• Carmen Critelli

Fire: A Symbol for Progress or Destruction

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

In Ancient Greece, tales were passed down generation by generation to make people reflect upon human existence and their relationship with the divine. One of the most famous is the story of Prometheus - one of the twelve children of Uranus, the primordial deities. He stole the ‘fire’ from the Olympus to bring it to humanity. By doing this, the titan unconsciously signed the beginning of the civilisation. I wonder what Prometheus would have thought of that same fire that he considered of symbolic importance for human progress if he had known what it would have caused in the 21st century. Following the data analysed by WWF in 2019, 12 million hectares in Amazonia, 27 thousand hectares of the Congo Basin, over 8 million in the Arctic, and 328 thousand hectares of forests and other habitats in Indonesia were destroyed. 

The consequences are not only direct, such as the deforestation or the loss of human lives, but even show their threat indirectly. Earth’s energy balance is controlled by clouds. Noxious fumes produced by fires, due to their dark particles, can inhibit cloud formation by inverting their process of convection which in turn has a warming influence on the surface. Conversely, smoke can also have a cooling impact on clouds. Indeed, their colour would become whiter, reflecting more solar radiation, becoming less likely to produce rain and therefore subverting the energy balance. Significantly, the physical state of flora is affected, causing the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which in turn increase air temperatures. As a consequence, nature, to balance our ecosystem, adapts itself to changes. 

The Australian bushfire season, even known as “Black Summer”, figures as the best example to prove what the indirect consequences of fire are. Indeed, one of the root causes of bushfires in Australia is the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). It is an irregular oscillation of sea surface temperatures due to which two phases alternate themselves during the boreal summer-autumn seasons: when the western Indian Ocean becomes warmer (called as the positive phase) than the Eastern part that is colder (negative phase). When the IOD occurs in the positive phase, East African countries receive more rainfall because the clouds tend to move with warm water. On the other, the eastern surface will be colder, and less rain will occur, causing higher temperatures and therefore, higher risks and favourable conditions (arid soils and plants) to cause bushfires. As such, the question arises: What causes the IOD oscillation? Scientists are examining the causes since the phenomenon was discovered only a few years ago. Experts are focusing on the record warmth of the tropical Indian Ocean and the deepening of the thermocline in the Eastern Indian Ocean, a fluid layer in which temperature changes more rapidly with depth than it does in the others. However, as we know, temperatures play an essential role and fires can be considered both the causes of changes in the atmosphere and the consequences of this vicious circle.

Although we already see the consequences of fires thanks to the effect of climate change and deforestation, we must act now to prevent harmful repercussions on the ecosystem. Some associations around the world are working to avoid further expansion of the fires and trying by restoring the previous habitats. In Oaxaca, Mexico, a long-running project promoted by WWF is restoring forests, soils, water and preventing possible fires. Communities have been empowered to make conscious decisions about what they do with the land and their natural resources. In fact, education is the most powerful weapon to fight fires. Several countries have adopted programs to inform people about the risks and how to prevent bushfires. The European Union has its own agenda that came into force in the ‘90s, which aims at “gathering, coordinating and ensuring the consistency of information on the state of the environment and natural resources in the Community”. 

During those years, some groups of volunteers arose by monitoring wildfires and helping civil protection. In Southern Italy, which has always been susceptible to forests fires due to its climate temperatures and human activity, an association called “Diavoli Rossi”, or Red Devils, started their project in 1982 when six young men decided to make a difference for the future of their little town, Tiriolo, which is ravaged each summer by bushfires. Since then, not only did they fight fires to save their town and the surrounding area from ruin, they also gave their services to help against floods and they set up tents for immigrants and earthquake victims. However, their most important deed was the education of local people. They organised camps to educate children on what to do if fires or natural catastrophes occur thanks to collaborations with other local associations. The Red Devils grew year by year, being recognised as one of the most important activist groups in the Calabrian hinterland. Thanks to them, people are conscious of the importance of their territory and considerable damage to the ecosystem was avoided.

These stories have a shared moral purpose: the balance of our ecosystem is in our hand. If we continue to destroy it by altering temperatures and not respecting mother Nature, she will turn against us. Bushfires are only one example of the consequences, showing how the same fire that Prometheus thought was essential for human progress, now represents the destruction of our future. However, stories such as the project developed by the WWF in Mexico or the group of volunteers in Southern Italy outline the significant role that each of us can play day by day and how we can turn over a new leaf and save our planet. As Baden Powell said: “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it”. Let’s begin.

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