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13.4.05

AAGs, Day Three

This post is extremely late, as I got stuck in a hotel room with no internet, and then got stuck in Denver for an extra two nights due to the blizzard. But now I'm back in the Eastern time zone, so on with the show:

Friday's big event was a talk by Stephen Pyne, the guy writing about the social side of fire management. His talk was decently attended, though I'd expected more (perhaps because I'm too immersed in the fire literature to realize how un-famous he is outside of it). I also think Pyne is coasting a bit on his own famousness. It's been some time since he really bit off a substantial new chunk of conceptual territory. He seems to be circling around through the same ideas, reframing them a bit on each pass. So his AAG paper wasn't anything profoundly new, although he did have some nice graphics for it.

One of the major issues he raised was the relationship between biomass burning and fossil fuel burning. His basic thesis is that development leads the latter to replace the former. He showed a photo of the Earth at night in which you could see Europe lit up with (mostly fossil-fuel powered) electric lights, while Africa was covered in fires. By the end of the session, most people had left, so I was able to talk to him about this issue, specifically to suggest that the relationship between the two types of burning may be somewhat more complex than the simple developmental replacement model he advocated. Specifically, I raised the case of the urban-wildland interface.

The UWI is a site not only of increased vulnerability to biomass burning (wildfires), but also of increased incidence of biomass burning, as roads fragment (and hence dessicate) forests, lawn fertilizer runoff and exotic species increase biomass in "wild" areas, and human activities provide additional ignition sources. Yet the UWI as we know it today (as opposed to the more intensively managed farms and working forests of traditional rural areas) would not be possible without fossil fuel technologies -- in particular cars to drive into the city to work.

Pyne replied that the contemporary UWI was simply a transitional phase. He argued that in the short term, UWI residents would not put up with biomass fires and would turn to fossil-fuel-powered technologies to eliminate it (e.g. gas-powered mowers and wood chippers). In the longer term, the UWI is simply the leading edge of urban growth, so the "wildland" part would in due time be converted to skyscrapers. I wasn't particularly convinced by either claim, although it wasn't until later that I could articulate why.

Pyne's short-term claim seems to be contradicted by the preliminary results of Tam Ubbin's study of Montanans' attitudes toward fire. In commenting from the audience on another paper in this session, she said that her interviewees in the UWI were quite aware of the fire danger, but were willing to accept it as the price of a "natural" landscape. Pyne may be falling into the trap of many fire managers who assume they know what the public values. Or he may just be too optimistic about the likelihood of either developing a management technique that reduces fire danger without aesthetic impacts, or about altering our aesthetic principles.

Pyne's long-term claim seems to buy into a simple developmental model of urban territorial expansions (which was also a major subtext of a session earlier in the day on exurbia, which is what non-fire people call the UWI). Yet I question whether this is likely to occur. In the developed world (where the UWI problem is most salient), population growth is slow, so the "we need more space for houses" pressure is declining. What pressure there is may be in part relieved by gentrification of city centers. Also, the UWI often abuts reserved land (National Parks, National Forests, etc.), creating an irreducible wildland area next to settlement and making it harder for current UWI residents to sell their land to a developer and move further out.

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