Der gefesselte Prometheus by Jacob Jordaens, ca. 1640
As punishment for stealing fire and gifting it to mortals, Zeus had Prometheus bound to a rock while a great eagle ate his liver each day only to have it grow back again for the next. Little did Prometheus know what a powerful and destructive force he had gifted to mankind. Our dance with fire extends far back into our history: the estimates for the earliest definitive evidence of control of fire by a member of the genus Homo range from 0.2 to 1.7 million years ago. Fire is a tool that defines us as humans, no other animals can control it as we do, although our close relatives, the chimpanzees, understand wildfires well enough to monitor them and to safely guide their movements. However, humans are unique in their ability to use fire to cook food, create warmth and protection, and to shape their environment.
As a student of plant ecology, the role of fire in shaping plant communities has fascinated me. Contrary to the impression one may get from learning about fire ecology solely from "Smokey the Bear" PSAs, pyrogenic plant communities exist all over the world; to my knowledge on every continent except perhaps Antarctica. That is not to say that you should wantonly toss matches out of your window while touring the pine barrens here in the northeast, for the intensity and frequency of fires needs to be controlled for the maintenance of certain plant communities, and some more than others require for this to be quite the delicate balancing act. However, certain species require fire in order to prevent being out competed by less fire tolerant species. In the pine barrens, for example, without fire the barrens will proceed through seral stages, eventually resulting in a (probably oak-hickory) climax forest. Without periodically burned habitats in which to grow and reproduce, these fire dependent plant species would go extinct. These pyrogenic plant communities are not at all rare either, look at this map of prescribed burn intervals across the continental United States:
Many plants have evolved traits that not only allow them to survive through or reproduce after a fire, but some actually can encourage the fires that sustain their existence. The Australian plant genus Eucalyptus is especially notorious for its flammability: the concentration of volatile oils such as Eucalyptol in vegetative parts is high enough in some species as to make the plants literally explosive. Plants that display fire-mediated serotiny, where seeds are only released after fire, can only reproduce after a fire; in the United States, this trait is especially common among conifers such as the pines. The evolution of many of these fire dependent plants has been to a large part encouraged and guided by the use of fire by man.
This should make Smokey cringe - An Australian Aboriginal fire stick
Man recognized quite early on this power fire held for shaping the environment. Many of the grassland and other pyrogenic plant communities around the world were spread and evolved under the pressure of regular burning by indigenous societies. Many early hunter-gatherers were effectively ecosystem engineers: they recognized that fire could be used to clear forest and create open grasslands which were perfect for hunting, and they used fires to guide the movements of animals into these open areas. Later, tropical agriculturists recognized the utility in using fire to clear dense tropical vegetation and release plant nutrients into the soil, pioneering the swidden or 'slash-and-burn' systems of agriculture. The Australian Aborigines are especially renown for their use of fire, living as so called domiculturists - in a way domesticating their environment with management tools, such as fire, in order to increase the availability of edible plants to gather and game to hunt.
Wildfires are reported in media outlets often solely in negative terms: ie. in quantities of human life lost or economic damage. But never does one hear of the role fire plays in sustaining life. Without periodic destruction by burning, many beautiful and diverse ecosystems would decline, slowly being succeeded by fire intolerant communities. Besides, many of the horrors of wildfires are only a result of human ignorance of the intrinsic reliance on fire of so much of the world's flora: when one builds a human settlement in the middle of Eucalyptus forests and suppresses fires while fuel loads build up, what can one expect but the occurrence of colossal wildfires such as the Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria, Australia? Wildfires are not necessarily something to be feared, unless you have been so unwise as to make your residence amidst a fire-prone region. Instead, fire's ability to create life should be fully embraced. We should learn from our relatives, the chimpanzees, who do not panic at the sight of fire, but calmly observe its effects and evade its destructive path.