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Fire on Earth: An Introduction

Andrew C. Scott, David M. J. S. Bowman, William J. Bond, Stephen J. Pyne, Martin E. Alexander

ISBN: 978-1-119-95357-9 January 2014 Wiley-Blackwell 434 Pages


Earth is the only planet known to have fire.  The reason is both simple and profound: fire exists because Earth is the only planet to possess life as we know it. Fire is an expression of life on Earth and an index of life’s history. Few processes are as integral, unique, or ancient.

Fire on Earth puts fire in its rightful place as an integral part of the study of geology, biology, human history, physics, and global chemistry. Fire is ubiquitous in various forms throughout Earth, and belongs as part of formal inquiries about our world. In recent years fire literature has multiplied exponentially; dedicated journals exist and half a dozen international conferences are held annually. A host of formal sciences, or programs announcing interdisciplinary intentions, are willing to consider fire. Wildfire also appears routinely in media reporting.

This full-colour text, containing over 250 illustrations of fire in all contexts, is designed to provide a synthesis of contemporary thinking; bringing together the most powerful concepts and disciplinary voices to examine, in an international setting, why planetary fire exists, how it works, and why it looks the way it does today. Students, lecturers, researchers and professionals interested in the physical, ecological and historical characteristics of fire will find this book, and accompanying web-based material, essential reading for undergraduate and postgraduate courses in all related disciplines, for general interest and for providing an interdisciplinary foundation for further study.

  • A comprehensive approach to the history, behaviour and ecological effects of fire on earth
  • Timely introduction to this important subject, with relevance for global climate change, biodiversity loss and the evolution of human culture.
  • Provides a foundation for the interdisciplinary field of Fire Research
  • Authored by an international team of leading experts in the field
  • Associated website provides additional resources

Related Resources

Preface xiii

Acknowledgements xv

About the Authors xvii

About the Companion Website xix


Preface to part one 2

Chapter 1 What is fire? 3

1.1 How fire starts and initially spreads 3

1.2 Lightning and other ignition sources 4

1.3 The charring process 6

1.4 Pyrolysis products 7

1.5 Fire types 10

1.6 Peat fires 14

1.7 Fire effects on soils 15

1.8 Post-fire erosion-deposition 18

1.9 Fire and vegetation 22

1.10 Fire and climate 26

1.11 Fire triangles 30

1.12 Fire return intervals 30

1.13 How we study fire: satellites 31

1.14 Modelling fire occurrence 38

1.15 Climate forcing 42

1.16 Scales of fire occurrence 44

Further reading 45

Chapter 2 Fire in the fossil record: recognition 47

2.1 Fire proxies: fire scars and charcoal 47

2.2 The problem of nomenclature: black carbon, char, charcoal, soot and elemental carbon 49

2.3 How we study charcoal: microscopical and chemical techniques 51

2.4 Charcoal as an information-rich source 56

2.5 Charcoal reflectance and temperature 56

2.6 Uses of charcoal 58

2.7 Fire intensity/severity 59

2.8 Deep time studies 60

2.9 Pre-requisite for fire: fuel – the evolution of plants 61

2.10 Charcoal in sedimentary systems 62

Further reading 63

Chapter 3 Fire in the fossil record: earth system processes 65

3.1 Fire and oxygen 65

3.2 Fire feedbacks 67

3.3 Systems diagrams 67

3.4 Charcoal as proxy for atmospheric oxygen 69

3.5 Burning experiments – fire spread 69

3.6 Fire and the terrestrial system 70

Further reading 72

Chapter 4 The geological history of fire in deep time: 420 million years to 2 million years ago 73

