Are the fires threatening human settlements unprecedented?

Besides deforestation, the rain forest has come up in another context as well in recent years. The newspaper headlines fairly shout it out. “The Amazon rainforest is on fire; Climate scientists fear a tipping point is near,” exclaims Julia Rosen in an article in the Los Angeles Times, dated August 26th, 2019. The tipping point to which the article refers is deforestation: if it reaches a certain percentage, the forest itself will not be able to recover. How accurate such a prognostication may be is of course a question for debate, because the tropical forest ecosystem is more robust and resilient than it has been given credit for.[1]

Be that as it may, fire is an element of terrestrial ecosystems. As was noted above, it is an integral part of their ecology. As such, it is not good or bad, it is just there – human beings are the ones who attach value to it.

The main point here is that tropical ecosystems do not pose the threat of fire that other forest and grassland ecosystems do. The fires in the Amazon are not wildfires threatening inhabited areas. They are deliberately set to clear the land for cattle or farming. As such, they are a product of deforestation, not wildfire.

Unprecedented?

In other parts of the world, though, wildfire is an issue, and a serious one. This too is chalked up to anthropic developments, mainly anthropogenic climate change. The picture painted is one of novelty, accompanied by the incessant refrain, these things never used to happen. And the situation is dire, so much so “that some observers argue that the past is irrelevant. We are headed into a no-narrative, no-analogue future. So immense and unimaginable are the coming upheavals that the arc of inherited knowledge that joins us to the past has broken.” So writes the eminent fire historian Stephen Pyne. He goes on: “There is no precedent for what we are about to experience, no means by which to triangulate from accumulated human wisdom into a future unlike anything we have known before. Yet a narrative is possible. Where once there was one kind of fire on Earth, then two, there are now three. That’s the narrative. Between them, they are sculpting a Fire Age equivalent in stature to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. That’s the analogue. Call it the Pyrocene.”[2]

Yet Pyne, eminent fire historian that he is, surely knows that the fires we have experienced of late are not entirely unprecedented; in fact, the “arc of inherited knowledge that joins us to the past” is precisely what can help us to understand and contextualize our present.

To gain this perspective, we will examine the fire histories, since the 19th century, of two sets of forest ecosystems, those of the United States and those of Australia. Pay particular attention to the frequency of drought, which nowadays, we are led to believe, is one of those new and unprecedented consequences of our addiction to fossil fuels.

Brief Fire History of the United States

We begin this stroll down memory lane by recalling some of the major fire events in the United States, in chronological order.

1825

The first major fire event memorialized as such was the Maine fire of October 1825, which occurred simultaneously with the better-known Miramichi fire of New Brunswick, Canada, “the most destructive forest fire of all time in the East.” The Miramichi fire covered “3,900 square miles or 2,500,000 acres of forest land, destroying 590 buildings, 1,000 head of livestock and bringing death to 160 persons.”[3]

The main factor behind the fires? Drought.

August and September, 1825 were extremely dry in Maine. Settlers with no law to prevent them, burned slash and stumps on land they were clearing. Many small fires smouldered in the Shirley-Elliotsville area of Piscataquis county, then the pioneer fringe of the state. On the seventh of October of that year a violent north to northwest wind swept northern Maine. The small fires soon raged out of control; the fire spread rapidly and travelled southeastward through parts of Guilford, Medford, Parkman, and Ripley. Turning slightly eastward it crossed the West Branch of the Penobscot River below Twin Lakes and finally reached the main stream of the Penobscot and burned south along the western bank to the vicinity of Old Town. This Maine conflagration compared with the Miramichi fire; as much as 1,300 square miles or 832,000 acres of land were devastated.[4]

1871

The Maine fire was a portent, a harbinger of things to come. With expanding settlement came greater exposure. This proved to be the case in 1871. Concurrent with the Great Chicago Fire of October 8th of that year was the fire centered on Peshtigo, Wisconsin. In fact, brands from the Peshtigo fire carried by wind are likely what ignited the Chicago fire.

Wells’ depiction of events leading up to the fire paint quite a picture of the Pyrocene, the only problem being that all of this took place 150 years ahead of time:

In the fall of 1871, there was no … beauty [of foliage]. The red on distant hillsides was created by flames rather than the glow of frosted oaks. Smoke stung the eyes. In the little towns and on the lonely frontier farms with their stump-filled clearings, there were the dull ache of worry and the nagging of fear.

“Why the hell don’t it rain?” they asked each other when they met on the splintered board sidewalks of lumber towns like Peshtigo. “You think it’ll ever rain again?”

The swamps had dried up. A man could drive his mare across places that were ordinarily under water, and she wouldn’t sink an inch. It hadn’t rained since July 8, except for a hopeful sprinkle on September 5 that disappeared into the parched ground and left the countryside as dry as before. The Indians walked onto what had been bogs to pick cranberries that were scarce and wizened because of the drought. In the marshes where the Menominees were accustomed to gathering wild rice, there was not water enough to float a canoe. The Indians said it had never before been so dry in the fall within the memory of their old men. They blamed the whites. Things had not been like this before the whites came with their axes and sawmills….

“The swamps and marshes were peat prepared for burning,” one resident wrote. “The forests of pine were tinder, ready and anxious for suicide by fire. All nature was so dry and miserable that it cried out for death….”

There was one danger… that even the toughest lumberjack feared. When fire swept out of control through the seemingly endless forests, all his courage, brawn, and skill were puny weapons. And in the Wisconsin north country in the fall of 1871, the air was thick with smoke and foreboding….

