October 4, 2022

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From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Stephen Pyne : Human fire transformed the ice ages to the Pyrocene

7 min read
Stephen Pyne reminded OSU's Spring Creek Project Feb. 22: "There was a reason Prometheus was chained."

Stephen Pyne reminded OSU's Spring Creek Project Feb. 22: "There was a reason Prometheus was chained."

Stephen Pyne: The quest for fire for humanity has always been finding new things to burn and new ways to burn it.

[00:00:05] John Q: OSU’s Spring Creek Project hosted Stephen Pyne on February 22nd. The renowned writer on humans and fire says we’re in the third age of fire on the planet earth.

[00:00:15] Stephen Pyne: One is the fire from nature; been around for 400 million years plus, creating what we might call First Nature.

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[00:00:22] Around the world, people made a kind of Second Nature. That’s an old concept, that people had taken what raw nature presented and through their artifice and imagination created the Second Nature: People were using fire for hunting, gathering, farming, just ease of travel, protection against wildfires, scores of reasons, each peculiar to a time and place and in this case, the use of fire in what we might call living landscapes.

[00:00:48] There’s a third fire coming into play, burning coal. We found a new source of combustibles buried in geologic time, we dug it up, we’re burning it, and releasing its consequences into the future. And that is the deepest driver right now of the world we live in: Fire.

[00:01:07] Fire’s been a component as long as there have been plants, but it always comes with checks and balances. That’s what a fire ecology is all about. When we go into the geologic past, or what I think of as lithic landscapes—once living, now-fossilized landscapes—all those old checks and balances are gone. You can burn winter and summer, drought or deluge, day or night. It doesn’t matter. And that means it exists outside of, and overloads, the capacity of the existing world to accommodate it.

[00:01:38] We’ve used that to rework/replace all of the working fires that had filled our lives. All the domestic fires from candles and hearths all now replaced, even made virtual, in a sense. All these materials have been burned previously to make glass, steel, concrete. And they’re pretty incombustible. We designed them as such. So fire is removed.

[00:02:01] And we expand that same process into agriculture. So much of it, which outside of floodplains was dependent on fire or a kind of fire fallow cycle, now the whole Green Revolution is premised on fossil fuels, petrochemicals derived from it, machines to deliver it, or to create the water that’s needed.

[00:02:23] Fallowing has gone. The fallow is now made into productive acres, but the fallow was where most of the biodiversity in the old systems resided. So that’s being done. And what about wildlands? Well, the way we used to handle fire and wildlands was to substitute our own fire for it or to modify the landscape in ways, or if we were faced with a large fire, setting backfires and burning out around the encampment.

[00:02:50] But now we’ve gone to the counter-fire from industrial combustion. In effect, we add up all of this pyric transition, we’re creating and living in an increasingly Third Nature made with what was it, an enormous fossil fallow that’s now been brought into production and which is slopping over any kind of boundaries.

[00:03:13] John Q: In the American West, the coming of the railroad meant the coming of megafires.

[00:03:18] Stephen Pyne: The train would be responsible for many fires and we have a whole series of ruined wrecked landscapes, or even these whole communities consumed. We had a wave of megafires from about 1870 to 1920 as large, or in many cases, much larger and more lethal than what we’ve seen in recent years. It was not driven by climate—we’re at the end of the Little Ice Age. It was driven by enormous amounts of land clearing slash, and logging slash, and that was the background of the state sponsored conservation. The state would have to intervene.

[00:03:51] It was done by all of the European colonizers.

[00:03:55] John Q: Describing the nation’s response to the 1910 Great Burn, Stephen Pyne.

[00:04:00] Stephen Pyne: We have an interesting creation or origin story, if you will, with the Big Blow Up of 1910— and most of you are I’m sure familiar with it—the heaviest concentration was about 3.25 million acres in the Northern Rockies. And in many ways, a trauma for the Forest Service, that set it on its way.

[00:04:17] At the same time, August 1910, a controversy boiled over in Northern California. It argued that this whole approach that the Forest Service and others were taking modeled on Europe was misguided, and what we really should be doing is doing what the Native Americans had done, and routinely burn at least the montane forest, the lower elevation forest.

