Friday, September 16, 2011

Our future will be shaped by fire

Royal Hollaway, University of London News: Wildfires are often viewed as major disasters, and there is concern that climate change will increase their incidence. However, it is difficult to consider the true impact of past or future wildfires without understanding their place in natural and human history.

Many economically damaging fires are caused by people, such as in the case of the recent summer riots, yet fire is also an essential part of many ecosystems in many parts of the world. In some areas, people routinely manage fire to achieve a variety of outcomes in forest, game and land management, such as Dartmoor where fire was the main method of clearing land and creating pasture.

A team of 18 international researchers, including Professor Andrew C Scott from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London have identified ways of helping others distinguish between the fires that should be considered natural disasters and those that are beneficial.

In a paper in the Journal of Biogeography published in September 2011 the researchers, working at the National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of Santa Barbara, offer an historical framework to help other researchers and managers develop a context for considering the relationships humans have with fire. Professor David Bowman of the School of Plant Science at the University of Tasmania, the lead author of this study, argues that this framework is key to planning for future fire risk and understanding the role of fire in natural ecosystems.

The value of the study is that it presents a critical assessment of the diversity of human uses of fire, from tamed landscape fire, agricultural fire and industrial fire. Dr. Jennifer Balch, Postdoctoral Associate at NCEAS, one of the authors of the paper, says: “Human use and misuse of fire has been so prevalent in our evolutionary history, and the evolution of cultures, that we’ve forgotten how dominant a force fire really is.”...

King County Creek Fire 2005, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish & Wildlife photo

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