Every forest dweller, including the railway workers, was conscious of the danger of fire. Although scattered fires were burning in the woods, no one as yet was too concerned about them. Such smolderings in the humus that had accumulated for centuries were regarded as normal for that time of year. As soon as a good, soaking rain came, the danger would be over. But the rains did not come. In the backwoods communities, residents sometimes groped through smoke thick enough to obscure the sun. “I wish to heaven the fires would take everything and be done with it,” one man told another that fall in Peshtigo, “and let us see the sun once more….”

By October 4, the smoke was so thick on the bay that steamers blew their fog horns and navigated by compass in what should have been broad daylight. Woods on both sides of the bay were burning. In Green Bay, the air was filled with flakes of wood ash. The residents had nearly grown accustomed to breathing smoke, but it was making some of them ill. Apprehension was mounting. Tilton, a New Yorker who had migrated to the Wisconsin frontier to become a newspaperman, was as worried as everyone else, but it was his job to write of what was happening: “By day, flakes of white ashes were continually falling in the streets like snow. Now and then, if the wind blew high, partially burned leaves would fall. A settled gloom fell upon the whole community. [There was] scarce a man or woman but who, before retiring at night, would go out and gaze ruefully upon the red glare in the heavens to the east, west and south of us, estimate the distance of the flames and take note of the direction and force of the wind.” If a bell rang or there was any other unusual sound, everyone stopped whatever he was doing and listened, fearful that it heralded the approach of the fire coming to wipe out the city. “Thus sped the days – fearful days – but they brought no relief,” Tilton said. “The sky was brass. The earth was ashes….”[5]

The foreboding was warranted, for when the fire finally came, it obliterated 1,200,000 acres and incinerated as many as 2500 persons.[6] “One of the most terrible fires ever seen by civilized man in the forests of America, was that at Peshtigo, in Wisconsin, in October, 1871, when millions of dollars worth of property were lost.… No rain had fallen for some time, the fires were in the forests, and when they increased in volume, the hot air quickly ascended, a current was caused, the wind rose, and the dire calamity followed which made Peshtigo prominent in the annals of disaster.”[7] Peshtigo: who has heard of it today?

1881

In that year, Michigan was the scene of terrific fires costing 125 lives. “[T]he fires which did the damage, began their work of destruction Sept. 5th…. $2,000,000 worth of property went into the clouds in smoke. For weeks before the fire, the earth in many places had cracked, the swamps were baked into hard clay, the heat of the sun was hotter than it had been in that locality for years; not since the fires of Wisconsin, in 1871, had such weather been known. All was ready for one terrific fire. It came, and history tells its story. On Sept. 5th, the wind was strong enough to blow or break down trees thirty feet high and eight inches through. It has been said and it is believed by Sergeant Bailey, that in Huron, some distance from the scene of the fires, the temperature was 99 degrees in the shade at 7 a.m.”[8]

1894

1894 has gone down in history as the year of the Hinckley fire, centered in Hinckley, Minnesota. Wilkinson sets the stage:

Speaking in general of the drouth [sic] of 1894, the editor of the August, 1894, Monthly Weather Review, published by authority of the secretary of agriculture, says that, “…. The great drouth of 1894 so far as concerns agriculture, has been but the culmination of a long period of deficient rainfall. The tables of accumulated precipitation published monthly, show that the whole region in which the crops have suffered during August, reports a steady and generally an increasing deficiency in the accumulated rainfall since the first of January. The drouth is, therefore, not merely the drouth of July and August, but that of several months.”[9]

Conditions were thus ripe for a conflagration. “These conditions, i. e., great lack of rainfall, high temperature, dry air and light winds, were persistent for a period of nearly four months, resulting in parched earth, crops destroyed, vegetation of all kinds dried up and down timber and brush but tinder ready for the match…. Such was the condition up to the 1st day of September, which ushered in ‘High, hot winds, that fanned the fires into fierce flames, themselves also creating a strong upward draft, increasing with the increase of the fierceness of the fires which caused such destruction of life and property.’”[10]

Wilkinson marveled at one thing: “that with such warning so little heed was paid to the imminent danger the people were in, and by the facts one more illustration is given of the old truth, that men become so accustomed to great peril, that it loses its terrors.”[11]

Other chroniclers had similar thoughts: “And so they dwell secure in their houses fearing nothing, never dreaming that so awful a calamity as befell them was possible, or that they stood in any danger whatever from the source which was destined to wreak such havoc and spread such dire desolation in the lap of prosperity and plenty…. Many who might have escaped had they made the attempt at the time of the first alarm felt that the towns were at least safe until it was too late for them to rectify their mistake and they were overtaken by a death too horrible to contemplate.”[12]

It was indeed hard to comprehend.

418 people perished in Hinckley and the surrounding communities. The fire left a path of death and destruction too horrible to believe. About 28 people killed in Pokegama (now Brook Park) and about 80 perished from the Sandstone area. The fire covered 400 square miles consuming nearly everything in its path. It was impossible to outrun the wall of flame. Many had tried but perished…. Those that somehow survived in water holes, potato fields, or by some other miracle were in very poor condition. Their lungs were burned from the hot air, their eyes swollen shut from the smoke and their arms and legs badly burned and blistered. Many of the survivors were in shock.

