIEGEL: This means that even if politics were to decide to restore the landscape to its original state, it is not at all clear what “original” actually means. Should it resemble the world before humans arrived, or after?

Pyne: Well, what is “natural”? The answer is a question for philosophers. There hasn’t been wilderness in Australia for 50,000 years. The Australian archeologist Rhys Jones coined the wonderful term “firestick farming” to describe the way Aborigines used fire in a way similar to horticulture.

DER SPIEGEL: You refer to humans as this planet’s “fire creature.” Do you believe it was the alliance with fire that made us true humans?

Pyne: That’s a big question. But there actually is an argument that the answer is yes. Cooking, for example, seems to have been crucial. It increased caloric intake, it opened up new sources of food and it facilitated digestion. Some studies suggest that we could not even live on raw food alone. I am fascinated by this idea, because it would mean that fire is written into our genome

DER SPIEGEL: What about our psyche. Was it also formed by fire?

Pyne: I don’t know whether I’d go that far. We are certainly drawn to fire. The campfire, the hearth – this is where people gather and create stories and exchange ideas and learn. Fire is not simply a tool, it’s a relationship. Tending fire may be our first act of domestication.

DER SPIEGEL: Can the history of fire also be traced through myths and legends?

Pyne: It seems to me that there are two great narratives of fire. One of them is represented by the story of Prometheus. It is about fire as a power. Fire is stolen, ripped out of its natural context and then redesigned by man to increase his sphere of power. In the other story, fire is a companion. Our task is to carry it, to guard it and to care for it. I think we have too much of the first, the Promethean fire, and too little of the second, which I call the primeval.

DER SPIEGEL: About 10,000 years ago, man invented agriculture. How did that change our relationship to fire?

Pyne: Agriculture has extended the habitat of fire. Humans learned to grow fuel that would not have existed under natural conditions. They cut and dried undergrowth and they drained wetlands, exposing combustible material. On the other hand, fire also increased the habitat of humanity. It opened up places where we could not have lived without fire.

DER SPIEGEL: Wherever man tilled the field, fire was involved?

Pyne: Almost. Fire fertilizes and rejuvenates the soil. In floodplains, water can do the job. But in the vast majority of places, it requires fire.

DER SPIEGEL: Today, the connection between agriculture and fire seems to have been lost.

Pyne: Yes, it’s a legacy of industrialization. Today, fertilizers and pesticides do the work that fire once did. In the cities, there has been an even more radical shift away from open fires. A building like this one would once have been full of candles, full of hearths and fireplaces. All that has disappeared. Fire has been banned from our modern, urban world. We have smoke detectors and sprinklers, evacuation plans and fire safety officers, and all materials have been tested for fire resistance. But the fire itself is gone.

DER SPIEGEL: Because today we consider it a hazard rather than an ally?

Pyne: Exactly. What is interesting is how that same attitude was applied to landscapes. European agronomists and foresters clearly stated: If you use fire, you are primitive. You had to find an alternative to fire to be considered modern and rational. That’s how fire became a victim of the Enlightenment. My favorite example is that of Carl von Linné, the great Swedish taxonomist. In the middle of the 18th century, he wrote a report for the king in which he described the practice of pastoral burning in his home province of Småland. The Ministry of Agriculture forced him to delete the passage and he was forbidden from mentioning fire at all. Instead, he had to include a passage about the blessings of cow manure.

DER SPIEGEL: But wasn’t outlawing fire also a form of progress at a time when entire cities could go up in flames?

Pyne: Certainly, fire is also a hazard. It belongs in some places and not in others. The big problem is that Europeans have been very successful in exporting their restrictive fire policy throughout the world. Now, Central Europe is a region where fire has no natural habitat. There is no pronounced cycle of rain and drought. That’s why fire is almost exclusively found in culturally formed landscapes. In such a setting, strict control of fire may make sense. But to transfer such a philosophy to Africa, the U.S. or even Australia is complete nonsense. But Europe set the standards, which was a disaster for forestry.

DER SPIEGEL: Fire also has a romantic component. The campfire is the epitome of community while candles and the fireplace stand for coziness. Will we lose all that, too?

Pyne: I’m afraid we will. The family was once defined as the community of those who share a hearth. Today, people gather in front of the digital entertainment center. For me, it’s not the same.

DER SPIEGEL: In your “biography” of fire, the natural and the anthropogenic fire are followed by a “third fire.” What do you mean by this?

Pyne: That’s the industrial fire. Natural and anthropogenic fires have in common that they burn in a common, living landscape. Both fit into an ecological framework. But when you start burning fossil fuels, there are no limits. Industry creates fires that burn day and night, in summer and in winter, rain or shine. Combustion in an engine, in a power station or in a blast furnace is free of any biological context. It has no ecological boundaries.

DER SPIEGEL: So, step by step, the “second fire” is disappearing from our world and being replaced by the “third fire”?

Pyne: That’s right. Let me give you an example: When I was young, we used to burn our lawn in Phoenix on a regular basis. It took five minutes, no big deal, all our neighbors did the same. Today, doing so is forbidden. I rent a dethatching machine, which I have to pick up in a fossil-fueled car and fill it with gasoline so that it collects all the dry grass that we would otherwise just have torched. I then fill this dry grass into plastic bags, which are picked up by a fossil-fueled garbage truck and delivered to the landfill, where it decomposes to methane. So direct burning is forbidden, while burning all the many fuels on the way to disposal is OK. Isn’t that perverse?

DER SPIEGEL: Particularly when you consider what greenhouse gases do once they enter the atmosphere.

Pyne: Right. Once it was all about finding stuff to burn. Now, it’s about where to put the stuff that’s produced by burning. That’s the very question that’s at the heart of global warming, as well as ocean acidification.

DER SPIEGEL: How does climate change then affect fire? Will we see more fires in the future like the ones we are now seeing in Australia?

Pyne: The world won’t turn into Australia. But it seems pretty clear to me that those regions of the earth that are prone to fire will be exposed to more large and nastier fires. And those areas that are only partially prone to fires will become more fire-prone. We are at the point where we are triggering the equivalent of an ice age, only now fire is taking over the role of ice. I’ve called it the Pyrocene.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you talking about the future here, or has the Pyrocene already begun?

Pyne: Both. I first imagined the Pyrocene as a metaphor. Now I see it as an operational concept that accompanies the grand saga of fire on Earth. A narrative of ice and fire, from Pleistocene to Pyrocene. We have long changed the world with fire, but with industrialization, our firepower is unhinging the planet.

DER SPIEGEL: And what will be the role of fire in the future?

Pyne: The future is about how fires in living landscapes interact with fires from lithic ones, as I like to call the combustion of fossil fuels. We need to extinguish the Third Fire as quickly as possible while, paradoxically, significantly increasing the good fires in living landscapes. Fire really is our best friend and our worst enemy.

DER SPIEGEL: Professor Pyne, thank you very much for this interview.

Der Spiegel

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