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Attention! All Keepers of the Flame

Even as our ecological arguments have matured—recognizing that fire is natural and can be useful, perhaps necessary—the imagery stubbornly remains: Flame is a hostile force or, at best, an unrelenting nuisance that the world would be wise to discard.

Fire's image, particularly on television, animates a message: Fire is an environmental evil, the medium of virtually all the biosphere's larger ills. "Nuclear winter" suggests that a thermonuclear war would, by kindling firestorms, plunge the world into the dark and cold of an ice age. "Greenhouse summer" portrays how the continued pumping of combustion gases will turn the Earth into a Crock Pot. Wildfires, sweeping through boreal forests, liberate too much sequestered carbon. Thoughtlessly set fires chew up the tropical forest, slashing and burning biodiversity into kindling and weeds. Crown fires savage Yellowstone, and veldt fires, Kruger National Park. Conflagrations burn into Oakland and rip through exurbs around Los Angeles, Spokane, Sydney, and Athens. Torched oil wells in Kuwait spread an ethereal oil slick across the sky. Coal-fired power plants obscure the Grand Canyon. Gasoline cars smother cities in photochemical smog.

There is nothing even remotely equivalent in the media that argues that fire might have a legitimate role in global ecology; no friendly flame to answer the ugly charges, no image to plead that fire could be something more than the common catalyst in the Earth's environmental wreckage. Or, more properly, there is not yet a story sufficient to carry such an image.

This is strange, and requires, at a minimum, some explanation. The easiest answer is that most urbanite citizens—especially the ruling and clerical classes—no longer have any personal connection with open fire, except what they can experience through TV and print. They no longer tend the family hearth. They no longer burn off the family yard, the pruned branches, the ditches and weeds, the pastures and stubble and fallowed fields. They have no sense from their own intimate encounters that free-burning fire could mean anything other than danger and damage. Even the family-defining fireside is gone, replaced by the virtual hearths of home entertainment centers.

Those more sensitive to environmental subtleties might approve of fire as "natural," but only if it burns in the wild, without pollution of the skies and morally uncontaminated by human hands. They are less certain about anthropogenic fire, because human agency—supplied with free will and a torch—might, like fire itself, propagate uncontrollably. This fear has, philosophically, been a problem with "restoring" fire. What advocates typically want restored is "natural" fire, but the historic landscape that supplies their vision of what restoration should produce was itself the outcome of thousands of years of culturally set burning. The charge to restore commits us to a state of permanent irony.

We will never decide to what point in the past we should restore the land—and can never, in any event, actually get back there. There is no reason, however, to encumber the debate in this way. We have ample reasons to burn: Burns exist in nature and in the landscapes humans have sculpted; they can help maintain diversity; they exist in our genetic legacy as fire keepers; they are inalienable parts of our cultural heritage of fire reverence. What matters is which fire regime is best on a site-by-site basis. What matters is finding a story to allow us to make those judgments, not because we want to restore a past but because we want to reclaim a future.

In fact, the story we need already exists. It is the oldest of all human fire stories (the one found in every culture), in which we acquired, trapped, or stole fire as our own. The "story" is that fire is perhaps our defining ecological trait, it is what we do that no other creature does. It appears to be our job and destiny to see that it is used properly in the world. Not to extinguish it, not to burn everything in sight, but to somehow get the right mix of fire in the world for both our interests and those of others.

Seizing the forbidden flame was a Faustian bargain. While we came equipped genetically to possess fire, we lacked any instructions on how to use it properly. Yet no neutral position is possible. We took fire's power; we have to assume its responsibilities as well. The origins story tells it all.

The time has come to recover that narrative, to become friends with fire once again, and to reclaim our heritage as keepers of the planetary flame.