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I should start by telling you that the following coming-to-terms with, or even befriending of, fire is a personal project of sorts. Having gone through two house fires in my early twenties, the smell of a barbecue or a candle just blown out now make me uneasy. My body does not trust fire - even on the smallest and most domesticated scales. It panics. Reflecting on these minor fires, I think that the distress comes not from the threat of fire as such - I was never really in danger - but from witnessing the inability to control something that steadily becomes larger, from watching it grow into a potential risk for others. For me, all fires are one moment away from being out of control. They grow fast. Taking this feeling of personal discomfort as a point of departure, I want to argue here for a shift in thinking about fire ecologies, and the role of fire in ecosystems. It is an attempt to not automatically demonise burning forests, and rather invert that anxious gaze. Why is it so hard to look at a forest on fire?

Writing this text from London, where the devastating loss of Grenfell Tower is still felt, fire is necessarily political - tied up with the inequalities of class and race that dictate who is at risk, how risk is managed and mitigated, or accountability deferred. As urbanisation increases and the planet heats up, we need to think about the spatial and racialised pyropolitics of urban fires and the forms of resistance and collective organisation we can bring to bear against governments that treat fire as a calculable risk. In this article, though, I want to put forward a different pyro-dynamic - that of the fire ecologies of forest ecosystems. Here fire serves as a necessary and regenerative force - it’s the force that propagates plants, rather than the one that destroys homes in the forest fire newsreel that we see each summer. For me, this new way of thinking about fire was started by a feeling in the summer of 2018 - a new feeling that crept up amidst relentless heat and news of raging forest fires across the Global North. In Sweden, Germany, Portugal, and the US forests were ablaze in synchronicity. This feeling, kindled by violent images of burning trees and a constant layer of thin sweat was one of reluctant and inescapable realisation. It felt like the Anthropocene, with humanity now the greatest threat to all planetary life, was starting to singe the sheltered and temperate lives in Europe and North America. FRIENDLY FIRE: IN DEFENSE OF FIRE ECOLOGIES The relation of fire and harm is an uneasy one. Ecosystem management practices and urban policies have created an image of all fire as harmful - a violent disturbance through and through. Apocalyptic images of multispecies lifeworlds ablaze with increasing severity burn themselves into our memories easily. How is one to imagine a natural fire regime without human oversight,


where vegetal life, immobile and rooted not only tolerates but encourages fire? Here, renewal is a question of timing - if wildfires occur too often plants die before reaching maturity, if they occur too rarely the same plants die before releasing any seeds. Looking at the details of fire ecologies in shrublands or coniferous forests offers one way to rethink fire as a vital contributor to regeneration. Plants that have evolved here often only release seeds when triggered to do so by canopy fires - a process referred to as pyriscence. Often these trees and plants not only tolerate fire, but are active incinerators, their leaves coated in flammable oils. The fire-release mechanism of others works through the melting of a resin that would otherwise hold seeds within a cone. Some species such as Banksia are adapted to the extent that seed cones open after a fire but will not release seeds until the onset of rain, thus providing their seeds with the best chances of survival. Another form of co-evolution with fire is the biochemical signaling that triggers germination in dormant seeds buried in the soil. This physiological dormancy is broken by a chemical component of smoke, karrikinolide - an effective stimulant for approximately 1,200 plant species globally. Fire also prepares the ground for the seedlings to come - light and space are made available, and the soil is enriched by nutrients released from ash and decomposing matter. Fire ecologies do not find belonging in permanence and longevity but rather in renewal and regeneration, in letting go of old matter to create space for new life, in recycling nutrients, and in continuous diversity. They therefore offer an important alternative to current mechanisms of adaptation and restoration in times of violent planetary climate change, when the managed suppression of fires leads both to the elimination of species that have adapted to fires and also to larger fires, fuelled by the prolonged buildup of fuel available to them. PYROCHEMICAL COMPANIONS The demonisation of fire per se is perhaps a question of language. In English there is only one common word to refer to both combustion as a chemical process and its always emotive socio-ecological impact. In Arabic, for example, there are two separate words, concepts, and fire ontologies - nar translates to heat, warmth or light, while hariq describes the destructive blaze. In English, between affect and chemistry, ‘fire’ as a singular container holds both the practical technological tool for social good and the fuel for the combustion-based petro-capitalism that still has yet to peak. Fundamentally speaking, fire is a chemical reaction - a form of oxidation where heat and light are emitted in what we see as fire. This burning process is a reaction between a reductant and an oxidant, with the heat produced in the flame making the fire self-sustaining - if it has enough fuel. Vegetal matter provides excellent fuel. Fire, in and of itself, is not a material but rather a temporary shifting of energy. The burning of wood, if we treat cellulose as made up of glucose residues, looks somewhat like this:


All that remains, after combustion, is carbon dioxide and water.

