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International Perspectives:
Planet of Fire: The Global Reach of Wildland Fire
by Jimmy L. Reaves and Hutch Brown

Smoke palls from wildland fires in the Amazon can spread for miles--closing airports, threatening human health, and jeopardizing the area's rich biodiversity.
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It 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.

In 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.

Today, 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.

Just 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.

Similar 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 know.

What 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 worldwide.

We 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 we know.

Dr. Jimmy L. Reaves is the Director of Vegetation Management and Protection Research, the division of USDA Forest Service Research that studies fire, Washington, DC; Hutch Brown is the managing editor of Fire Management Today, the journal of the Forest Service's Fire and Aviation Management Staff, Washington, DC.


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