Until around 100 years ago, in contrast, fire was an everyday part of life in Western civilisation. "This room at the Royal Society would have been full of fires," said Pyne. But when Lavoisier discovered the role of oxygen in combustion in the 18th century, the science of fire became divided across disciplines like geography, biology, geology, soil science and physics. This makes it easier to ignore, Pyne believes. The field has experienced an "intellectual mini-ice age", but he reckons it’s time to integrate these disciplines and see fire in a more holistic way. The discussion meeting itself brought together a range of experts, from palaentologists to firefighters, fossil pollen specialists to climate scientists, sedimentologists to social scientists, and ecologists to combustion scientists.

So is it time to find a new narrative for fire, one that doesn’t see it as a disaster or a battlefield but acknowledges the valuable role fire can play in ecosystems? Historically, according to Pyne, foresters have hated fire, aiming to suppress it as much as possible. That may be because many early foresters in areas like the western US hailed from northwest Europe, where fire isn’t a routine event. The historian was one of many to raise concerns about the fire management community’s use of military terms. "It’s completely misplaced," he said. "If we are in a war with fire, three things are going to happen. We’re going to spend a lot of money, we’re going to take a lot of casualties and we’re going to lose."

Fire feedbacks

Instead, we need to see fire as part of the global food web, as David Bowman of the University of Tasmania, Australia, explained. Fire alters the soil, the vegetation and the way that herbivores and predators behave – it’s an "agent of pyrodiversity". In turn, these ecosystem factors feed back into the likelihood, extent and type of fire.

Bowman was asked to speak about Australia at the meeting, but told the audience that he is subversive so would talk about landscape fire in the context of Australia. He used wombats to illustrate pyric herbivory – the interaction between grazing and fire. These marsupials make a lawn that’s very difficult to burn, but if you fence them out, vegetation grows taller and burns more easily. Diggers such as small mammals, meanwhile, turn over organic matter, enrich the soil, and spread fungi; this reduces the fuel load by altering vegetation. But in Australia many of these creatures are going extinct. "The danger is we don’t know the consequences of losing these small animals for our ecosystems," Bowman said. "It’ll still be the bush but it might fall apart." GoPro cameras attached to carnivores like cats, foxes and quolls have shown they’ll search out burnt areas and use them as hunting grounds.

Before humans arrived, the Australian landscape would have contained big swathes of the same ecosystem, Bowman explained. Then aboriginal people used fire to create a mosaic of different vegetation types. "Fire is for kangaroos," one aboriginal representative has told Bowman. "We want to make them fat for the end of the dry season." Counterintuitively, burning land to hunt sand goannas – a type of monitor lizard – leads to larger populations of the reptiles as, Bowman says, the fire creates habitat the animals like and kills the cats that prey on them. Later, by disrupting these traditional land management patterns, Europeans created landscapes in "mad huge lumps" and "dropped a deer bomb" – southern Australia is now seeing a deer eruption. "They’re walking through paddocks and into towns," Bowman said, perhaps because their habitat has suffered giant fires. Indeed, Bowman reckons our mismanagement of fire may be why so many Australian animals are going extinct.

Unfortunately, restoring ecosystems is not as simple as bringing back the mosaic patterns. "It’s a lot easier to take fire out than to put it back in skilfully," Pyne said earlier in the day. Bowman explained that we need to reintroduce species like the small animals that dig, perhaps by putting them in safe havens such as enclosures. "The first rule of conservation biology is to keep as many of the tools as possible," he said.

In the past, Bowman has suggested introducing large herbivores to Australia to replace extinct animals and eat the gamba grass and other alien species that are causing fires. "Everybody says did you hear about that crazy guy who suggested elephants?" he said. "I’m that guy." Although it’s more likely that buffalo and donkeys, not elephants, will take on this role, he explained.

As for agriculture management in Australia today, "the ferals guys shoot the deer, the weeds guys use herbicide and the fire people say ‘which mosaic, that’s phooey’". But Bowman believes we should put all three together, letting the deer manage the weeds, and so creating a new fire management regime, and a new narrative.

Which came first?

Like Bowman, William Bond of the South African Environmental Observation Network and the University of Cape Town is concerned about landscapes. At the meeting he detailed his worries about the World Resources Institute’s Bonn Challenge. Launched in September 2011, this initiative aims to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020. But in Africa Bond believes that some of the landscapes being classified as "degraded" are actually fynbos – an ecosystem that’s developed to cope with fire and is full of biodiversity and endemic species. The reforestation plan may reflect the "cultural antipathy" to fire of those from northwest Europe and the eastern US, Bond reckons. It also assumes that the forests are old and the grasslands new, but Bond says Africa’s pyrophytic grasslands are millions of years old and the World Resources Institute wants to take us back 15 million years. He’d like to see scientists map grassy biomes at global and landscape scales, and international environmental agreements recognise the value of these ecosystems.

In essence, two burning issues at the meeting were the need to re-integrate the science of fire and re-introduce fire to landscapes where it used to occur naturally. The last word must go to Pyne: "we are pyromantics here today, not pyromaniacs."

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