Stephen J. Pyne is the world's pre-eminent historian of fire, and also a very fine writer. I've read many of his books, reviewed one, and highly recommend them all. On May 16 he published this article in Slate.com: Welcome to the Pyrocene, about the fire that is still burning out of control across northern Alberta and now Saskatchewan. Excerpt:
It’s tempting to appeal to climate change as the common cause. Yet the burning bush and scorched town are joined not just by global climate change, but by a global economy, and behind both, by a global commitment to fossil-fuel firepower. That makes the issue both more pervasive and, paradoxically, more amenable to treatment. It means that, while there is one grand prime mover, there are many levers and gears. Fire is a reaction that takes its character from its context. It’s a driverless car barreling down the road, synthesizing everything around it.
The enduring images of the Fort Mac fire may, in fact, be its cars. Car-propelled flight, cars stranded for lack of gas, cars melted in garages, evacuation convoys halted due to 60-meter flames, relief convoys laden with gasoline.
It isn’t only what comes out of the tailpipe that matters but how those vehicles have organized human life in the boreal. The engagement (or not) with the surrounding bush. The kind of land use that cars encourage. The kind of industry that must develop to support those cars. The kind of city that such an industry needs to sustain it. The oil sand industry that has shaped the contours of modern Fort McMurray is in turn shaped by the internal-combusting society it feeds.
So there are really two fires burning around and into Fort McMurray. One burns living landscapes. The other burns lithic landscapes, which is to say, biomass buried and turned to stone in the geologic past. The two fires compete: one or the other triumphs. At any place the transition may take years, even decades, but where the industrial world persists, its closed combustion will substitute for or suppress the open flames of ecosystems. The wholesale transition from the realm of living fire to that of lithic fire may stand as a working definition of the Anthropocene. Once parted they rarely meet.
At Fort McMurray they have collided with unblinking brutality. Wild fire burned away controlled fire. The old fires have forced the power plants behind the new ones to shut down and their labor force to flee. It’s like watching an open pit mine consume the town that excavates it. It’s tempting to regard the incident as a one-off, a freak of a remote landscape and a historical moment. But those collisions are becoming more frequent.
That’s not the deep worry, however. The deep horror is that the two fires may be moving from competition into collusion. They are creating positive feedback of a sort that makes more fire. Those images of fire on fire are the raw footage of a planetary phase change, what might end up as a geologic era we could call the Pyrocene. They will continue until, as Shakespeare put it, they “consume the thing that feeds their fury.”