One of the many heroes of this tragedy was the telegrapher stationed at the St. Paul and Duluth Depot in Hinckley. Tommy Dunn remained loyal to his post and waited for orders. Eventually the very tracks the trains traveled on burned and no orders came. The young telegrapher perished in the fire. He had been determined to save the people of this area. His last known message that he tapped out on his key to the agent in Barnum was “I think I’ve stayed too long.”[13]

The figure of 418 given for the number of deaths is an underestimate: many backwoodsmen and Native Americans were likely killed as well, but never made it into the official records.[14]

Hinckley was hit by a firestorm formed of an inversion, which happens when cool air above traps warm air below. As Rod Sando explained at the 100th anniversary of the fire, “The amount of energy released by a firestorm is enormous.… It’s like several Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs going off.… There’s very little oxygen available and the low areas tend to fill up with carbon-enriched gasses. That’s why so many people suffocated.”[15]

1902

The fires which burned across the state of Washington in that year consumed an estimated 650,000 to 700,000 acres,[16] although the loss of life was a mere 38 souls. “The fire dropped one-half inch of ash in Portland, Oregon. The smoke was so thick that street lights glowed at noon in Seattle 160 miles (258 km) away and ships on the Columbia River were forced to navigate only by compass. Yacolt, Washington was approached by the inferno close enough to blister paint on the town’s 15 buildings, but the wind changed, causing the fire to veer north toward the Lewis River, where it burned itself out.”[17] The so-called Yacolt fire is significant for another reason: it instigated the start of organized, cooperative fire-fighting.[18]

1908

The 1908 fire season “was the last major outbreak in the Northeast until 1947; almost the last of a wretched, lethal litany for the Lake States, alone exceeded in acreage by the 1910 season. Only in the West was it a mere foreshadowing; there the 1910 fires would obliterate its memory.”[19]

Again, drought was to blame, “a vast, stubborn drought that gradually settled across the northern tier of the United States and over the Canadian border.” There were serious outbreaks in Michigan, Maine, Massachusetts, Long Island, and the Adirondacks. With the arrival of rain, attention shifted to the Western states and Canada. “The ravenous flames moved to the Rocky Mountains. Large fires swept along the Bitterroots, mostly feeding on the fresh slashings of the Milwaukee Railway and tempering the raw staffs of the Lolo and the Coeur d’Alene national forests. The real terror, however, struck the Elk River valley of British Columbia, where an immense patch of long-smoldering fires, fanned by winds, wiped out the coal-mining towns of Fernie and Hosmer, killed more than seventy-five, including ‘many of the fire fighters,’ and burned out bridges and rolling stock of the Cana­dian Pacific and Great Northern railways.”[20]

But this was only the beginning.

By then the fires that made 1908 notorious had begun. They had seemingly leaped from British Columbia to Minnesota and Michigan before continuing to New York and New England. On 5 September, after burning three days, widespread fires obliterated Chisholm, Min­nesota, its residents fleeing in fifteen boxcars provided by the Great Northern, leaving the state militia to guard the smoking ruins against looters. A subsiding wind spared nearby towns like Buhl and Nash­wauk. Other fires threatened Grand Marais and Hibbing; they de­stroyed the center of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, scene of the 1871 fire tragedy; they spread into the Oneida Indian Reservation; they burned villages around Rhinelander and Escanaba; they raged over the Mesabi Range. A homesteader and his two sons, aged 12 and 14, died fighting the flames near the Otter River. By 11 September there were fires in Maine and a yellow haze had settled over New York State. From its Washing­ton office the Forest Service announced that the year’s burns would go down as “one of the worst in the last quarter century.” Then the Adirondacks caught fire, and the Catskills, and woodlands in Massa­chusetts, and in Winchester, Connecticut, and across western Pennsyl­vania, where “Forest Wardens in Lycoming and Clinton Counties were ordered by the authorities to shoot persons discovered starting fires in the woods,” and the lot of it, the smoke from conflagrations in the Lake States and Canada and from thousands of unquenchable fires through­out the Northeast, covered New York City in a “heavy gray pall.” Smoke even wafted in from the vicinity of Atlantic City.[21]

And they did not stop. Fires continued through September and into October. “By mid-October fires still raged over a hundred square miles of Michigan, and the awful toll of burned towns, ruined farms, and casualties mounted.” They burned in the more frontier regions of Michigan, Minnesota, but also in the settled regions of the Berkshires, the Blue Mountains, the Hempstead Plains, and the Adirondacks, until finally the rains came. The post-mortem constituted a wake-up call to establish better fire-protection regimes: the fledgling US Forest Service took it up.[22]

The year 1908 was traumatic, not least because the eastern part of the country was so hard hit. The American Forestry Association in its monthly journal Conservation offered the following post-mortem:

When the final reports for the year 1908 are received and the figures tabulated, it will be found that never in the nation’s history have forest fires been so numerous, or their consequences so disastrous as in the year now drawing to a close. No sooner have the fires died out in one region than they have sprung up in another. The fires in the far West and Northwest are extinguished and immediately we read reports of forest conflagrations farther east. The ravaging flames in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan burn themselves out and Maine takes up the story. Back again to the Adirondacks and the White Mountains; then the telegraph tells us of the wasting of Pennsylvania’s scanty forests, and before the smoke has pased [sic] away, the scene shifts again to Michigan. Maryland and New Jersey also suffer, and the National Capital itself is shrouded in a pall of smoke from burning forests within fifty miles of the Washington Monument.[23]

Tell us again about how we are only now entering the Pyrocene?

