Bring fire’s essential role in nature back into balance by treating it as a partner in regenerating the land.
Fire ecology explains how fire interacts with ecosystems. Looking beyond the misconception that all fire is bad, this discipline explores how properly stewarded fire can actually prevent larger, more dangerous wildfires and boost biodiversity. Indigenous peoples have practiced fire stewardship for millennia, embracing fire’s regenerative properties, until colonial laws in places like North America and Australia criminalized these practices and replaced them with fire suppression and exclusion. This shift has collided with land degradation and climate change to create ideal conditions for uncontrollable fire. In many parts of the world, fire seasons are now longer, the number of fires has increased, the amount of land burned is more extensive, and the cost of firefighting has risen dramatically. In the face of what some are calling the Pyrocene age, fire ecologists and Indigenous leaders are working together to bring “good fire” back to the land.
Learn and share the science behind “good fire.” Public perception of fire solely as a threat shapes policies that hamper fire stewardship efforts. Educating yourself and others about fire ecology can help. Here are some key points to learn about fire ecology and the current state of fire:
- Long before fire ecology emerged as a scientific discipline, Indigenous people around the world understood the importance of fire in caring for the land. European settlers instead saw fire as a threat to valuable timber and introduced laws mandating fire suppression (putting out most fires) and fire exclusion (putting out all fires)—practices that are still ingrained in many fire management programs today.
- Scientists have now employed fire ecology to discover that fire suppression and exclusion have created what’s called a fire deficit: the reduction in acreage burned by wildfires over a long period of time that leads to fuel buildup and consequently increases the risk of large, catastrophic wildfires. Some scientists in the United States call this the Smokey Bear effect—referring to the country’s longest-running public-service campaign that pushes a message of fire suppression. These scientists recommend moving from a militaristic “war on fire” toward embracing fire’s regenerative possibilities.
- Though climate change is not the sole cause of increasingly severe and frequent wildfires, the hotter, drier conditions it creates are a major contributing factor. Wildfires themselves are in turn contributing to climate change by releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere—emitting more carbon annually than global road, rail, shipping and air transport combined. For example, emissions from Siberia’s fires in 2021 alone were greater than Germany’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.
- Wildfires are now part of a deadly feedback loop: increased global emissions lead to higher temperatures that create drier, more fire-prone conditions. This leads to more fires, which emit more carbon, and the cycle continues. Better fire management in the immediate term and reduced carbon emissions in the long run are critical to breaking this cycle and restoring fire’s beneficial role in nature. It all starts with fire ecology.
- Fire ecology is built on three core concepts: that nature needs fire to thrive (fire dependence), that the history of fire in each ecosystem can help shape its future (fire history), and that fire’s natural role changes depending on the landscape (fire regime). In a nutshell, fire ecology takes a closer look at fire’s relationship with nature to offer a blueprint for smarter fire management.
- A hallmark of smarter fire management is prescribed burning: carefully timed, low-intensity fires intended to remove built-up fuel (such as dry underbrush), boost biodiversity, and regenerate important grasses and perennials. This practice has been used for millennia around the world by Indigenous people and goes by many names, including cultural burning, swailing, and fire-stick farming. Unfortunately, in places with a history of fire suppression, the overgrown vegetation that would otherwise have been cleared by fire has created tinderbox conditions that now make prescribed burning riskier.
- Another way to put fire ecology into practice is by restoring ecosystems that have become more vulnerable to fire through deforestation and invasive species. For example, Israeli forest officials are using “tree swapping” to reduce fire risk—removing nonnative Aleppo pines that spark easily in a blaze and replacing them with less flammable olive trees and Jerusalem oak.
- Fire ecology has applications across many habitats beyond forests. They can range from “cooler” burns on Mozambique’s savannas designed to cut emissions from larger wildfires, to tracking and responding to the impact of fires caused by cattle ranches near the Paraná River Delta marshes of Argentina.
Support the renewal of Indigenous fire stewardship. The suppression of Indigenous fire wisdom and practices has deeply harmed Indigenous communities and culture. Now that fire managers around the world are beginning to recognize the benefits of fire, they are looking to Indigenous leaders to bring ancient wisdom back into practice.
- Learn more about the past, present, and future of fire stewardship through the eyes of Indigenous leaders on the Good Fire podcast and from Dr. Frank Lake, a Karuk and Yurok tribe member coleading the reintroduction of prescribed fire in California’s Klamath River basin.
- Follow Indigenous perspectives on current events, especially related to fire practices and policies, through news sources like High Country News and others around the world.
- Join or support collaborative efforts like the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network that are revitalizing traditional fire practices in a modern context. Refer to Key Players below for communities and organizations to support.
