became the stuff of legend. A passing weather front
brought gale-force winds; smoldering fires that had
seemed contained suddenly sprang back to life. The ensuing
firestorm blew across firelines, scattering fire crews
like so many leaves in the wind. Seventy-eight firefighters
perished. Plumes from the Big Blowup wafted from the
Rocky Mountains across the North American continent,
darkening skies more than 1,000 miles away.
Washington, DC, lawmakers sat up and took notice. The
lesson was clear: Fire might be a local phenomenon,
but its effects could be continental. No single State
could handle it alone. The following year, in 1911,
a hitherto foundering Weeks Law sailed through Congress.
Cooperative fire management became the cornerstone of
wildland fire management in the United States.
the lesson is being learned on the international stage.
The global causes and consequences of fire are increasingly
visible, from the boreal forests of Siberia to the tropical
forests of Southeast Asia. In Siberia, a single complex
of fires can cover millions of acres; in 1915, smoke
plumes from Siberian fires combined to form a cloud
the size of Europe. The global consequences of fire
on this scale are potentially vast. With 25 percent
of the Earth's terrestrial biomass, Siberia's forests
are a vital carbon sink. Burning even a portion of them
could upset global carbon cycles. The assessments of
global climate change called for by U.S. President George
W. Bush can find no better place to start.
as fires can contribute to climate change, climate change
can lead to more destructive fires. In Indonesia in
1997-98, the effects of El Niño precipitated
a severe drought. Farmers and others, often simply following
an annual routine, lit fires under conditions that were
anything but routine. Huge conflagrations resulted,
destroying native forests and generating a regional
smoke pall that closed airports and ravaged lungs for
months. Underlying social problems-such as unstable
land tenure-contributed to the conflagrations, as did
a weak system of fire management.
conditions have produced vast, destructive fires in
Brazil, Mexico, and Central America, again partly due
to the effects of El Niño. Smoke from the 1998
fires in southern Mexico affected air quality as far
away as Houston, TX. In a world where the causes and
consequences of wildland fire are now so clearly global,
the knowledge of wildland fire and how to manage it
must no longer be local. We all have to share what we
the Russians know about using water for wildland firefighting,
for example, can be useful in other parts of the world
where water is plentiful, including parts of the United
States. In exchange, parts of Siberia are already benefiting
from U.S. prescribed fire techniques for land management.
International fire studies in Amazonia, where fires
often burn for months, can help the Brazilians protect
sensitive forests and savannas. In exchange, U.S. researchers
can learn more about fire and smoke behavior, improving
fire management in the United States. During the 1998
fires in Mexico, the United States delivered aerial
support and training for Mexican firefighters. In exchange,
during the severe 2000 fire season in the Western United
States-the worst in more than 40 years-international
firefighters, some 800 strong, poured into the region
from Australia, Canada, Israel, Mexico, and New Zealand.
Canada and Mexico are working with the United States
to strengthen ties among their fire organizations. These
are only a few of the ways we are working together across
borders to manage wildland fire for our mutual benefit
live on a planet of fire. Research has shown that many
biota worldwide have evolved with flame and depend on
it for ecosystem balance, from the Australian outback,
to the Russian steppe, to the Californian chaparral.
The outcomes of fire regimes in the past, whether natural
or driven by human activity, are beyond our control.
So are the mistakes we have made, such as the policy
of fire exclusion practiced in the United States during
much of the 20th century. But the lessons we learn from
the past can let us manage fire in the future for outcomes
that people want for the land-and for themselves. The
key is working together on a global scale, sharing what