4.1 Periods of high and low fire, and implications 73

4.2 The first fires 73

4.3 The rise of fire 75

4.4 Fire in the high-oxygen Paleozoic world 77

4.5 Collapse of fire systems 80

4.6 Fire at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary 82

4.7 Jurassic variation 82

4.8 Cretaceous fires 84

4.9 Fire at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-P or K-T) boundary 87

4.10 Paleocene fires 88

4.11 Fires across the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) 88

4.12 Dampening of fire systems 89

4.13 Rise of the grass-fire cycle 89

Further reading 89

Chapter 5 The geological history of fire – the last two million years 91

5.1 Problems of Quaternary fire history 91

5.2 The Paleofire working group: techniques and analysis 93

5.3 Fire and climate cycles 97

5.4 Fire and humans: the fossil evidence 98

5.5 Fire and the industrial society 101

Further reading 101

References for part one 103


Preface to part two 112

Chapter 6 Pyrogeography – temporal and spatial patterns of fire 113

6.1 Fire and life 113

6.2 Global climate, vegetation patterns and fire 113

6.3 Pyrogeography 116

6.4 Fire and the control of biome boundaries 121

6.5 The fire regime concept 125

6.6 Fire ecology 128

6.7 Conclusion 129

Further reading 129

Chapter 7 Plants and fire 131

7.1 Introduction 131

7.2 Fire and plant traits 131

7.3 Fire regimes and the characteristic suite of fire plant traits 137

7.4 Evolution of fire traits 140

7.5 Summary and implications 145

Further reading 145

General reading 146

Chapter 8 Fire and fauna 147

8.1 Direct effects of fire on fauna 147

8.2 The effect of fire regimes on fauna 148

8.3 The landscape mosaic and pyrodiversity 150

8.4 The effect of fauna on fire regimes 152

8.5 Fire and the evolution of fauna 154

8.6 Summary 155

Further reading 155

Chapter 9 Fire as an ecosystem process 157

9.1 Introduction 157

9.2 Fire and erosion 157

9.3 Fire and nutrient cycling 160

9.4 Fire and pedogenesis 163

9.5 Fire and atmospheric chemistry 164

9.6 Fire and climate 165

9.7 Summary 168

Further reading 169

Chapter 10 Fire and anthropogenic environmental change 171

10.1 Introduction 171

10.2 Prehistoric impacts 171

10.3 Prehistoric fire management 174

10.4 Contemporary fire management 176

10.5 Climate change 177

10.6 Fire and carbon management 180

10.7 Fire regime switches: a major challenge for fire ecology 180

10.8 Invasive plants and altered fire regimes 184

10.9 Conclusion 187

Further reading 187

References for part two 189


Preface to part three 194

Chapter 11 Fire creature 195

11.1 Early hominins: spark of creation 195

11.2 Aboriginal fire: control over ignition 198

11.3 Cultivated fire: control over combustibles 206

11.4 Ideas and institutions: lore and ritual 220

11.5 Narrative arcs (and equants) 221

Further reading 229

Chapter 12 A new epoch of fire: the anthropocene 231

12.1 The Great Disruption 231

12.2 The pyric transition 232

12.3 Enlightenment and empire 236

12.4 Scaling the transition 238

12.5 After the revolution 245

Further reading 257

Chapter 13 Fire management 259

13.1 Introducing integrated fire management 259

13.2 Two realms: managing the pyric transition 260

13.3 Strategies 261

13.4 Institutions: ordering fire 272

13.5 Ideas: conceptions of fire 277

13.6 Fire management: selected examples 279

Further reading 289

References and further reading for part three 291


Preface to part four 296

Chapter 14 Fundamentals of wildland fire as a physical process 297

14.1 Introduction 297

14.2 The basics of combustion and heat transfer 298

14.3 The wildland fire environment concept 303

14.4 Characterization of wildland fire behaviour 315

14.5 Extreme wildland fire behaviour phenomena 329

14.6 Field methods of measuring and quantifying wildland fire behaviour 336

14.7 Towards increasing our understanding of wildland fire behaviour 337

Further reading 339

Chapter 15 Estimating free-burning wildland fire behaviour 341

15.1 Introduction 341

15.2 A historical sketch of wildland fire behaviour research 342

15.3 Models, systems and guides for predicting wildland fire behaviour 350

15.4 Limitations on the accuracy of model predictions of wildland fire behaviour 359

15.5 The wildland fire behaviour prediction process 363

15.6 Specialized support in assessing wildland fire behaviour 370

15.7 Looking ahead 371

Further reading 372

Chapter 16 Fire management applications of wildland fire behaviour knowledge 373

16.1 Introduction 373

16.2 Wildfire suppression 376

16.3 Wildland firefighter safety 378

16.4 Community wildland fire protection 382

16.5 Fuels management 383

16.6 Prediction of fire effects 388

16.7 Getting on the road towards self-improvement 389

Further reading 390

References for part four 393

Index 405

“The well-organized and illustrated work can be used as a textbook or a reference source for practitioners.  Each chapter has a list of further readings, and each part has its own extensive bibliography.  This phenomenal contribution will become a classic reference for five mangers, students of fire ecology and climate, and researchers for years to come.  Summing Up: Essential.  All levels/libraries.”   (Choice, 1 October 2014)

“Overall, the book provides an excellent, multidisciplinary introduction to fire, authored by leading experts in their fields, written in a very accessible style and supported by superb illustrations and extensive references. Hence, I highly recommend it to potential readers, who may be upper level undergraduate students, graduate students, teaching staff and everyone working, or simply interested, in the area of environmental science.”  (International Journal of Wildland Fire, 1 August 2014)

“Fire and earth scientists, anthropologists, ecol­ogists, resource managers, and especially ad­vanced students in natural sciences will find the text, along with its online resources, a req­uisite addition to their libraries. Not only is it a pleasure to read, simply put, it sparks the imagination.”  (Fire Ecology, 1 June 2014)

“With wildfire recognised in key government contingency documents, not least for climate change, foresters looking for greater understanding of this future challenge over the coming decades, should look no further.”  (Chartered Forester, 1 May 2014)

“This book is a good example of a multidisciplinary investigation.  The writers express the wish that it may stimulate further research into fire processes, both ‘natural’ and induced by humanity. A book worth reading!.”  (Geological Journal, 29 April 2014)

Each part has an extensive
reference list reflecting the
worldwide significance of
wildfire and varied scientific
approaches: tables, diagrams
and colour photographs are
abundant, and there is a
welcome companion website
with a host of useful teaching/
demonstration material.

"Each part has an extensive reference list reflecting the worldwide significance of wildfire and varied scientific approaches: tables, diagrams and colour photographs are abundant, and there is a welcome companion website with a host of useful teaching/demonstration material." (The Biologist 2016) 

"Fire on Earth would serve as an outstanding basis for a graduate course in fire science and management. It is also a valuable reference that has a place on the bookshelf of any instructor, scientist, or land manager whose work involves the role of fire in terrestrial ecosystems and human civilization." (The Quarterly Review of Biology 2016)