Practice and promote fire safety. Bringing good fire back to the land should be left to experts who work in controlled conditions, but we can all play a part in fire stewardship by preventing the start or spread of accidental fires—especially for those who live close to wild places (sometimes called the wildland-urban interface or WUI). According to a report from the WWF, 96 percent of the world's fires are now either deliberately lit or unintentionally caused by humans. You can help drive that number down through safer fire practices—whether it’s at home or on your next camping trip—by using basic fire best practices, such as good campfire etiquette, firework safety, and proper use of combustion engine equipment when in dry conditions.
Vote for policies and leaders that put fire ecology into practice. Keep an eye out for fire-related policies on the ballot and be sure to vote for fire management that is rooted in science. Learn from a few standout case studies in fire management below, and check out the Governance section for more information.
- India’s efforts to transform forest governance by decentralizing management to local forest-dwelling communities is an attempt to address past forest-rights injustices. While implementation has been flawed, the concept of democratizing forest management could be explored in many contexts, especially those in which Indigenous people have historically been barred from stewarding their ancestral land.
- Finland uses a regimen of prescribed burning and compartmentalized reforestation that its Nordic neighbors could learn from, especially Sweden, where fires have burned out of control. This practice has managed to bring down the area annually destroyed by wildfires from 100,000-plus hectares a century ago to less than 1,000 today.
- Following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Australia, authorities imposed a stringent risk-reduction standard on utilities, along with a deadline for meeting them. The state simultaneously beefed up its utility regulator, Melbourne-based Energy Safe Victoria (ESV), which now has four times as many arborists and engineers overseeing power infrastructure as it did in 2009.
- The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021 currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate aims to greatly expand the number of acres across federal, state, county, and private lands managed with prescribed burns. The proposed legislation also stipulates important employment initiatives to include women, Indigenous peoples, veterans, and formerly incarcerated people in the prescribed-fire-practitioner workforce.
Protect the land you live on. If you live near landscapes that are prone to fire, get to know those places and the people who care for them—from conservation nonprofits to local firefighters. Show your support by volunteering, donating, or spreading the word about their work.
- If you don’t live in a fire-prone area, learn where fires are happening around the world and lend a hand by supporting and raising the profile of action campaigns led by local activists. Consider focusing on critically important ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest, whose health impacts ecosystems well beyond itself.
Know your rights when sharing fire expertise. Ancestral knowledge and wisdom is critical to bringing fire’s natural role back into balance, and Indigenous people are owed respect and compensation for their contributions. Consider referencing these best practices developed by the Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub as a baseline for what equitable partnership could look like when sharing fire stewardship practices in order to ensure a mutually beneficial and supportive exchange. A few of the key points:
- Require traditional and legal rights to be recognized: Indigenous people should have the option to take the lead on stewarding their ancestral lands.
- Ensure the benefits go both ways: Indigenous fire management programs and partnerships can and should deliver environmental, social, cultural, and economic benefits for local Indigenous communities.
- Establish an open dialogue: The most effective partnerships provide opportunities for all parties to learn from one another, sharing knowledge among community leaders, land managers, and scientists.
Fire Management Leaders
Partner with fire ecologists and Indigenous fire stewards. The science and wisdom these two groups bring can help turn the tide on the current crisis around wildfires. Take guidance from a network of Indigenous leaders and consider these protocols for Indigenous partnerships based on past programs.
- Check out a powerful partnership in action in this video featuring the Northfork Mono Tribe bringing “good fire” to overgrown woodlands.
- Learn more about how government officials are partnering with the Karuk Tribe to adapt to climate change in the Klamath River basin.
Land and Livestock Managers
Apply fire ecology knowledge and practices on your land. The way you care for your land and livestock can help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire—protecting your livelihood and contributing to the greater good at the same time.
- Find inspiration in programs across the U.S. that employ goats, sheep, and cattle to eat down plants that would otherwise become fuel for wildfires.
- Seek expert guidance to use controlled burns on your land to clear brush that could otherwise catch and spread wildfire. Start by contacting your local land management authority or seeking a prescribed burn contractor database like this one compiled for the Southeastern United States.
Build proactive fire management into policies. Though governments around the world have reason to view fire as an enemy, when properly managed it has the potential to be an ally in moving toward a regenerative future. Unlocking that potential starts with tapping into fire ecology to inform smarter policies that move from reactive firefighting toward proactive fire stewardship. For example:
- Push to allocate more funding for fire ecology research and application that can prevent catastrophic wildfires, rather than pumping all funds into suppression.
- Ensure prescribed burns have the proper safety regulations, legal parameters, and public buy-in to be carried out in a timely and effective way.
- Reference this framework for legislation developed by expert lawyers for guidance on internationally accepted ways to address the cultural, social, environmental, and economic dimensions of fire management at all levels.
- Check out an example of what this framework looks like in action in Turkey.
Allow Indigenous communities to care for their ancestral land. The majority of Indigenous cultures have occupied their homelands for thousands of years. The cumulative knowledge they have derived amounts to what could be called local or observational science—centuries of insight about how to interact with their homelands for the greatest benefit to the living systems we all depend on. Restoring Indigenous rights to care for their land is not only the right thing to do, it will also benefit the environment and the surrounding community.
