Widen the aperture a bit, and we can envision Earth entering a fire age comparable to the ice ages of the Pleistocene, complete with the pyric equivalent of ice sheets, pluvial lakes, periglacial outwash plains, mass extinctions, and sea level changes. It’s an epoch in which fire is both prime mover and principal expression.
Even climate history has become a subset of fire history. Humanity’s firepower underwrites the Anthropocene, which is the outcome not just of human meddling but of a particular kind of meddling through humanity’s species monopoly over fire.
The interaction of these two realms of fire has not been much studied. It’s been a stretch to fully include human fire practices within traditional ecology. But industrial fire, unlike landscape fires, is solely a product of human finagling, and so has stood outside the bounds of ecological science. It’s as though the intellectual sink for understanding can no more hold the new realm of burning than nature can its emissions.
Yet in humanity – the keystone species for fire on Earth – those two arenas of earthly burning, like smoke from separate fires drawn into a single convective column, are merging. Their give and take is reshaping the planet.
In the developed world, industrial combustion arranges agriculture, built environments, peri-urban settings and reserves for wildlands – all the stuff available for landscape fire. Societies even fight landscape fire with the counterforce of industrial fire in the form of pumps, engines, aircraft and vehicles to haul crews. The interaction of the two realms of fire determines not only what gets burned, but also what needs to be burned and isn’t. It changes the road fire drives down.
Add up all the effects, direct and indirect – the areas burning, the areas needing to be burned, the off-site impacts with damaged watersheds and airsheds, the unraveling of biotas, the pervasive power of climate change, rising sea levels, a mass extinction, the disruption of human life and habitats – and you have a pyrogeography that looks eerily like an ice age for fire. You have a Pyrocene. The contours of such an epoch are already becoming visible through the smoke.
If you doubt it, just ask California.
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