1910

But 1908 was not 1910. “The Year of the Fires” in Dr. Pyne’s characterization, as per the book of the same name.

Here again, drought was the lead character, the recurring theme. “That April delivered no spring showers … was [unusual]. No further snow fell; the sparse rains failed to spark a rapid greenup of grasses. For Idaho overall, March had been drier than any known to date; April and May had a deficit of 20 percent, worse up north; June was to break records for dryness; July had only half its usual rain, and that accompanied by dry lightning. Uneven rainfall is common in the West, month by month and year by year, but the drought that began to press down gently over the northern and especially the northwestern United States in the spring of 1910 was not. August would be the driest month ever, of any month, since the onset of reliable records in 1894.”[24]

In these circumstances, small fires fed into big ones, which once again spread across the northern tier of the continent. “As the weeks wore on, the fires crept and swept, thickening during calms into smoke as dense as pea fog, then flaring into wild rushes through the crowns until they eventually scorched millions of acres across the middle tier of North America and, climbing to a summit in August, shattered vast patches of Washington, Oregon, and especially Idaho and Montana. It flung smoke to New England; its soot sank into Greenland ice. In its peak moment, the fires bore no more relation to burning snags than a creek’s runoff to the Mississippi River in flood. Towering flames burned conifer stands like prairie grass and came over the ridges, as one survivor recalled, with the sound of a thousand trains rushing over a thousand steel trestles. One ranger said simply, the mountains roared.”[25]

Again, the Lake States were hit hard. “Whatever snow the Rocky Mountains still held, there was none that May amid the immense forests that framed the Great Lakes, and spring fires returned like migrating geese. Of the major fire regions, this was the most prone to explode…. So far the early fires of 1910 had been subdued in the Northeast and had passed unobserved in the South. But they struck the Lake States with a howl. Before they ceased, flames scorched as much land as any year on record, and no year since then has approached their scale, not even that dark decade of drought the 1930s.”[26]

This was not all. The coup de grâce came on August 20–21, the days of the so-called Big Blowup, in which 3,000,000 acres went up in smoke, mainly in Idaho and Montana, making it the largest fire in US history. “Smoke from the fire was said to have been seen as far east as Watertown, New York, and as far south as Denver, Colorado. It was reported that at night, five hundred miles (800 km) out into the Pacific Ocean, ships could not navigate by the stars because the sky was cloudy with smoke. The extreme scorching heat of the sudden blowup can be attributed to the expansive Western white pine forests that covered much of northern Idaho at the time. Hydrocarbons in the trees’ resinous sap boiled out and created a cloud of highly flammable gas that blanketed hundreds of square miles, which then spontaneously detonated dozens of times, each time sending tongues of flame thousands of feet into the sky and creating a rolling wave of fire that destroyed anything and everything in its path.”[27] Even though the fires occurred mainly in unpopulated, remote areas, 78 people, mostly firefighters, lost their lives. This was the first major conflagration to put the US Forest Service in the spotlight. From this point, fire protection became the mantra, and the Forest Service became the spokesman for a fire prevention ideology that would dominate the way people think about forests for the next 60 years.

A poem commemorating the fallen firefighters appeared in the November edition of American Forests (formerly Conservation):

THE FIRE FIGHTERS
By Arthur Chapman

“Where’s Smith and Hennessy, Edwards, Stowe—
Where’s Casey and Link and Small?”
The ranger listened, and murmured low:
“They’re missing, Chief, that’s all.

‘‘Where the smoke rolls high, I saw them ride—
They waved good-bye to me;
Good God! they might as well have tried
To put back the rolling sea.

“I rode for aid till my horse fell dead,
Then waded the mountain stream:
The pools I swam were red, blood red,
And covered with choking steam.

“There was never a comrade to shout ‘Hello,’
Though I flung back many a call;
The brave boys knew what it meant to go —
They’re missing, Chief— that’s all.”[28]

Yet even then, the fires were not done. In October, Minnesota was hit once again. The fires there “were worse than bad: They were dreadful. The endless drought across the northern borderlands had rendered the fall fire season into a horror…. The fires were extreme because their informing conditions in 1910 were extreme. Deal enough hands of stud poker, and eventually you will draw a full house. On the evening of 7 October the last card turned over, and a regional conflagration resulted, exactly one day ahead and thirty-nine years after the great fires that gutted Chicago and Peshtigo on 8 October 1871 under virtually identical circumstances.”[29]

What were we saying about the Pyrocene?

1918

We are not done yet with our fire chronicles. Nor are we done with Minnesota: “Compared with other great conflagrations of historical record, the fires which swept over northeastern Minnesota during the afternoon and night of Saturday, October 12, 1918, will easily take rank among those of exceptional character as to area, rapidity of travel, loss of life and property, and general devastation in the regions affected,” wrote H. W. Richardson in the Geographical Review.[30]

Again, the leading theme was drought. “The conditions which favored the full development of the great fires were primarily those of drought (the season being the driest for 48 years) and the fresh winds that occurred on October 12.” And, as is often the case, it started not as one fire but many, “fifty to seventy-five or more which united to a considerable extent, were fanned to huge proportions by the wind, and then, with the increasing energy developed by the consequent violent air movement attending rapid combustion on such an enormous scale, advanced over vast areas with almost incredible speed.”[31]

