Fire on earth: an introduction by Andrew C. Scott, David M. S. J. Bowman, William J. Bond, Stephen J. Pyne & Martin E. Alexander. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2014. No. of pages: xix+413. Price: UK£39.95. ISBN 978-1-119-952356 (paperback)


This book resulted from two circumstances. The first was the formation of the Pyrogeography Research Group, which was funded by the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics and National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara. The second was the persistence of Ian Francis of Wiley-Blackwell to persuade two of the authors (A. C. S. and S. J. P.) to undertake a book on fire!

The book starts: ‘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. Life created both the oxygen and the hydrocarbon fuel that combustion requires, it arranges those fuels according to processes of evolutionary selection and ecological dynamics and, in the form of humanity, it supplies the most abundant source of ignition. Fire is an expression of life on Earth and an index of life's history. Few processes are as integral, unique or ancient.’

The book has been written not for the general public, but for, as the authors put it, the ‘fire community’. It was not the intention to summarize the entire state of the literature, but to demonstrate why fire matters and how one might better understand the complex ways it intertwines with Earth and humanity. The book is divided into four parts, each of which is subdivided into a number of chapters; ‘Fire in the Earth system’, ‘Biology of fire’, ‘Anthropogenic fire’ and ‘The science and art of wildland fire behaviour prediction’. Nowhere it is indicated which author (or authors) wrote which part or chapter. Each part has its own list of references

Part 1 is the most extensive; it is subdivided into five chapters, such as ‘What is fire’ and ‘The geological history of fire – the last two million years’. This part is an introduction to fire that not only considers fundamentals of fire as a physical/chemical process, but also includes methods for the study of fire, an appreciation of the geological history of fire and its importance in the Earth System.

Part 2 is also subdivided into five chapters, including ‘Plants and fire’, ‘Fire and fauna’ and ‘Fire and anthropogenic environmental change’. This part explores the biology of fire, considering fire as a major Earth System process. It includes such items as biogeography, ecology and evolution.

Part 3, dealing with anthropogenic fire, is subdivided into three chapters: ‘Fire creature’; ‘A new epoch of fire: the Anthropocene’; and ‘Fire management’. During the Pleistocene hominids acquired the capacity to manipulate fire. Humans could thus begin to control ignition, could compete with lightning in ways to complement its control over oxygen and fuel. Part 3 explores what this power has meant for Earth and for humanity.

Part 4 is again subdivided into three chapters: ‘Fundamentals of wildland fire as a physical process’; ‘Estimating free-burning wildland fire behaviour’; and ‘Fire management applications of wildland fire behaviour knowledge’. This part focuses on fundamentals of vegetation fire behaviour from the standpoint of understanding heat transfer mechanisms, methods of measurement, description and characterization and ways of forecasting probable fire behaviour in relation to the three components of fire environment: fuels, weather and topography.

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!