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Al Stahler: Fire and people

Al Stahler


Planet Earth is ancient – a good four-and-a-half billion years old. Fire, though, has existed for only a small fraction of that time. Most of Earth history has been free of fire – flame-free.

Fire requires fuel: Atoms of carbon and hydrogen, glued together, ready to combine with oxygen. But carbon and hydrogen rarely combine on their own. Most carbon and hydrogen must be glued together by living things. The world needs life to make fuel … fire requires life.

Life evolved on Earth fast – amazingly fast. Of the four-and-a-half billion years that Earth has circled the sun, life has lived close to four. Yet, for most of life’s four billion years on Earth, there was no fire.

You and I can live for a month, maybe two, without food. But we can live only two, maybe three, days without water. We’ve inherited our need for water from our ancestors of four billion years ago.

Until very recently, life could survive only if constantly wet, inside and out. Which meant that life could live only in an ocean, a lake, or a stream. Dry land was no place for life. And, without life, there was no fuel on land.

Some hundreds of millions of years ago – pretty recently, relative to the age of the Earth – plants colonized the land. With some sort of “skin”, plants could be moist inside, dry on the outside. And, when they died, their insides could dry out, too. Dry fuel could now build up.

Stephen Pyne is professor emeritus (emeritus = “retired”) at Arizona State University, and a historian of fire. Pyne writes how nearly every part of our planet has experienced fire in three ways, one way after another.

Before the arrival of humans to a landscape, fuels would build up; lightning would strike; the fuel would ignite; and fire would burn. Unaffected by any human action, this was First Fire.

After such a fire burned out, fuel would again build up; lightning, again, would strike; and First Fire, again, would burn. So long as no humans were around, First Fire would re-burn, over and over.

Humanity evolved in Africa, then moved out, to colonize the world. Human behavior brought a second type of fire into the world … which I’ll skip, just for a moment.

The fire we experience, every day of our lives … nearly every moment … is Third Fire. Third Fire is under control: Fire inside our machines, keeping our homes warm, our food cooked, our engines running. (Pyne includes many other uses of fossil biomass in Third Fire (or the “Big Burn”), especially, agricultural fertilizers and pesticides. With apologies, I’m simplifying greatly here).

Where First Fire took place “untouched by human hands” (and still does, where possible), Third Fire would disappear without human manipulation.

With Third Fire under control, we are the masters: We turn fire on and off; we tell fire what to burn, where to burn, when to burn.

But, something … is not quite right. Things are out of balance. Pollution spreads. And forests burn, where and when and how, we’d rather they not.

This week, we celebrated the discovery of the new world … North America, South America. When did that happen? Archeologists debate the date; the discovery was made, at the very least, twenty thousand years ago.

The climate was different, twenty-thousand years ago; at the height of the last ice age, much water was locked up in ice. Sea level was down, opening up land bridges between Asia and the Americas: People could walk from the old world to the new.

Today, with most of the ice melted off, sea level is again high. The route that people took to the Americas is likely under water … up by Alaska, beneath the Bering Sea.

Birds build nests … bees build hives … bears make dens. But we humans do things big-time. We change whole environments, to make it easier to live, easier to make shelter, easier to find food. The most effective tool for making such changes – for the first Americans, for the first humans anywhere – the most effective, most powerful tool, was fire. With time, people could experiment with fire … learn to use fire … learn to live with fire: Second Fire. Second Fire allowed native Americans to mold wild continents into livable landscapes … landscapes that most of us take for granted, that we think of as normal … as natural. But this landscape was created, by humans, and it is disappearing, with the disappearance of Second Fire.

It is debatable whether we, today, understand the workings of the natural world, and the workings of fire, well enough to prescribe how to burn … whether, perhaps, we should focus on protecting homes and towns, and allow nature to take its course, everywhere else.

The native Californians who, until very recently, maintained the foothill landscape we take for granted are still here … they call themselves Nisenan.


This Saturday is International Observe-the-Moon Night. Local astronomers will set up scopes at the junction of SR49 and the old Downieville Hwy at 7 p.m. Free — bring the kids.

Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors in The Union and on KVMR-FM. He teaches classes for both kids and grown-ups, and can be reached at a.a.stahler11@gmail.com

Fire seasons in Africa divide desert and grassland, grassland and forest.
Photo courtesy NASA/GSFC
Fire seasons in Africa divide desert and grassland, grassland and forest.
Photo courtesy NASA/GSFC
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