[00:04:40] After, in the fall of 1910, and the light burning controversy was a very serious challenge to the intellectual and political legitimacy of the Forest Service, and indeed, conservation. And here’s Aldo Leopold in 1920, arguing that the whole Forest Service policy of preventing fires as much as possible is threatened by ‘light burning propaganda.’

[00:05:02] And then subsequently the Weeks Act sets up federal state cooperation based for forestry, but ultimately based on fire protection, which created a national infrastructure. And the Forest Service then assumed responsibilities for that, and for the next 50 years created a national model but also established a policy, essentially of fire suppression and a kind of hegemon.

[00:05:26] The amount of innovation and attention devoted around the country is really astonishing. And what happens is 1935, what became known as the 10:00 AM policy, a single standard for fire, which sounds crazy, even at the time. But if you have all the resources that were available, it didn’t seem crazy. You had hundreds of thousands of young men in camps looking for things to do. Probably half of all the labor they did was either fire control or pre-suppression of one kind. This gave way to our modern crews, both of which evolved out of the CCC experience.

[00:06:04] John Q: And would evolve into its own industrial economic sector through the 1960s.

[00:06:09] Stephen Pyne: If we took away all those planes and helicopters, all of those bulldozers, graders, all those roads, all those engines, chainsaws, and pumps, could we pretend to do much about fire? We would have to do what people had always done. We would have to organize the landscape in a better way, and we would have to substitute our fires for wildfires. Instead, we kept at it and we went from a Big Blow Up to what we might call the Big Blow Back.

[00:06:36] We see the consequences. And I’d like to point out that all this happens without climate change. This is simply a result at a local scale of shifting from one kind of firepower to another, going from living to lithic landscapes.

[00:06:49] And it’s astonishing how quickly the old regime collapses. By 1967-68, the National Park Service created new policies rejecting the 10:00 AM policy in favor of fire restoration, primarily through natural means, but prescribed fire where necessary, and 10 years later, the Forest Service follows suit. And even for a wildfire, there are a range of options. You don’t have to contain it by 10 o’clock the next day. You can confine it, which looks an awful lot like a natural, prescribed natural fire. There are all kinds of options and essentially all the things we’re trying to do now were present 40 to 50 years ago.

[00:07:29] I think that the problem is, it’s not simply getting policy right. It’s getting the politics right. We need really a kind of Fire Constitution: Who’s going to decide who does what, who pays for what, who has rights, who has responsibilities? How does that all play out? How do we put a coherent enterprise together, not just react to ever-growing threats?

[00:07:49] So I think we’re left with a kind of pluralism: Lots of agencies, lots of policies, lots of strategies, lots of practices. A large civil society, Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils, spans most of the country, even going into Canada. There’s no one model now. It’s all over the place. So that’s good.

[00:08:07] Many people concerned about the future look with alarm that we have, what they believe is no narrative by which to connect to the past and no analog. no analog by which to understand that future. And I suggest something different. I suggest we have a great narrative and I’ve just been trying to give it to you now, starting with humanity and fire. And I think we have an apt analogy: That we are entering, have been in, and are now rapidly maturing, a Pyrocene that is a Fire Age.

[00:08:38] And let me suggest that by comparing it to the Pleistocene, the serial Ice Ages, which were full of ice-informed landscapes, lots and lots of paraglacial landscapes, outwash plains, pluvial lakes, permafrost, all this other stuff, deeply influential everywhere—drop in sea level, mass extinction—and the hominids, a genus that began manipulating fire.

[00:09:04] So we get into a Pyrocene being shaped by anthropogenic fire in all its forms. We’re driving off the ice everywhere. We have you might call it peripheral landscapes or peri-pyric landscapes shaping things. Maybe these monstrous smoke palls are the equivalent of outwash plains. We have a rise in sea level. We have mass extinctions underway. And here we are doing what hominids have done, bringing fuel to the fire.

[00:09:31] John Q: The renowned writer on humans and fire, Stephen Pyne, speaking at OSU’s Spring Creek Project on February 22nd.

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