As the record-breaking drought had caused a tinder-­dry condition of vege­tation, a wind of any sustained force was all that was required to put into activity a series of united conflagrations that gathered tremendous impetus and quickly thwarted the most desperate attempts at effective control. Reliable reports show that in the immediate vicinity of the big fires the effect was comparable to a grate fire of enormous propor­tions; that there was an accompanying air movement or combustive draft of hurricane force; that the wind velocity was immeasurably greater in the immediate vicinity of the fires than it was a few miles distant, as in Duluth; and that there was a very noticeable decrease of wind from the fire zone outward. It has been estimated by some that while the wind at the Weather Bureau Station was blowing at the rate of 60 miles an hour it must surely have been blowing at a rate of 80 to 90 miles adjoining the fire fronts from two to six miles or more distant from the station. There was an attendant deafening roar of fire and wind combined. In numerous instances people were thrown flat on the ground, and some automobiles were overturned by the wind in the vicinity of the fires. There are no authenticated eases of such accidents as these at the time except near the fire fronts.[32]

For Richardson, this was the “most recent of Minnesota’s holocausts.”[33] Is anyone aware nowadays that Minnesota suffered repeated holocausts?

The loss of life and property were correspondingly enormous.

Over 8,000 square miles were affected, and approximately 2,000 square miles of territory, mainly within a radius of 50 to 100 miles of Duluth, were more or less completely burned over, including great tracts of forest—mostly second growth and consisting largely of white pine, tamarack, and birch, as well as vast quantities of cord wood—farm buildings, settlers’ homes, whole villages and one small city, suburban portions of Duluth, and summer homes or cottages and hunting and fishing lodges in the outlying districts…. Nearly 400 persons lost their lives, about 2,000 were more or less seriously burned, and about 13,000 rendered homeless. The loss of live stock was heavy, while the property losses (including several million feet of standing timber, largely second growth, as stated) may reach or exceed $25,000,000 in value, nearly $4,000,000 of the losses occurring in St. Louis County, probably not more than one-fourth of the total being covered by insurance.[34]

Pyrocene? Say again?

1926

“BAD FOREST FIRE WEATHER RESPONSIBLE FOR HEAVY LOSSES IN NORTHWEST.” So shouted the headline in the August-September 1926 edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.[35] The fires were started mainly by lightning: “Notwithstanding the increasing recreational use of the forests, extraordinary precautions taken to control the use of fire by tourists, campers, and smokers reduced the number of fires caused by human agencies below the average for previous years.”

The main culprit was, once again, drought. The fires were “due primarily to meteorological conditions. In the states along the Canadian border and in the Pacific northwest the precipitation was considerably less than the seasonal average. In June and early July this region suffered from high temperatures and low atmospheric humidity which caused the forest leaf litter, down timber and other debris to become extremely dry and left the National Forests an easy prey to the dry electrical storms common in the higher altitudes.” In fact, “Reports indicate that in middle July the atmospheric conditions pre­vailing in Washington and Oregon were the worst ever known, and fires were burning in all parts of these states.”

1929

“DISASTROUS FIRE WEATHER OF SEPTEMBER, 1929.” Yet another screaming headline, this time in the December 1930 issue of the Bulletin.[36] When have we heard this before? “The outstanding features of the fire-weather season for 1929 were its extreme dryness, its length, and the heavy fire losses in September, and subsequently thereto, west of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington. It was by far the most severe and most strenuous season within the history of organized forest fire protection in these two states, and probably for as far back as we have any record or knowledge of forest fires for these sections.” Once again, drought: “The worst drought in the history of Weather Bureau records prevailed from June 20th to December 7th, not only in Oregon and Washington, but also in all the far western states as well.” All in all, a memorable year – among a slew of memorable years.

The fire weather season of 1929, within the history of Weather Bureau records, was undoubtedly the worst that has ever occurred in the Pacific Northwest, at least, since 1868 when heavy fire losses occurred in September. Fire weather conditions for September of 1902 were bad and severe fire losses were sustained, but available weather records do not indicate that they were as bad as for September of 1929. The extremely hazardous fire weather conditions which pre­vailed during the latter part of the fire weather season of 1929 will long be remembered by the forest fire protective of Oregon, and of all the Pacific Northwest as well.

1947

After a period of fire containment, things flared up again in 1947. Maine experienced its Great Fires, “a series of forest fires in the State of Maine in the United States that destroyed a total area of 17,188 acres (6,956 ha) of wooded land on Mount Desert Island and 200,000 acres (81,000 ha) statewide. Collectively, the fires killed a total of 16 people.”[37] These fires destroyed nine towns, 851 homes, and 397 cottages, and left 2500 people homeless; even the crew of the USS Little Rock helped fight the fires, saving the town of Hollis and other villages.[38]

From this point forward, the relationship of fire to civilization takes a different turn. Hitherto, it was mainly frontier settlement; now it was mainly remote areas – national forests and extended timberlands. In the post-World War II era, fire gradually began making its presence felt in the midst of the expanding area of human settlement known as suburbia and exurbia, a consequence of people taking up residence in the midst of the natural environment, not to work it, but to enjoy it as a sort of living museum. In so do­ing, they were exposing themselves to the natural phenomena of those environments, such as wildlife, but also wildfire. The expansion of the urban-wildland interface is under way, and it, not the sudden appearance of fire per se, is the chief factor behind the advent of Pyne’s Pyrocene.

