Historical Link Between Humans, Fire Investigated
September 15, 2011

Historical Link Between Humans And Fire Investigated


Mankind's relationship with fire, and the ways people have historically used and managed these flames, are among the topics covered by a team of international researchers in a new study, published in Wednesday's edition of the Journal of Biogeography.

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), "Fires have continuously occurred on Earth for at least the last 400 million years. But since the 1970s, the frequency of wildfires has increased at least four-fold, and the total size of burn areas has increased at least six-fold in the western United States alone. Steadily rising, the U.S.'s bill for fighting wildfires now totals $1.5 billion per year."

"The paper," which was organized UC Santa Barbara's (UCSB) National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), "presents a new framework for considering wildfires based on the Earth's pre-human fire history, ways that humans have historically used and managed fire and ways that they currently do so," the NSF said in a statement posted to their official website.

A UCSB press release describing the study notes that the 18-person research staff looked at the "use and misuse" of fire by humanity over the years. The study, entitled "The Human Dimension of Fire Regimes on Earth," purports to explore a "historical framework" of the issue, allowing others to "develop a context for considering the relationships humans have with fire."

"There are often needless debates about whether or not fire has any place in flammable landscapes," M. J. S. Bowman, lead author of the paper and a professor at the School of Plant Science, University of Tasmania, said in a statement Wednesday.

"These debates are not helpful because of the intertwined relationships among humans, landscapes, and fire throughout human history, which blur any distinction between natural and human-set fires," Bowman added.

According to the UCSB press release, the research looks at four different "phases" of fires: those that occur naturally, without human influence; those used and controlled by hunter-gatherers in order to manage landscapes for both game and food production; those used by agricultural workers in order to clear land and grow food; and those used by industrial firms to power modern society (i.e. the burning of fossil fuels.

All of these phases, they note, still currently occur.

"Our fossil-fuel-dependent economy is yet another extension of our dependence on combustion," Jennifer K. Balch, postdoctoral associate at NCEAS and the paper's second author, added. "We have effectively put fire in a box."

"The research highlights the fact that understanding the relative influences of climate, human ignition sources, and cultural practices in particular environments is critical to the development of sustainable fire management to protect human health, property, ecosystems, and diminish greenhouse gas pollution," the UCSB press release said.

Bowman added: "Fire is such a defining feature of humans, and we are the only animals that use fire," Bowman said. "We could have been called Homo igniteus as much as Homo sapiens."


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