A Short History Of Natural Fires And Why They’re Important

Last time out (See my first article here), I explained how fire is arguably the first major tool that humans used to shape the world around them on a large scale. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari provides an excellent explanation of how useful fire could have been to humans moving into new areas: “Some human species may have made occasional use of fire as early as 800 000 years ago… A carefully managed fire could turn impassable barren thickets into prime grasslands teeming with game.”

The ability of humans to spread across the globe so successfully was reliant not only on our ability to adapt but also on our ability to adapt our environment to suit our needs. There is little doubt among scholars that fire was a major tool in creating hospitable neighbourhoods in areas that had previously been difficult to inhabit. It is clear that our love affair with flames runs deep in time and the use of fire by other members of our genus, Homo, even predates the arrival of modern man (Homo sapiens). Despite this, there is a clear feeling among new age man that fire is an unnatural and destructive element; often associated in folklore with the “bad guys” like Hades and Sauron.

We seem to have turned our backs on what was apparently one of our biggest allies in traversing the globe. So today I am going to go into a little detail about ‘natural’ fire, its importance in our history, and its impacts on current management practices. The first humans to wander the world were mainly hunter-gatherers who fed on meat only when they came across kills by other animals. In essence, we became omnivores only because of our scavenging ability. Similarly, humans were fire scavengers who only wielded fire when lightning strikes provided sparks that sent blazes spreading through our native savanna grasslands.

This was only possible because savanna-lightning fires predated the rise of humans. We know this from both charcoal records and the presence of biomes (a large naturally occurring community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat) that are adapted to and reliant on frequent burning: the chaparral of California, fynbos of South Africa, and the eucalyptus forests of Australia. However, the most expansive fire-driven biome of all is the savanna, which exists on all major landmasses except Antarctica and supports most of the globe’s meat and grain production.

Savannahs are home to grass species such as Themeda triandra that need to burn or they disappear from the system as they are pushed out by trees and grasses that cope better in shady conditions. The presence and dominance of this species (and others like it) across several continents is a testament to fire’s long history in shaping Earth as we know it. The exact trigger that allowed Savannah to expand across the world is still debated, but lightning fires certainly played a role in the opening up of forests and the subsequent spread of grasses over vast areas of the globe. These open landscapes invited our ancestors down from the trees and resulted in the spread and diversification of grazers – the descendants of which many of us enjoy eating today – cattle.

Not only does this fire-driven landscape support domestic animals and indeed ourselves, but it also supports a diverse suite of wild grazers such as white rhinoceros, wildebeest, zebras, gazelle, buffalo, bison, and hippos that we desperately want to keep around if we possibly can. Since we call these organisms and myriad other savanna dwellers ‘natural,’ shouldn’t we also accept that fire is a natural process? By accepting this, we can conclude that to conserve these wonderful species, fire has to be better understood. We need to decide: do we only let lightning fires do the hard work of maintaining the savanna landscape? Or does more than 100 000 years of human-influenced burning make decoupling the human effect on fire impossible? In my opinion it is clear that anthropogenic fires play a vital role in current and future wildlife management.

What I have written about in these first two pieces has largely been based on the history of fire and savannahs as we currently understand it (new evidence can always change things). Next I will explore how some of the world’s biggest wildlife conservation areas use fire in management. I will also examine the research that analyses the effectiveness of present and past fire policies.

Sound dull? Think of the most iconic conservation areas in the world such as Yellowstone National Park, Kruger National Park, the Serengeti, the Ngorogoro Crater, the Masai Mara, and Emas National Park. You will find that all have policies to manage fire in the landscape. The best part of this is that we will cross over from historical fact to evidence-based management that leaves the door open for discussion and personal interpretation of the role of fires in conservation. I’d love to hear your opinions about fire and its use as a tool to maintain biodiversity, so please feel free to send feedback!

Author: Jason Donaldson, Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, M.Sc in Ecology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

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Disclosure statement: Jason Donaldson receives funding from the National Research Foundation of South Africa and his project is funded by the Partnership for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) competitive grants program.