Brief Fire History of Australia

An exploration of Australia’s fire history will give us a better understanding of this. Australia is the most fire-ridden continent on earth. Its settlement is a tale of conflict with fire, cooperation with fire, and coming to terms with fire, just as the aboriginal inhabitants did prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

It is a gripping tale, one in which destruction is never far away; fire must always be kept under control, either to be used in a constructive way or to be suffered in a destructive way.

This is a lesson Old Australia learned early on. However, the New Australia of the postwar world no longer felt the need to bend to fire’s imperative. In keeping with the resurgence of ecological awareness especially since the 1960s, the New Australia felt it could forge a new relationship with nature, one of harmony and balance.

Ash Wednesday 1983

Then came Ash Wednesday, February 16th, 1983. It was a wakeup call: the suburban, exurban way of life would come at a cost, for there is no such thing as living at ease in the midst of a benign natural world. Nature has its own rules.

For decades prior, human settlement had been inexorably expanding into the hinterlands, or, in other words, city folks were moving out into the bush. This urbanized mass of humanity, outfitted with a great love of the outdoors and a great concern for nature as they understood it, carried with it a newfound intolerance of the controlled fire that the veteran inhabitants of the bush had practiced for ages. It was this fire that had kept fuel loads under precarious control. For New Australia, however, fire was something to be done away with.

A rude awakening was in store.

The fires that ravaged Victoria and South Australia on Ash Wednesday left a trail of carnage in their wake: 75 deaths and the loss of more than 3,000 properties, 340,000 sheep and 18,000 head of cattle. Monetary damages were estimated at $400m ($1.32bn in 2020 Australian dollars).

Black Friday 1939

But was this unprecedented? Again, no; not by a long shot. The Ash Wednesday fires only eclipsed the previous worst outbreak of fire (in terms of lives lost) in modern Australian history – January 13th, 1939, Black Friday, “the superlative Australian holocaust.”[39]

It was Black Friday that had originally urged Australia to come to terms with fire, to embrace the need to fight fire with fire. This traumatic experience, “the Götterdämmerung of European Australia,” had had the same kind of impact on the Australian psyche as did the fall of Singapore a few years later.[40] Some decades later, “even before the ashes cooled, Australians began comparing Ash Wednesday to Black Friday.”[41]

“The Black Friday bushfires of 13 January 1939, in Victoria, Australia, were part of the devastating 1938–1939 bushfire season in Australia, which saw bushfires burning for the whole summer, and ash fall as far away as New Zealand.”[42] The conditions leading up to the fires of Black Friday were no less daunting than Ash Wednesday’s; in fact, they were even more severe. The Royal Commissioner charged with investigating the fires, Leonard E. B. Stretton, depicted them in stark outline:

The month of January of the year 1939 came towards the end of a long drought which had been aggravated by a severe hot, dry summer season. For more than twenty years the State of Victoria had not seen its countryside and forests in such travail. Creeks and springs ceased to run. Water storages were depleted. Provincial towns were facing the probability of cessation of water supply. In Melbourne, more than a million inhabitants were subjected to restrictions upon the use of water. Throughout the countryside, the farmers were carting water, if such was available, for their stock and themselves. The rich plains, denied their beneficient rains, lay bare and baking; and the forests, from the foothills to the alpine heights, were tinder. The soft carpet of the forest floor was gone; the bone-dry litter crackled underfoot; dry heat and hot dry winds worked upon a land already dry, to suck from it the last, least drop of moisture. Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy.[43]

The result was no less devastating. “Seventy-one lives were lost. Sixty-nine mills were burned. Millions of acres of fine forest, of almost incalculable value, were destroyed or badly damaged. Townships were obliterated in a few minutes. Mills, houses, bridges, tramways, machinery, were burned to the ground; men, cattle, horses, sheep, were devoured by the fires or asphyxiated by the scorching debilitated air. Generally, the numerous fires which during December, in many parts of Victoria, had been burning separately, as they do in any summer, either ‘under control’ as it is falsely and dangerously called, or entirely untended, reached the climax of their intensity and joined forces in a devastating confluence of flame on Friday, the 13th of January.”[44] But more than Victoria was affected. “New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory also faced severe fires during the 1939 season. Destructive fires burned from the NSW South Coast, across the ranges and inland to Bathurst, while Sydney was ringed by fires which entered the outer suburbs, and fires raged towards the new capital at Canberra. South Australia was also struck by the Adelaide Hills bushfires.”[45]

Black Friday was only the “highlight” of a long history of wildfire. For Australia is the continent of fire, the most fire-prone of any region that has been brought under the thrall of human civilization. As such, there have been other instances of pyrogenic disaster.

Black Sunday 1926

There was 1926, when Victoria, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, and Queensland were inundated by fire. All during February and March, Gippsland in rural Victoria was rocked by fires costing a total of 60 lives and burning 400,000 hectares of forestland. On Black Sunday, February 14th, 1926, a single town, Warburton, witnessed the loss of 31 people.

Red Tuesday 1898

Gippsland was also the scene of Red Tuesday, February 1st, 1898, which came in the midst of the so-called Long Drought, lasting from 1895 to 1903. It saw 12 people perish, 2,000 homes destroyed, and 260,000 hectares burnt. “In addition to the human loss of life, thousands of sheep, cattle and pigs perished in the disaster, not to mention countless wildlife,” a refrain which can be repeated for every such instance.[46]

Black Thursday 1851

Finally, in this abbreviated list of Australian disasters in history, there was the primordial day of fire disaster, Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851, “the first of the great holocausts that flash across Australia’s history with the coming of European settlement.”[47] Here again, intense drought set the stage. And then there was the weather. “The weather reached record extremes. By eleven it was about 47 °C (117 °F) in the shade. The air cooled to 43 °C (109 °F) by one o’clock and rose to 45 °C (113 °F) around four o’clock.” Scenes which would be repeated in future events were recorded here for the first time.

