“We are uniquely fire creatures,” Pyne began, “on a uniquely fire planet.”  
Life itself is a form of slow metabolic combustion—which eventually created 
oxygen and burnable vegetation that allowed fast combustion, ignited by 
lightning.  Humans came along and mastered fire for warmth, food preparation, 
and managing the landscape, and that made us a keystone species.  Humanity’s 
ecological signature on the world is fire.

Then we made fire the all-purpose catalyst for craft (clay, glass, metal) and 
eventually industry, shifting to the vast geological resource of fossil fuels.  
That “pyric transition” made humans dominant on the earth, even to the point of 
affecting climate.  We used fire to clear much of the world’s forest for 

Then came a century of misdirection about wildfire.  The forests of Europe are 
mostly too wet to burn, but by the late 19th century the leading foresters in 
world came from there and taught their ignorance to foresters in North America 
and India, where the land depends on seasonal fire for ecological health.  
National governments set about suppressing all wildfire, with catastrophic 
success. In the absence of the usual occasional local fires, massive fuel loads 
built up, and destructive megafires became the norm.  There was an alternative 
theory of a “restoration strategy” to manage wildfire in way that would emulate 
how lightning and native American burning kept the landscape ecologically 
healthy, but it has been applied haltingly and fractionally, and megafires 
still rule.

“The real argument for fire is that it does ecological work that nothing else 
does,” Pyne concluded.  “Charismatic megaflora” like redwoods need fire.  An 
ecologically rich mosaic of forest, savannah, and meadows needs fire.  Healthy 
prairie needs fire or it gets taken over by invasive woody plants. People 
trained only as foresters are blind to all that.  Wildfire practice now works 
best when it is guided by wildlife biologists who insist that red cockaded 
woodpeckers need fire-dependent longleaf pines, that grizzly bears need the 
berries that grow in recent burns, that pheasants need grassland burned free of 
invasive eastern red cedar.

The techniques for prescribed burns for a bioabundant natural landscape are now 
well honed.  They need to be applied much more widely.  When in doubt how to 
proceed, ask the ecologists, who will ask the animals.

                                                                —Stewart Brand  

NOTE:  My SALT talk summaries from Long Now may also be found, in illustrated 
form, on Medium here:
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