- For example, during the 2021 fires in India’s Similipal Biosphere Reserve, satellite images suggested that the areas where tribal communities have been given community forest rights (CFR) to manage the land under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) were the least damaged by the wildfire.
- In the U.S., officials are turning to Native Americans to share their expertise on prescribed burning through collaborative efforts such as those led by Lomakatsi Restoration Project, which works across sectors and directly with Indigenous people to restore tens of thousands of acres through both modern and traditional practices.
Deincentivize new development near wildfire-prone landscapes. From the Greek countryside to the arid wildlands of the American West, people settling at the edges of poorly managed ecosystems has created more opportunities for accidental, human-caused wildfires and increased the risk to lives, landscapes, and property. There are several ways for governments to step in:
- Address housing crises in established residential areas to prevent sprawl into wildland areas.
- Buy out fire-prone neighborhoods. Buyouts are voluntary sales, and the government pays fair-market value. The homes are demolished, and the property becomes open space—an approach that could be effective in the highest risk areas.
- Dissuade developers from building and homeowners from moving to fire-prone areas through higher insurance premiums. For example, bake mandatory third-party insurance into location-dependent property taxes for wildfires.
- For communities already based in fire-prone places, governments should enforce defensible space and other fire-safety practices.
Bring more technological innovation to fire management. Powerful technology that can aid in fire management is evolving rapidly, but there are a few gaps that governments can help bridge:
- Collect, coordinate, and centralize access to fire data: In 2019, an Australia-based company’s satellites detected the Kincade Fire in California wine country just sixty-six seconds after it started, and the fire was verified within three minutes by the ALERT wildfire system. Fire data like this is being collected around the world, but it needs to be centralized, coordinated, and shared more widely so that all can access it. Investing in the technology that sources this data is key as well.
- Support localized energy infrastructure: Invest in energy technology that’s less prone to cause wildfires in the first place, such as rooftop solar panels, batteries, and local wind turbines.
Invest in pyrogenic carbon storage. Emerging research suggests that charcoal produced by wildfires (called biochar) could trap carbon for hundreds of years and help mitigate climate change through a process called pyrogenic carbon capture and storage (PyCCS). Governments can fund research, technology, and implementation. See the Biochar Nexus to learn more.
Strengthen protections for fire-prone ecosystems. End cycles of degradation that makes areas drier and more fire prone by strengthening and building upon bedrock environmental laws (such as the Endangered Species Act in the U.S.) that provide critical backstops for ecosystems at risk of catastrophic fire.
Association for Fire Ecology (global)
Fire Learning Network (FLN) (U.S.)
Fire Ecology Research Group (Germany)
Local Aboriginal Land Councils (Australia)
Terra Fuego (U.S.)
The Nature Conservancy (global)
Amy Cardinal Christianson is an Indigenous fire scientist for the Canadian Forest Service, cohost of the Good Fire podcast.
Thomas Swetnam is director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Chad Hanson is an ecologist with the John Muir Project and the author of Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate.
Sandy Harrison is a professor at the University of Reading in Reading, England. Dr. Harrison’s research focuses on paleoclimates and biogeochemical cycles.
Sylvie Gauthier is a research scientist at the Laurentian Forestry Centre of the Canadian Forest Service and an adjunct professor at the University of Quebec in Quebec City, Canada. Dr. Gauthier’s research focuses on characterizing future fire regimes in eastern Canada and assessing the impacts of fires on forest succession in softwood and mixed Boreal forests.
Mark A. Finney is a top U.S. fire expert who leads the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana.
In California, the Northfork Mono Tribe Brings “Good Fire” to Overgrown Woodlands (Inside Climate News)
Prescribed Fire and Indigenous Food Systems (Intertribal Agriculture Council)
“Alarmed by Scope of Wildfires, Officials Turn to Native Americans for Help” by Jill Cowan, New York Times
“‘I Came Home To Fight For My Land’: First Nations Battle Canada Blaze That Displaced Them” by Cole Burston and Leyland Cecco, Guardian
In a Drier Amazon, Small Farmers and Researchers Work Together to Reduce Fire Damage by Letícia Klein and Thiago Medaglia, Mongabay
“How Traditional Indigenous Fire-Burning Practices Protected the Bush” by Nicola Heath, sbs.com.au
“The Art of Fire: Reviving the Indigenous Craft of Cultural Burning” by Kelly Boutsalis, Narwhal
“Our Burning Planet: Why We Must Learn to Live with Fire” by Stephen J. Pyne, Yale Environment 360
“Indigenous Fire Stewardship” by Frank Lake and Natural Resources Canada
“Welcome to the Pyrocene” by Stephen J. Pyne, Grist
Startup Series: Droneseed (My Climate Journey)
Indigenous Fire Ecology (Good Fire) with Amy Christianson (ologies With Alie Ward)
Fire Ecology (Wildfires) With Gavin Jones (Ologies with Alie Ward)
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