Survivors claimed the air was so full of smoke and heat that their lungs seemed to collapse. The air was so dark it made the roads seem bright. Pastures and plains became shrivelled wastelands: water-holes disappeared, creeks dried up, and trees turned into combustible timber. Clouds of smoke filled the air; forests and ranges became one large ‘sheet of flames’. The hot north wind was so strong that thick black smoke reached northern Tasmania, creating a murky mist, resembling a combination of smoke and fog. Homes, crops and gardens were consumed by the rushing fire leaving a quarter of Victoria in a heap of desolate ruins. The community fled to water to escape the suffocating air around them, returning after everything was over to the sight of ‘blackened homesteads’ and the charred bodies of animals that could not escape. The weather at sea was even ‘more fearful than on shore’. The intense heat could be felt 32 km (20 mi) out to sea where a ship came under burning ember attack and was covered in cinders and dust.[48]

The Perils of the Expanding Urban-Wildland Interface

The aboriginals had originally fired the Australian landscape, and fire was their Swiss Army knife. By using controlled fire, they could keep fire from exploding uncontrollably; its use also enable them to control the wildlife upon which their lives depended; they could steer the ecosystem in the direction of plants useful to themselves, and they could, of course, warm themselves with it. Ironically, they put the land into a shape tailor-made to receive the European invaders, when these arrived with their cattle and sheep. It took the Europeans awhile to realize that they too needed to use fire if they wanted to keep this wilderness under some sort of control. They took their lessons from the natives and expanded willy-nilly into the bush, where they learned the hard way that fire is a cruel mistress.[49] Fire became a way of life, no matter how incongruous it might seem to those unacquainted with the ways of the Outback.

Even so, fire control was a haphazard affair, without much control locally, let alone state-wide or nationally. It took Black Friday of 1939 to drill into the public awareness the need to control fire lest it be the undoing of the country. Controlled fire became the order of the day, administered or coordinated primarily by foresters. And the Australian approach as it developed, took on a shape that was quite unorthodox in the eyes of other countries, particularly the US. The latter had invested heavily in fire suppression, even to the point of aerial tankers to help douse out-of-control flames. Australia developed aerial fire ignition, the controlled setting of fires from airplanes – the only feasible way to conduct a controlled-fire strategy in a country with such vast remote areas.

But as the New Australia took shape, the relationship of city to countryside was transformed. In the post-war period, prosperity brought new patterns of living, giving expression to the desire to escape the city and get closer to nature. But one did not embrace the traditional ways of the bush; instead, one brought along one’s own mentality and imposed it on the bush. New Australia did not embrace fire, far from it. For New Australia, the approach to fire control laboriously constructed over decades smacked more of vandalism than of wise use.

The reconstitution of Australian society after the war paralleled a reconstruction of the Australian environment. The process took several decades before it became ev­ident, slowed at first by the postwar demand for wool, wheat, and basic commodi­ties, then hastened as a service economy matured and “new” Australians became a majority and asserted new values. By the 1970s the reformation was undeniable and probably irreversible. The rural scene—that roughly grazed and farmed land­scape that was the legacy of European colonization—broke up into an archipelago of more specialized sites. The artificial unity that agriculture had imposed lost its grip. Farming and forestry disentangled; environments that graziers had crudely homogenized fractionated back into separate identities as distinctive biotas; small rural towns decayed, while the metropolitan centers spread grasping tentacles through an increasingly urbanized bush.[50]

Those who through bitter experience had worked out Australian fire-control policy asked the pointed question: how were we to deal with the inevitable fires that arise in the midst of a fuel-laden environment of the Australian magnitude, when we keep expanding the urban-wildland interface?

Ash Wednesday 1983 provided something of an answer, and at the same time raised the question in a way that no verbal inquiry could. “Ash Wednesday did not shatter the impasse over fire practices. It did not inspire an intellectual or institutional reformation. The interrogation of Ash Wednesday yielded no new breakthroughs in the theory and practice of bushfire protection; rather it con­firmed what decades of hard experience had accumulated. Ash Wednesday was less a fact than a specter. It appeared like a recurring nightmare, long forgotten, that suddenly flashed back into consciousness like a scream in the dark.”[51]

Since then, Australia has tottered between the need to suppress fire and the need to use it. As habitation has expanded out of the fire-safe alcoves of the asphalt jungle, the conundrum has become ever more pronounced. The urban-wildland interface has only gained more surface area of contact. The confrontation between civilization and pyrophytic (pyrophyte being Greek for “fire-plant”) ecosystems is only heightening. In the wake of Ash Wednesday, “citizens—with more resolution than insight—often rebuilt their houses on the same sites, in the same styles, with the same perception of the bushfire hazard, with at most some marginal improvements in design.”[52]

