International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Linking humans and fire: a proposal for a transdisciplinary fire ecology

Michael R. Coughlan A C and Aaron M. Petty B

A Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia, 250 Baldwin Hall, Athens, GA 30602, USA.

B Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, NT 0909, Australia.

C Corresponding author. Email: coughlan@uga.edu

International Journal of Wildland Fire 21(5) 477-487 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WF11048
Submitted: 4 April 2011  Accepted: 21 October 2011   Published: 25 May 2012

Abstract

Human activity currently plays a significant role in determining the frequency, extent and intensity of landscape fires worldwide. Yet the historical and ecological relationships between humans, fire and the environment remain ill-defined if not poorly understood and an integrative approach linking the social and physical aspects of fire remains largely unexplored. We propose that human fire use is ubiquitous and evidence that historical fire patterns do not differ from non-anthropogenic fire regimes is not evidence that humans did not practice fire management. Through literature review and the presentation of two case studies from the south-eastern USA and tropical Australia, we discuss how the study of fire ecology can benefit from paying attention to the role of humans in three thematic areas: (1) human agency and decision processes; (2) knowledge and practice of landscape fire and (3) socioecological dynamics inherent in the history of social systems of production and distribution. Agency, knowledge of fire ecology and social systems of production and distribution provide analytical links between human populations and the ecological landscape. Consequently, ignitions ultimately result from human behaviours, and where fire use is practised, ignitions result from decision process concerning a combination of ecological knowledge and belief and the rationale of livelihood strategies as constrained by social and ecological parameters. The legacy of human land use further influences fuel continuity and hence fire spread.

Additional keywords: anthropogenic fire, fire-use practices, historical ecology, human agency, landscape fire, socioecological systems.


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