Age of Fire

We live in an age of wildfire. Last year northern California was devastated. These fires are happening so frequently that it’s impacting tourism in southern Oregon, where people wonder if they should still spend summer trips to enjoy outdoor recreation if the air might be filled with choking smoke. In northern Alberta, Fort McMurray was nearly devoured by a wildfire in 2016. Everyone who experienced the previous two summers in British Columbia, Canada likely has a story about the smoke, or about someone they know who feared having to relocate. And it’s not just the North American west that has been heavily impacted. In 2017 four separate wildfires killed 66 people in Portugal, while Australia has struggled with multiple major fires in recent years. How do we understand the changes that are impacting forests globally?

Andrew Nikiforuk’s article “Tree Teachings: How Forests and Wildfires Are Critically Linked,” examines the work of botanist, Diana Beresford-Kroeger in order to understand wildfires. The strength of this piece is it’s ability to describe the biological globalization that is impacting forests, as plants from one region move to another. In Portugal one of the reasons that fires may have caused such damage was that people had turned to the plantation farming of eucalyptus. The piece also shows the infinite connections between forests and other environments including -surprisingly enough- their impact upon the oceans themselves. If one is interested in the cultural impact and meaning of forests, the second article in the series, “Tree Teachings: How Fossil Fuels and Climate Change Are Altering the Global Forest,” examines changing forests from North Africa to New Zealand. So globalization may be one of the factors, along with climate change, that is fueling these fires.

The question is what to do about it. I particularly like Yvette Brend’s article in the CBC about Annie Kruger, an Indigenous fire-starter, who was the last person to hold that role in her community. Until the 1930s her people would regularly burn the land to improve fertility and prevent massive fires. As most people are now aware, the effort to suppress fires that followed this period led to forests being massively over-burdened with dead or damaged trees. There is too much fuel. Of course, it’s not so easy to set smaller controlled fires. I wonder if all the practical knowledge of the Indigenous firekeepers has been lost? Now more than ever, we could use some experienced guides in places like Canada. This has been the approach adopted by Australia, where it has reduced fires and created jobs.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

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