And yet we are told that the fire season of 2019–2020 was the worst in history and that the problem is a new one, caused by that Cause of Causes, the one thing that can be relied on to be behind every societal ill we face – climate change. But climate change is only one factor in the mix. Even if the climate is on a warming trend, it does nothing to change the fact that Australia already is a civilization built on an ecological volcano. “Even without global warming… fires will continue to burn wherever fuel, weather, and topography permit. No amount of human intervention will succeed in permanently excluding fire from the forest, so the more realistic challenge is for humans to learn to coexist with fire, rather than to attempt to eliminate it.”[53]

Have we yet learned the lesson of Ash Wednesday? It is the supposedly non-interventionist expansion of human habitation itself into the wildlands, in which fire quite simply is an indispensable element, that creates this problem of wildfire, indeed megafire – for human beings, while they wish to embrace nature, cannot avoid the reality of nature, which includes wildfire and the devastation it brings, not only to plant life but to animal life, a devastation which, in nature, leads to restoration, in an ever-repeating cycle. The question is still not answered – how do we reduce fuel loads in these forest and wildland environments, while simultaneously expanding into those environments, not in a cultivating, controlling manner, but in a spectatorial, indeed worshipful one, in so doing blocking the way to the reduction of those fuel loads? As Shellenberger notes, “The build-up of wood fuel and more houses near forests, not climate change, explain why there are more, and more dangerous, fires in Australia and California.”[54] This is the crux of the issue, and climate change will not alter it. What’s more, putting the emphasis there loses sight of what really is at issue.

This article is excerpted from A Theology of Natureto be published on December 9.


[1] For example, Chazdon, Second Growth: The Promise of Tropical Forest Regeneration in an Age of Deforestation; Hecht, The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence.

[2] Pyne, “The Planet Is Burning Around Us: Is It Time to Declare the Pyrocene?”

[3] Fobes, “Historic Forest Fires in Maine,” 271.

[4] Fobes, “Historic Forest Fires in Maine,” 271.

[5] Wells, Fire at Peshtigo, 2, 3, 25, 35, 41–42.

[6] Wikipedia, “Peshtigo Fire.”

[7] Wilkinson, Memorials of the Minnesota Forest Fires in the Year 1894: With a Chapter on the Forest Fires in Wisconsin in the Same Year, 14–15.

[8] Wilkinson, Memorials of the Minnesota Forest Fires,16.

[9] Wilkinson, Memorials of the Minnesota Forest Fires,16–17.

[10] Wilkinson, Memorials of the Minnesota Forest Fires,19.

[11] Wilkinson, Memorials of the Minnesota Forest Fires,20.

[12] Brown and Brown, A History of the Great Minnesota Forest Fires : Sandstone, Hinckley, Mission Creek, Pokegama, Skunk Lake, 8, 9.

[13] Hinckley Fire Museum, “The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894.”

[14] “An unknown number of Native Americans and backcountry dwellers were also killed in the fire; bodies continued to be found years later.” Wikipedia, “Great Hinckley Fire.”

[15] Quoted in Minnesota Alliance for Geographic Education, Macalester College, “The Great Fire of 1894: The Story of the Hinckley Fire.”

[16] Pyne, Fire in America, 339.

[17] Wikipedia, “Yacolt Burn.”

[18] Pyne, Fire in America, 339–40.

[19] Pyne, Year of the Fires, 19.

[20] Pyne, Year of the Fires, 20.

[21] Pyne, Year of the Fires, 20–21.

[22] Pyne, Year of the Fires, 21.

[23] “Editorial: The Forest Fires,” 625. Emphasis added.

[24] Pyne, Year of the Fires, 56.

[25] Pyne, Year of the Fires, 2.

[26] Pyne, Year of the Fires, 71.

[27] Wikipedia, “Great Fire of 1910.”

[28] “The Fire Fighters,” 639.

[29] Pyne, Year of the Fires, 228.

[30] Richardson, “The Northeastern Minnesota Forest Fires of October 12, 1918,” 220.

[31] Richardson, “The Northeastern Minnesota Forest Fires of October 12, 1918,” 221.

[32] Richardson, “The Northeastern Minnesota Forest Fires of October 12, 1918,” 230.

[33] Richardson, “The Northeastern Minnesota Forest Fires of October 12, 1918,” 220.

[34] Richardson, “The Northeastern Minnesota Forest Fires of October 12, 1918,” 220.

[35] “Bad Fire Weather Responsible for Heavy Losses in Northwest.”

[36] Dague, “Disastrous Fire Weather of September, 1929.”

[37] Wikipedia, “Great Fires of 1947.”

[38] New England Historical Society, “The Year a State Burned: Maine Fires of 1947 Wipe Out 9 Towns.”

[39] Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, loc. 6778.

[40] Pyne, Burning Bush, loc. 6801.

[41] Pyne, Burning Bush, loc. 8957.

[42] Wikipedia, “Black Friday Bushfires.”

[43] Report of the Royal Commission, 5.

[44] Report of the Royal Commission, 5.

[45] Wikipedia, “Black Friday Bushfires.”

[46] “Australia’s Most Deadly and Destructive Bushfires.”

[47] Pyne, Burning Bush, loc. 4822.

[48] Wikipedia, “Black Thursday Bushfires.”

[49] One example in literature among many: Anthony Trollope, Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874).

[50] Pyne, Burning Bush, loc. 7945.

[51] Pyne, Burning Bush, loc. 9011.

[52] Pyne, Burning Bush, loc. 9030.

[53] Omi, Forest Fires: A Reference Handbook, 14.

[54] Shellenberger, “On Behalf of Environmentalists.”