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Fire Ecology 2

Fire Ecology

Call to action:

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.

Action Items

Individuals

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:

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.

Groups

Indigenous Peoples

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.

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.

Governance

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:

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.

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.

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