Fire in our future

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Science  02 Oct 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6512, pp. 13
DOI: 10.1126/science.abe9780

It can seem like Earth itself is on fire. In places such as Australia and California for which fire is a natural feature, landscapes are burning at historic if not epic scales. In the Arctic and Greenland, where fire is rare, tundra is smoldering and melting permafrost. In Amazonia, Indonesia, and Mediterranean Europe, fires are interacting with the land clearing of rainforest, the draining of peatlands, and the abandonment of rural lands to create damaging, even lethal, conditions.

There is no single driver except humanity behind this outbreak. But increasingly, anthropogenic climate change is recognized as an enabler, performance enhancer, and globalizer. Fire seasons are lengthening, fire severity is escalating, and collateral damages are compounding.

Is this a “wicked” problem so entangled with scientific and social complexities that solutions are impossible? We think not.

We need to unbundle “fire” in all its shape-shifting avatars into manageable pieces. Some issues will have technical solutions—fires sparked by powerlines can be prevented. Some involve knotty ecological processes: Lands that have had fires removed can suffer an ecological fire deficit for which reinstating flame can be as complicated as restoring a vanished species. Most of the problems involve clashes of cultural values over how we get energy, organize our economy, and choose to live on the land. These will demand a political resolution.

Scales matter. Some reforms can be applied immediately and locally, as with protecting towns. Others will require decades of work across countries and regions. Restoring a suitable regimen of fire to tens of millions of hectares will be an arduous exercise in adaptive management. Confronting the effects of climate change will likely prove a century-long quest, but unless we reverse trends, they will overwhelm whatever type of management is implemented. We need to pursue all levels simultaneously.

Begin with ignition. Research shows that nationally, 97% of the fires that have threatened houses are started by people. There will always be accidental ignitions, and in the West and Florida, lightning kindles many fires. But prevention programs can reduce the risk to manageable levels.

Still, fires will escape. The power of fire, however, resides in its capacity to spread and inflict damages. Within limits, we can dampen fire intensities by modifying the landscapes that fire feeds upon, and we can harden communities to keep embers blown from the countryside from metastasizing into urban conflagrations. The strategies are the same as those used to contain urban fire. Concepts like the home ignition zone—the house and its immediate surroundings—identify points of vulnerability. Long-extant programs like Firewise, which also add concepts like defensible space, promote suites of tried-and-tested techniques to communities in nearly all kinds of environments.

In montane forests like the ponderosa pine of the Southwest, research shows that thinning and burning are effective methods to reduce fuel loads and allow surface fires to return. But many techniques are available, including prescribed grazing, the use of managed wildfire, and varieties of mechanical treatments like chipping and masticating. Most places will need a cocktail of treatments, appropriate to their local conditions.

Smart treatments, done well, will enhance ecological integrity at the same time that they reduce hazardous fuels. Thinning, for example, resembles woody weeding and unlike logging removes the small stuff that powers fire. Moreover, fire is a biochemical process, not just a flaming woodchipper. Fire as fire matters biologically. Good fire can provide herd immunity against bad fire. Yet all these interventions will be overpowered unless climate change is brought to heel. Paradoxically, as we ratchet down our binge-burning of fossil fuels, we'll have to ratchet up our burning of living landscapes to grant them the robustness they will need to survive the stresses to come.

Science can't do all the intellectual lifting. Fire is systemic: We need a systemic cultural response. We need art, new narratives and a poetry of flame, a revamping of liability laws to make controlled burning a default choice, a restoration of traditional knowledge to broaden techniques and purposes, a politics that can see the flames behind the smoke and engage with those who must live with its choices. In the end, science can advise; it can't decide.

But we need a solid empirical basis for the tough decisions heading our way. We need what science can do best, and the best of what science can do.

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