Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


To Manage Wildfires, Manage Change First

• May 06, 2009 • 7:40 PM

Humans have shown they’re pretty much serial bunglers when it comes to managing fire, but some fire ecologists say that with global warming, mankind now really needs to learn how to manage change.

Jennifer Balch considers herself a “tropical fire ecologist,” a term that would have been an oxymoron a half-century ago. The tropics are, by popular definition, sweaty places with lots of water dripping everywhere and things going squish with every footstep. Sure they’re hot, but that’s only one part of the three needed for fire.

Balch, a postdoctoral fellow of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, does her fieldwork in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, at the southern end of the Amazon rain forest. Such rain forest, she explained, might see a wildfire every couple of centuries, and then only when the predominant environmental variable was severe drought.

But times are different now, and the combination of climate change and intentional fires set to peel back the jungle to create pastures or cropland has made the study of “tropic fire” genuinely timely.

“It was almost a misnomer to say that fire occurred in a tropical forest just a few decades ago,” mused Balch, who’s worked in the Amazon since 2004. Now, she said, fires in many tropical forests occur every couple of decades — which isn’t all that different from areas commonly associated with wildfires, like the Western United States or Australia.

Fires in the jungle are more likely at the edges of the tropical forest — hence her work on the Amazon’s arc of deforestation, where the savannah meets the humid forests (a zone known as the transitional forest). Fire is more common too when forests are diced into pieces — more edge, after all — or when the canopy of leaves and branches is broken, allowing sunlight and breezes to dry out the accumulated vegetable matter on the forest floor or the detritus of earlier incomplete burns.

Balch was the lead co-author, with David Bowman, of a recent paper in Science magazine headlined “Fire in the Earth System.” That ambitious paper, among other things, suggested that intentionally set fires used to peel back the world’s forests for cultivation have generated a fifth of the human-generated carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere in the 250 years since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Her work is on the burning edge, literally, of wildfire and human-caused — or anthropogenic — fires. When people meet forest, the story is ultimately predictable — expect fire.

Down Under
David Bowman has studied the history of fire in a very different environment, the world’s most arid inhabited continent, Australia. And after years of watching indigenous Australians wrangle fire to craft their own habitat, he feels most people are at best imperfect users of fire and at worst serial bunglers.

An ecologist based at the University of Tasmania, he only has to let his mind wander north, across the Bass Straight to the state of Victoria, to see the consequences of that bungling. In February, a series of wildfires — some apparent arsons — broke out in the forested areas northeast of Melbourne, ultimately killing more than 200 people.

To Bowman, the best way to look at the Victorian fires is to go back, 45,000 years back, to be exact, when Australia’s indigenous people brought fire to the continent. “It’s a deeply important question,” he said, “what do indigenous people do with fire? Were they skillful with fire?”

In the aborigines’ case, Bowman finds the answer is yes. He found their use pragmatic, to bend the natural habitat to do things like create a surplus of kangaroo to hunt, protect their own resources from wildfires or clear land for planting or transit. They left behind a patchwork of burnt and untouched areas, a “habitat mosaic.” And, Bowman said, “They had effectively tamed fire to create a benign habitat — for them.” He’s further argued that their stewardship, for such it was, even resulted in greater biodiversity for the continent.

Skip forward several dozen millennia, and enter the European settlers with a different take on fire. Rather than tame fire, they felt it was better to subdue it, to ensure that nothing burned.

“It was a rational response,” Bowman argues, “but uninformed historically.” And after World War II, with plenty of military hardware lying around that could be used to fight fires, “They said, ‘We will now wage total war with fire.’

“We are now looking at defeat in that war,” he concluded. “I call it Smokey the Bear blowback. After each wildfire, fire had a nasty habit of coming back bigger and harder.”

The Victorian fires have been a poster child for that defeat. While the root lay back to European settlement, the proximate factor was tremendous heat. “We had weather conditions,” Bowman explained, “that in terms of the historical frame, were absolutely unprecedented. The fire index, which was scaled to 100, showed fire conditions were almost 200. There was an extreme dry period, and extreme absence of rainfall, and 47-degree air temperatures (116 degrees Fahrenheit). The eucalyptus oil flash point is 50 degrees” — and the forests were filled with native eucalyptus.

Bowman noted that the actual physical processes in the Victorian fires are still largely unknown, but he described balls of fire blowing out of the trees and people dying from the radiant heat alone. The fire also changed the land surface itself, to the point of exfoliating granite — something normally seen on geological time scales, and not just one black Saturday.

Change You Can Believe In
So while working at different poles of wildfire research — Amazonian wildfires usually creep along at 15 meters an hour, with the flames rarely rising above knee height — both scientists see the potent interaction of people and flame.

Part of it comes from how people manage the lands under their stewardship — setting fires in the Amazon to clear more land for crops or cattle, keeping fires “tamed” in the rural-urban areas where nice homes meet stunning forest vistas, introducing everywhere non-native plants, often grasses that dry to tinder in the late summer.

But they also see something else. Changing climatic conditions, the hook in their Science paper, is creating new behavior in wildfires. It’s making those Amazonian wildfires occur in an exponentially quicker cycle, and it’s making areas more used to wildfires — such as Victoria state or Balch’s current home in Santa Barbara, Calif. — much more inflammable.

As they wrote in Science, “Human landscape management is implicated in these fire regime transitions, yet underlying climate patterns also alter fire behavior.”

It’s not just the “warming” aspect of global warming — the higher spring and fall temperatures, the abnormal spiking outliers —that appear to be creating bigger and more frequent wildfires. It’s the “change” part of climate change — earlier snowmelt, rain at different times of the year, or in differing amounts — that create new challenges. And those challenges then create the next round of change, their paper stated clinically: “Climate conditions are a fundamental driver of fire spread, and fire-induced emissions influence future climate scenarios and fire weather.” (The latter idea was explored in the Miller-McCune.com piece “Smokey’s Legacy.”

“So we get larger fires, more frequent fires, and fires where we haven’t usually seen them,” Balch noted. “It’s not fire so much that we have to manage, it’s change. Change is what we have to manage.”

For example, in Brazil she’s not hectoring big landowners to lay off their Zippos. She’s working alongside them. In Mato Grosso, the work is on the land of Grupo Amaggi, a major agribusiness firm in Brazil that uses fire to clear its own land for cultivation. They’re not receiving any money, but having a supporting environment to conduct research that might impinge on their way of doing business is a genuine contribution.

“Yes, the forest needs to be converted in their eyes,” Balch said, “but wildfires are something no one really wants,” especially when those same fires can destroy Grupo Amaggi’s own crops or facilities.

In the Victoria fires, Bowman suggested that even with the unusual conditions — and even excluding the outright arson behind some of the fires — humankind played a role. “We’ve got the most extreme fire conditions we can imagine, but if all the humans were extracted, it’s quite possible we would have those exact same climatic conditions and would have no fire.

“If there is any benefit or virtue in such a catastrophe, it’s the hope that people connect that these aren’t singletons, they aren’t outliers, they aren’t anomalies. Once you start there, you can begin the necessary actions that respond to that.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.