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Researchers Call for Creation of Fire Science

An international group of researchers is calling for the creation of a separate scientific discipline devoted to the study of fire. The scientists say there's a basic lack of understanding about fire, which impacts virtually every aspect of life on earth.

Uncontrolled fires cause billions of dollars a year in damage to health, livelihoods and biodiversity, yet experts say relatively little is known about this primitive element and its impact.

In a paper published this week in the journal Science, co-author Steve Pyne and colleagues say there's currently no systematic, scientific way to study fire.

Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University in Tempe, says a separate fire science is long overdue.

"Fire is an enormous large ancient presence and it has not been considered in our disciplines. There is no fire topic as a discipline. You know the other ancient elements - earth, air and water - all have disciplines devoted to them but fire doesn't," he said.

Pyne and nearly two dozen other researchers compiled current data on fire's impact on global warming to underscore the need for a new fire discipline.

The scientists report that all fires combined -- from the intentional blazes farmers use to clear forest to the accidental wildfires sparked by both man and nature -- release an amount of carbon dioxide equal to half the CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

They say fires also pump other potentially climate-changing pollutants into the atmosphere, including methane gas, aerosols and soot.

Pyne adds that changes in climate could exacerbate the hot, dry conditions that trigger wildfires.

"That is to say we're seeing an outbreak of larger and more intense fires, and climate is part of the background set of conditions that allows that to happen. So fire is very much a cause and consequence and, in some ways, catalyst for all of this, but it is not considered such," Pyne said.

The prospect of larger and more deadly fires around the world makes it imperative that new ways be found to help better understand and manage those fires, according to the study's lead author, Jennifer Balch, a researcher with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California.

"What we're going to have to be concerned about in a warmer world are where there are more fires where we don't normally see fires, where there are more fires and where there are more frequent fires. And we are going to have to figure out where those differences are going to be and how we're going to respond to them, and accommodate these changes in fire regimes," Balch said.

The authors hope the report will persuade the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- an international panel of experts studying global warming - to pay more attention to fire as a significant force in global warming, and spark interest within the scientific community for a new scientific discipline devoted to the study of fire.