With the slow onset of wildfire season, water becomes increasingly precious. The ‘wild’ in ‘wildfire’, though, is questionable - what we call wild and what we call cultivated, the line between nature and culture and the thin grip of control is blurred and something to unravel in itself. ‘Wildfire’ echoes the coloniser’s voice, relationships of territory and property, of the ownership of land that can be devastated by fire. ‘Wild’ here refers to anything beyond ‘controllable’. PROMETHEUS: THE THIEF AND CREATOR OF A PERFECT FIRE-STORM Fire is non-innocent in its generativity. The loss of more-than-human lives in fires to come, the unequal vulnerabilities to fire, combustability and extinguishability - these are the questions of the pyropolitics of the future. I don’t want to deceive or fetishise here - petro-capitalist combustion, slash-and-burn practices, and man-made forest fires release tonnes upon tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. It is not, however, fire as such, but rather the human dependence on - the Promethean domestication of - fire, in engines and plantations that have turned fire into an uneasy companion. The mythological force of fire is full of fantasies of male mastery and trickery, and of playing god. In Greek mythology the titan Prometheus created man from clay. He was chained to a rock and bound to have his liver eaten by birds in perpetuity for stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to humanity. This gift of fire marked the beginning of ‘science’, ‘culture’, and ‘civilised man’. Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway have offered the Plantationocene as a term for thinking through the entanglements of extractive agriculture, capitalism, and threat to life on a planetary scale. It is the monocultural logic of plantations that often fuels accelerating fires as they become uncontrollable. One place where this relation between plantation and combustion is visible is in Portugal’s Eucalyptus monocultures that feed the paper and pulp industry. Large scale Eucalyptus plantations are green deserts of biodiversity - and perfect fuel for fires. As a species, Eucalyptus is well adapted to fire, intensifying burning with the oils it produces, while its burning leaves carry fire for hundreds of meters, making it impossible to contain these kinds of fires. There is a lot of talk of the devouring agency of fire - its nonliving destructive force. But these are not necessarily fires started by an agential ‘nature’, and often the fires that challenge human control are results of forest arson, recklessness, and an inability to see just how willingly ecosystems in fire ecologies react to incineration. Often forests have been drained of ground water for industry use, which further contributes to the problem.



Yes, there is a feeling of powerlessness when looking at a smoldering forest that makes for uncomfortable viewing. Voices of off-the-chart carbon emissions and devastating loss of biodiversity echo in the background, but these fire events also seem very distant from the melting of glaciers, the steady production of greenhouse gases, and the invisible burning of fossil fuels - acute and human, rather than symptomatic and insidious. While wildfires become an ill-matched affective proxy for a planet on the edge of heat collapse, their outcomes usher in new life adapted to emergence from vegetal ruins. Wildfire suppression only serves to keep up an illusion of a ‘nature’ that can be managed indefinitely, static and unchanging. Fire ecologies therefore challenge understandings of nature as passive and balanced, and of our drive for a specific kind of growth - vegetal and economic, without cycles of renewal and vitality. They can also point towards life beyond the normative forces of human management of longevity, continuity, and suppression. Maybe we’ll need to learn which lifeworlds we leave to burn and reemerge from more nutritious ground, and which ones are threatened by our anthropogenic kindling. One way of shifting this perspective would be to look more closely at restoration ecologies such as Native American use of burning long before the colonisation of the Americas. These managed fire ecologies created an image of ‘wilderness’ for the colonisers that was often the outcome of a long history of careful regenerative fires. Terra preta too, is worth a look - a ‘black earth’ anthropogenic soil found in the Amazon basin, enriched with biochar and pointing to the cultivation of forest ecosystems using rather than suppressing the regenerative capacity of fire. The years to come will bring fires of increasing severity. With them will come the challenge to reimagine how we adapt - to both a biophysically unrecognisable Earth and the emotional toll of working in the midst of that loss.




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