This year is slated to be one of the most charred on record, as wildfires have burned more than 7.5 million U.S. acres to date. In order to assess this damage historically, a group of researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently created a framework to assess the importance of fire throughout human evolution.
Jennifer Balch, a postdoctoral associate at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at UCSB, has co-authored a paper that presents an assessment of how humans' relationship with fire has shaped community and world development -- from the controlled fires of hunter-gatherers to the combustion of fossil fuels.
"Human use and misuse of fire has been so prevalent in our evolutionary history, and the evolution of cultures, that we've forgotten how dominant a force fire really is," said Balch in a UCSB statement.
"About one-third of the planet has substantial fire activity," added Balch in an interview with ClimateWire. "We have no idea what proportion of that is the use or misuse of fire."
Although the communities responsible for wise or foolish fire use are not identified in the study, practices for sustainable management are laid out in the framework.
Why Smokey Bear was wrong
The worst way to manage fire, said Balch, is to try to eradicate it from the landscape.
"We've tried that experiment in the U.S.; we tried over a century of fire suppression," she said. Today, prescribed fires -- ones purposely ignited in order to maintain forest health -- are a routine practice among states and the five federal agencies that oversee American forests. Last year, 16,882 fires -- about one-fifth of all fires -- were prescribed, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Balch and her co-authors assessed four different types of fire throughout history: natural fires that occur without human action; tame fires used by early humans to manage hunting grounds and wild food production; agricultural fire to clear for future cropland; and industrial fire to create electricity and run vehicles.
An overreliance on one type, notably industrial fire, could upset the balance of the relationship by exacerbating climate change and clearing forests for resources, states the study.
Balch recommends that forest managers use the framework to improve planning and zoning along the wildland-urban interface -- the middle ground between undeveloped areas and human communities. Residents of the interface are at the highest risk of damage from wildfires. Maps of fire-prone areas, as well as better building design, could lower these risks.
"We have to understand the historical human relationship with fire in order to understand how we're going to live with fire in the future," said Balch.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500