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.

It almost goes without saying that fire was not so favorably looked on by the white settlers when they arrived. The first regulation prohibiting burning in California was promulgated by Spanish Governor Jose Joaquin de Arrillaga in 1793. The Spaniards brought horses and cattle, and built houses which they expected to be permanent residences. The Yankees who came later were no better. They actually wanted to establish towns along the banks of the rivers where the reeds so important to the Indians grew. To this day, they insist on the desirability of building homes in the middle of areas designated as “national ( or state) forests.”

And they don’t learn very quickly either. Those of you who remember the hugely disastrous 1991 Berkeley-Oakland fire as I do - because my son and his family got out with only a few family pictures, insurance documents, and two dogs - probably do not remember that a similar fire had burned the same area in 1923. Did the homeowners then move to a safer area? No, they rebuilt then just as they’ve rebuilt since l991 on the same lots on the same hills.

Would you guess that one of the major exports of the United States these days is lumber? And, believe it or not, lumbermen like fires - controlled fires that is, since such fires remove the small, unmarketable secondary growth that crowds the tall trees which are the only ones suitable for “harvesting.” Giant fires in Yellowstone in 1910, just after the Forest Service was inaugurated, persuaded them to ban any campfires in any national forest, and the great “Smoky the Bear” cartoon character pushed fire awareness to the limit in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But there are those among the firefighters of today who say “prescribed burning” might be a way of keeping fires smaller and more manageable.

Looks like we’re left with the same puzzle we started with: did Prometheus do us a favor or hand over to us the means of our own destruction? I’m not sure. Are you?