A brief history of fire

October 14, 2020

Fire: A Brief History (2nd edition)
By Stephen J Pyne,
Sydney, New South, 2019. 201 pp.

“All humans manipulate fire, and only humans do, we are truly a species touched by fire,” writes Stephen J Pyne, environmental historian and author, in Fire: A Brief History.

First written in 2001 and republished in 2019, Fire examines the history of fire and the way it has affected the environment and the way this has been affected by humanity’s attempts to shape and use fire.

Pyne argues that fire’s history occurred in three stages. The first was Natural fire, which didn’t need the intervention of any species. These fires occurred regularly and nature adapted to this cycle.

The second was Anthropogenic fire. Anthropogenic fire begins with the earliest human societies, when humans first discovered fire and learnt to use its power for agricultural development. From this point, Humans would use fire to shape the environment around them with varying degrees of success.

Indigenous peoples around the world used various methods of fire control as a means of land management. For example, Indigenous Australians used firestick farming as well as creating lines of fire, as well as fire and fuel breaks, where they could maintain rather than create fire-driven landscapes.

For most of history, European societies tried to use fire for agricultural purposes, but tried to control fire rather accept its use in creating a fire-driven landscape. However, until the rise of Industrial capitalism, their success in controlling fire was limited, especially in urban areas where fires were common because of the abundance of flammable materials.

This brings us to the third period known as Industrial fire which relies on the burning of fossil fuels, releasing biomass and carbon dioxide. During this period, effective fireproof materials were developed, so that fire could be more effectively contained and therefore removed fire from human view.

This coincided with both the rise of industrial capitalism and the height of European colonialism. This means that humans were alienated from the effects of fire and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, leading to the disappearance of Indigenous fire regimes that had previously dominated their landscapes.

The effect of this was noted in Sydney in 1848 by the NSW Surveyor-General Thomas Mitchell who wrote: “Kangaroos are no longer to be seen there, the grass is choked by underwood; neither are there natives to burn the grass”.

Without the fires, the fuels contained within them were eliminated and woody species overran the landscape.

In the preface to the Australian edition of Fire, Pyne examines Australia’s relationship with fire, especially relevant, considering the bushfires that occurred in the summer of 2019–20. Pyne argues that Australia is on the frontlines of the fire equivalent of the Ice Age known as the Pyrocene.

Australia has long relied upon fossil fuels for its primary energy sources, powering its economic expansion through the export of coal and gas. Pyne argues that Australia is well placed to adopt solar power as an alternative energy source as way of reducing its dependence on fossil fuels.

More importantly, Pyne argues that Australia can play a world leading role in the readoption of Indigenous knowledge of fire management regimes centred on firestick farming as a way of dealing with the Pyrocene. Already, the revival of cultural burning in Western Australia, based on shared land management with the traditional owners is an example of a way forward.

In order to fully deal with the affects of climate change, on which fire has an effect, we will have to break the power of the fossil fuel lobby which favours profit over people to have a chance of averting climate catastrophe. Fire provides a vital history of the effect fire has had in this process and the role it will continue to play in our future.

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