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From Fire to ICE

When the fire community contemplates global warming, most know what it means. It means more fires, more big fires, more damaging fires, fires in places that have few now, and megafires everywhere. It means or should mean more engines and air tankers, more hotshots and fire teams, more funding, more prophylactic prescribed burns, more research - always more research.  It means more prestige, perhaps glory, to firefighters as first-responders and defenders against a fiery madness. The warmed new world to come will be today's world in a crock pot or turning over a spit. But the real challenges may lie elsewhere, because global warming - depending how rapidly it happens and how full of misdirections - may mean a difference in kind, not simply of quantity. It means fire management must become carbon neutral. This will demand that prescribed burning be justified as an ecological process, not as a "tool" (we'll be told to find another tool). It will question plans to uproot and burn off stored woody carbon on tens of millions of acres of public land. It may compromise ambitions to make "natural" fire the responsible agent over vast portions of the public estate.  The roster has barely begun. The deep challenge will be to our conception of fire's ecology and history, and to our understanding of ourselves as fire creatures. Contemporary fire thinking continues to obsess over wilderness. It should begin instead with the landscapes shaped by anthropogenic fire and consider wilderness as a special case in which people have chosen to remove themselves. That would place people at the core. The dynamics of fire on Earth today are those humans have created or maintain.  Even climate, that ultimate referent, is now being unhinged by humanity's combustion habits. Yet the internal combustion engine (ICE) has no standing in the studied ecology of earthly fire, nor are people recognized seriously as fire creatures, as holders over a species monopoly, who complete the cycle of fire for the circle of life. If they were, then it would be possible to bridge, as today it is not, the chasm between free-burning fire and fossil-fueled combustion. The link is us. All in all, the world today has too much of the wrong fire and too little of the right, the developed world too much wildfire and too little controlled burning, the Earth too much combustion and too little fire. These paradoxes dissolve if we reconstitute our fire science on ourselves. The human decision to reroute its firepower through machines rather than surface biomass has set up an ecological cascade that we have barely begun to contemplate, save for emissions. Until we recognize that we are the common cause, we will not be able to appreciate what industrialization means for fire's earthly ecology. We have to move our thinking from fire to ICE. ———- Steve Pyne is the author of Tending Fire: Coping with America’s Wildland Fires. He is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.