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A NEW BOOK, Stephen J. Pyne’s The Pyrocene, puts historic and environmental aspects of fire into perspective. Its review in Science, October 15, 2021, by Mary Ellen Hannibal is subtitled, “More prescribed burns and less fossil fuel combustion could help rebalance our relationship with fire.” 

Here are tidbits about this book and its Science review, particularly three aspects of fire: First-fire, Second-fire, and Third-fire.

The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next, by Stephen J. Pyne, University of California Press, 2021.

First-fire. Hannibal writes, “First-fire is fire that arises from nature. For millennia, notes Pyne, evolving plant life was regularly burned by lightening-driven flames.”

Hannibal describes the benefit of this: “Burning decomposes biomass, taking apart what photosynthesis has cohered. In doing so, it helps redistribute and stimulate the elements of life. Burned biomes regenerate and thrive.”

Image from the U.S. National Park Service.

Second-fire. Humans captured fire more than two million years ago. Hannibal says, “Fire was a tool, a weapon, and a complete game changer for the creatures who would eventually give rise to Homo sapiens and their cousins. Pyne credits one particular ‘pyrotechnology’—cooking—for changing the evolutionary trajectory of hominins.” 

Image from The Guardian.

In essence, cooking predigests meat and vegetables, allowing the gut to function more quickly and efficiently. “This,” Hannibal writes, “led to better nutrition and increased the amount of time available to develop tools, resulting in the burgeoning dominance of our once unassuming ancestors.” 

Third-fire. “During this period,” Hannibal says, “humans figured out how to move combustion into machines and to direct flame with ever more increasing intensity.”

Image from YouTube.

However, she notes, “we turned to belowground sources of yesterday’s photosynthesis such as coal, oil, and natural gas. All of this combustion, now freed from the fetters of ecological seasonality, has pumped effluents into the atmosphere that have  ‘un-hinged the old climate’ and are currently driving record warming and droughts.”

Three Paradoxical Effects. “The first,” Hannibal writes, “is that the more we try to remove fire from places that coevolved with it, ‘the more violently [it] will return.’ This reality is currently playing out in California and many other landscapes around the world.” 

Image from Archyde.

The second paradox involves media: Despite reports of increased wild fires, actually the amount of land burned overall is shrinking. “In 2020,” writes Pyne, “4.2 million acres of California burned, but in preindustrial times, it is likely that more than 10 million acres would have burned in a single year.” With, of course, the natural environmental benefits already noted.

Pyne’s third paradox is related to this: “the need for less of some types of fire and more of others. We must ratchet down fossil fuel burning, he argues, and we must burn living landscapes more widely and frequently.”

A Cultural Perspective: During the Enlightenment, Pyne says, we decoupled fire into chemistry and physics. Putting it into machines made fire ubiquitous, powerful, and invisible. Thus, he says, we forgot about our historical relationship with fire. 

Violet Lawson facilitates a controlled burn in Australia’s Northern Territory. Image from Science, October 15, 2021.

Hannibal writes, “Framing our current age as the Pyrocene centers the role of tire in how humans are shaping the planet… It addresses the search for a usable future.” ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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