As India battled the forest fire in Uttarakhand and Canada tried to control the one at Fort McMurray, Firstpost spoke to fire management expert, Stephen Pyne. The former firefighter who is now a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences has authored over 20 books on fire histories of Australia, Russia, Canada and USA.
After graduating from high school, at the age of 18, Pyne joined the forest fire crew on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. For 15 years, he studied fire on the ground, learning how they organise seasons and lives. Once he finished his doctorate, he decided to apply his training on the subject of fire and became a pyromantic – a scholar on fire.
In 1988, he travelled to India on the MacArthur Fellowship to write about the history of fire on Earth. India was one of the five regions to which he paid special attention and travelled. Pyne and his colleague Dick Eaton toured nature preserves such as Corbett National Park and Ranthambore National Park, among others. He titled his paper, Nataraja: India’s cycle of fire.
In an email interview with Firstpost, Pyne talked about India’s history with fire, the issues surrounding the Uttarakhand fire and the role of forest fires in global warming.
You visited India 20 years ago for research. What were your impressions?
India was just opening up its economy, so it was an interesting, upbeat time to visit. I wanted to see the trees I had read so much about – sal, chir, teak. But we saw tigers, leopards, lions, elephants and many antelope and deer. I left with a much better understanding of what I had only known otherwise from texts. Unfortunately I was not able to set up contacts with fire and forestry agencies, but we were there in the dry season, and it was pretty obvious how fire would work. I experienced India. I can’t claim to understand it. It was fascinating, however, to see landscapes and societies and polities organised on different principles than those I had grown up with.
Have you followed the recent media coverage on fires in Uttarakhand, India, and in Canada?
I’ve written a couple of commentaries on the Canadian fire. A decade ago I published a fire history of Canada, so I knew the basics. I’ve only read a couple of articles on the Indian fires, mostly on BBC. My sense in both cases is that the fires were behaving as they were designed by evolution to behave. Fires in boreal Canada burn in stand-replacing patches. The Indian fires seemed — at least from the photos I could see — to burn on the surface, which is what they should do. The problem in both instances is not ecological but how those flames interacted with their resident societies. The Fort McMurray fire was particularly instructive because it put the two grand realms of earthly fire — the burning of living landscapes, and the burning of lithic ones — into violent collision. The Indian fires seemed more a problem in the mind. Temperate Europe has long distrusted and feared any landscape fire, and its intellectuals have for many centuries regarded fire as a stigma of primitivism. In truth, temperate Europe is the anomaly. But I don’t know enough about the Uttarakhand fires to comment seriously.
Could you explain India’s historical past in relation to forest fires? And what it can teach us to manage and regulate forest fires better?
India has ideal conditions for fire: the annual pattern of wetting and drying, monsoon and drought, is perfect to grow fuels and then ready them to burn. The biological evidence seems overwhelming that most of India’s biota has adapted to one or another patterns of burning (known as fire regimes). Humanity amplifies these conditions. We hold a species monopoly over fire: it’s what we do. Our environmental power is largely a fire power. People have used fire wherever possible to make their settings more habitable. This seems to be all over the historical and anthropological literature if you look for it. The records of the Indian Forest Department set up by the British are full of detailed descriptions of traditional use, all of which the Brits tried to stop, and of course couldn’t.
Fire suppression, particularly through air tankers, heavy machinery and convoys of crews, has become a misplaced emblem of modernity. In fact, outside of cities, the attempt to exclude fire in places that have long known it has proved disastrous. It has damaged ecosystems and only allowed combustibles to build up to stoke uncontrollable conflagrations. Interestingly, just this issue was debated in the first conferences on Indian forest reserves. Academics and colonial administrators demanded fire control; field personnel thought it impossible and probably ruinous.
Probably the wisest solution is to adapt existing techniques to better purposes. That is, use controlled fire to advance new goals, rather than try to abolish all fire. There are good fires and bad fires. India might look to Mexico, which had similarly sought through forestry bureaus modelled on Europe to eliminate fire, and has recently come to appreciate that it needs to tweak its long tradition of agricultural and pastoral burning to more modern goals. Again, I’m not current on the Indian scene, but this would be my recommendation.
What could be the possible causes for apathy towards fire by officials and intellectuals in a fire country like India?
Countries have lots of problems, too many to cope with. That’s true everywhere. Fire is pretty far down the roster of crises until it kills people or destroys towns. Then we muster a response to the immediate catastrophe. The best way to manage fire is to manage the land. The major fire powers — the US, Canada, Australia, Russia — have large fires because they have extensive public lands, mostly uninhabited. It’s hard to rally enthusiasm for serious treatments except when those fires occasionally bolt into surrounding communities. Still, particularly in the US and Australia, serious efforts are underway. The past 50 years of American fire history is dominated by a determination to restore good fires, though the outcome has been very mixed.
The point is, there are many examples of how to manage landscape fires, if not successfully then at least seriously. Europe is not among them. Worse, there are political pressures to convert fire institutions from fire-in-the-landscape managers to all-hazard emergency response agencies. This has only made the fire scene worse – think Russia, Greece, Portugal, South Africa. Mexico might be the best model for India to explore. Mexico is a long way from coping, but it is moving in the right direction.
What constitutes good fire management practices?
There is an extensive body of scientific knowledge on fire behavior and ecology. Most has developed over the past 40 years. But there also a rising realisation that traditional ecological knowledge is at least as important. The critical consideration is to have a fire culture with long experience on the land. If you have a working fire culture, you can succeed without science. If you have science but no working culture to apply it, you will fail.
What is the relationship between mankind and fire?
We’re a uniquely fire creature on a uniquely fire planet. We got small guts and big heads because we learned to cook food. We went to the top of the food chain because we learned to cook landscapes. Now we have become a geologic force because we’ve begun to cook the planet. We have rearranged and expanded fire on Earth, and it is with fire that we have gone to the poles and even left the planet. Yet the relationship is, ultimately, unequal. If people vanished, fire would go on. If fire vanished, people would die out.
With increased urbanisation and encroachment of fire conducive areas, what are the dangers that our planet faces?
The competition between the two realms of fire is the dialectic that underwrites contemporary fire history. They mix badly – see Fort McMurray, Canada. We’ve hardly begun to seriously study how this competition plays out. It’s a major lapse in fire science and fire scholarship generally. The abusive burning of fossil fuels also allows people to criticise ecological burning as simply adding more to the stew. There are few instances of land clearing where this is true, but many areas need fire, and global warming is being invoked to stop it. The upshot is generally to replace small, benign fires that are carbon neutral with large, malignant ones that add to greenhouse gases.
Any plans to visit India in the future?
I collected a substantial cache of research materials on Indian fire. It was always my intention to expand my Nataraja essay into a short book. I’d like to do that, maybe after Mexico. If so, then I’d need to return to India, this time with a slate of relevant places to visit and appointments with fire scientists and officers to understand better how they see their world.