Fires are not all bad

Ever since the time of the ancient Greek civilizations, we've been trying to decide whether we think Prometheus was a hero or a villain for defying Zeus and giving fire to us undeserving humans. Well, it seems modern ecological thinkers are just as ambivalent about it as the Greeks must have been and, of course, it's all very well as a myth, but the truth is that humans were using fire long before the earliest Greeks ever thought about it.

It's not easy to see fire as a friend to mankind if you've been forced to evacuate your home or have seen it reduced to a chimney and a heap of rubbish. I suspect those of us who've suffered in any of California's wildfires think Zeus had the right idea when he chained Prometheus to a rock and appointed a vulture to torture him for eternity by nibbling on his liver. On the other hand, we do like to share a barbecue and snuggle under an electric blanket on cold nights.

Then again, we know exactly what we mean when we tell someone doing something risky that he's "playing with fire."

Recent studies in anthropology and ecology tell how our ancestors - or if not our ancestors then the ancestors of those who were here when ours were running about Europe looking for a warm cave - dealt with fire. To them, fire was a tool, one they used carefully and smartly. It was, first of all, a great help in hunting. Native Americans did not domesticate animals, but meat was a major dietary staple along with fish and grain and vegetables. When they went hunting, they took, naturally, bows and arrows and stone axes, but they also took torches. The kind of small game they could kill for food could easily hide in thickly wooded areas or (in the Midwest) in the sweeping plains full of tall native grasses. Fires could drive them into the open and make hunting a worthwhile effort.

Besides flushing out the animals, burning renewed the soil, helped them locate areas where underground tubers grew, and encouraged the growth of plants that need sunlight to mature. As firefighters of today know, controlled burning can save the large trees while killing off the kind of brush that we are encouraged to get rid of around our houses. One ecologist says, "When Lewis and Clark set out from St. Louis they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans for thousands of years."

However, I do seem to recall that one of the tribes they visited treated them to a rather shocking display of fireworks by applying torches to some sap-dripping fir trees which then exploded like Roman candles.

Not only food resulted from burning. The California Indians used certain kinds of reeds for everything from ropes to fishing nets to canoes and especially for those artistically woven baskets that could even carry and hold water. Such reeds grew best in areas where other "invasive" plants were discouraged by frequent burning.

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