Fire Stories: Encountering Wildfire in the Archives and on the Land

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This post introduces Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgensen and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land. Within environmental history, fire has often been treated as its own discrete subject – a subfield which examines burns within specific jurisdictional or ecological contexts. As wildfire seasons gets longer and more severe, we have begun noticing how their history intersects with our lives in multiple and sometimes unexpected ways. As we grapple with a “world on fire,” Fire Stories asks us to consider how combustion connects us across geographic and disciplinary borders.

Fire loomed large this March at the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) in the panels, posters sessions, plenaries, and field trips. We were at the heart of fire country in the American northwest, just down the road from the devastating 2020 Holiday Farm fire. Stephen Pyne was there promoting his new book, The Pyrocene, which describes “how we have remade the Earth” with fire and reflects on how we might “recover our responsibilities as keepers of the planetary flame.” Fire was all around us, and its thematic dominance was perhaps inevitable.

Environmental historians at ASEH visit the Holiday Farm Fire in March, 2022. Photo courtesy of Judith Burr, host of Listening to Fire Knowledges in and around the Okanagan Valley: A Podcast .

Four months later at the annual meeting of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) in Bristol, fire kept coming up again. In rainy and thoroughly cultivated southern England, we could not have been further from the classic fire ecologies that have made international headlines over the last decade in the American West. As Europe approached a record-breaking heatwave, questions of combustion flared up in formal panels and casual conversations alike. Everyone seemed to have a fire story. Perhaps they had been evacuated, breathed in smoke personally, or encountered fire in their research as a tool for land management or as a force for catastrophic destruction or as a powerful literary metaphor. Just a week after ESEH ended, London experienced devastating wildfires prompting professionals to call for increased preparation for wildfire in the UK.

Those of us living and thinking about fire come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds – geography, art, ecology, digital humanities, literature, forestry, activism, and environmental history. Most do not identify purely as fire scholars (with the exception, of course, of Pyne), but as curious people for whom fire had become a tool for understanding larger patterns in the world, from both personal and professional perspectives. To me, this is the outline of the future of fire history: sometimes overlapping environmental history and sometimes distinct from it, cyclically disturbing our discipline just as it disturbs human lives and homelands.

We are in a critical moment in our understandings of fire which environmental historians are uniquely well-positioned to inform. The idea that we must learn to live with fire and smoke in order to mitigate the harms of climate change (long understood by Indigenous peoples) has found purchase among public audiences and regulatory institutions alike. This spring, the Biden administration announced $1 billion for wildfire defence (including support for community-led burns), and the Province of British Columbia, a leader in wildfire initiatives in Canada, announced $143 million for proactive preventative measures. While the European Union has yet to implement large-scale funding schemes, the benefits of prescribed fire are well understood. Meanwhile, Australia recently reflected on the effectiveness of its prescribed burning program, which it has been running for decades. Media stories about the benefits of fire as a land management tool, based on the work of scientists, have reached wider audiences than ever before.

Spring growth on a prescribed heather burn encountered in a farmer’s field near Frafjord, Norway, April 2022 (photo by author).

Renewed interest in prescribed fire is based on an underlying understanding that natural areas cannot be simply left to their own devices and in fact require active human management for our collective health. In short, these conversations are rooted in ideas environmental historians have understood since the 1980s: “The trouble with wilderness,” the hybridity of our landscapes, and essential relationship between colonialism and ecological change. When we tell Fire Stories, we are thinking actively about what it means to live with fire in the past, present, and future.

Over the next few weeks, you will hear from a collection of fire scholars from all over the world, telling stories about their encounters with combustion. Each piece is interested in fire as a tool for understanding wider patterns of power, globalisation, colonialism, capitalism, and climate change. The collection is both personal and scholarly, blending the authors’ own experiences with the findings from their academic work. The series will be published over the next two months, aligning with the end of the fire season in the northern hemisphere and preparation for new fires in the south. I hope that Fire Stories will provide some tools for navigating our fiery present while serving as a window into the work of scholars working across and alongside environmental history on the subject of fire.

Feature image: The White Rock Lake Fire in British Columbia, July 2021. Photo by author.

Funding: This work was supported by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action, grant 891029 (Wildsmoke: Forest Fire and Our Senses in the North, 1911-1961).

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Mica Jorgenson is an environmental historian of natural resources in Canada. She works in both the academic and public sectors, and teaches periodically at the University of Northern British Columbia.

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