(Credit Image: Pierre Markuse, CC BY 2.0)

The global wildfire is engulfing the world. Throughout 2019, immense swaths of Australia, California, Alaska, Russia, central Africa, and the Amazon basin, were part of this immense bonfire. This conflagration took place after the historic fire seasons of 2018, 2017, 2016… (David Wallace Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, Life after Warming, 2019).

Those new giant wildfires signal a historic inversion: humans do no longer master fire. In fact, the current condition is nothing but a “rewildering” of fire, at a planetary scale. At such scale, rhythm and intensity, this global wildfire is becoming a new dimension of the current climate hyper siege. Thus, it must be understood in strategic terms.

From the Quest for fire…

Since the proto-historic period, fire is central to the development of human societies. It is a tool for eating, hunting, growing agrarian space, and resisting to cold. It is also instrumental in the development of minerals and metals. The flow of human history is also the history of the domestication of fire (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies, 1999).

In its “wildfire” dimension, it has been reduced and mitigated as a risk. Hence, large apparatus of technical and administrative management, mitigation and security exist in order to contain this risk. Fire is also a tool of war. It can be used on purpose to destroy cities and forests for strategic and operational purpose (John Keegan A History of Warfare, 1993, Mike Davis, Dead Cities: A Natural History, 2002).

… To the loss of fire

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However, things are changing at a dramatic pace. As Hélène Lavoix puts it with vivid precision, we are now living in a “Burning World”. Thus, in this two parts article, we shall look at this new condition. In this first part, we shall see that the new “wildfire power” is overpowering the capabilities of modern societies to master it.

In other words, the rapid spread of mega-fires is becoming a wild – as in “undomesticated” – form of strategic attack against the modern urban conditions of living.

Notably, those depend upon the continuity of the global supply chains as well as on the productivity of the agro-industrial sector (Carolyn Steel, Hungry City: how food shapes our lives, 2013). Yet, wildfires and mega-fires can affect and even interrupt them. The strategic dimension of mega-fires is also both a product and a driver of the great acceleration of the modern urban and industrial development as well as of climate change.

Wild Fire power

Fire for war

During the Second World War, the invention of strategic bombing did put on fire hundreds of cities in Continental Europe, in Great Britain and in Japan. Thanks to the huge amount of experience thus accumulated, the British Royal Air Force and the U.S. air army (that became the U.S. Air Force in 1946), became great experts at the artificial use and development of urban fire through air bombing (Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 and John Dower, Cultures of war, Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima, 9/11/ Iraq, 2010).  

Then, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military made an extended use of napalm to put on fire entire swaths of the Vietnam jungle in order to destroy the vegetal cover that the North Vietnam army was using as a giant trap against the U.S. Army and marines.

These examples help us understand how “fire power” is also a way to use fire to exert a highly destructive form of power. Fire is a very efficient driver of mass destruction in urban and rural environments.

However, our rapidly warming planet is overthrowing the status of fire. Our planet thus becomes an unintended strategic actor.

Fire is coming

Thus, fire-power is not only a tool of the military arsenal anymore, but it is becoming a wild power in itself. Nowadays, wildfire is endangering the modern world, through its hybridation with the vulnerabilities of modern societies.

For example, on 5 August 2010, the Russian authorities declared the state of emergency for the territory of the Ozersk (“Russia declares state of emergency in nuclear town as wildfire blazes”, The Telegraph, 10 August 2010). They were reacting very strongly to the raging giant wildfires that were devastating the country since July. The wildfires were now threatening the city and its strategic nuclear waste reprocessing plant.

Thus, it was of strategic importance to isolate it from the fire, in order to prevent a possible nuclear disaster (Ibid.). This took place during the historical heat wave that struck Russia and Ukraine from late July to the end of the second week of August 2010.

If a direct link has not been established so far, climate scientists warn nonetheless that this kind of event is certainly going to be the new normal during the twenty-first century as climate changes (Alyson Kenward, “2010 Russian heatwave more extreme than previously thought”, Climate Central, March 17, 2011).

The 2010 heatwave triggered and fuelled immense wildfires that ravaged the Russian forests and lands. It also reduced by more than 10% the Russian and Ukrainian production of cereals. As a result, the world cereal price increased. In turn, the price of bread in the Arab world went up during the fall and winter 2010, as well as throughout 2011 (Michael Klare, “The Coming global explosion”, TomDispatch, April 21, 2013), which fuelled the Arab Spring.

Global Wildfire

In May 2016, from North America to Russia, places especially vulnerable to climate change were shaken by immense wildfires. The mega wildfire that devastated the region of Fort Mc Murray, in the Alberta State of Canada was prominent among these extreme events (Bryan Alary, “Fort Mc Murray blaze among “most extreme” of wild fires says researcher”, Phys.org, May 9, 2016).

This humongous fire took place directly in the heartland of the world-famous tar sands exploitations. Those turned Canada into an oil product exporter (Andrew Nikiforuk, Tar sands: dirty oil and the future of a continent, 2010).

Mega fire, mega danger

The Alberta wildfire triggered the emergency evacuation of Fort Mc Murray. It triggered a de facto weakening of the tar sands’ production. The fire had endangered the people, as well as the industrial installations and the numerous related investments.

Meanwhile, future insurance costs sharply increased. (Maria Galucci, “Fort Mc Murray wildfires: Canada’s oil sands producers cut output as Alberta fires rage”, International Business Time, O5/04/16). In other words, these extreme weather events demonstrate how much environmental global change puts modern societies, economies and business models at risk.

Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to hide  

Then, in 2018, wildfires ravaged Europe, from Greece to Scandinavia, while the Midwest and California fought off two mega-fires. In 2019, a global storm of fire swept the world and ravaged the Amazon basin, central Africa, Europe, Siberia, Alaska and, finally Australia (Fires, NASA Earth Observatory).

In this country-continent, giant mega-fires are coalescing. This process is turning the west and south western part into a giant fire trap. So far, it has killed more than a billion animals. It also ravaged rural areas and altered the superficial part of the soil.

This is particularly worrying, because the state of soils and of their biodiversity is a major condition of the water cycle and of agriculture (Sarah Maunder, “Bushfire-ravaged soil takes up 80 years to recover, research finds”, ABC, 22 January 2019).

A Burning World

In other words, modern societies do not control the fire anymore. Thus climate change also means that, as written by Hélène Lavoix (“When Denial and Passivity Verge on Stupidity” – The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly – 9 January 2020), from now on, we live in a burning world.

In other terms, the exceptional burning condition known by European cities and the South Asian jungles during the Vietnam/ Cambodia/Laos war, is now imposed upon modern cities all around world. It is becoming the equivalent of a World War 3 being waged by a global “adversary” against each and every nation on Earth.

Thus, the global mega-fire is becoming a driver of the hyper-siege. This means that contemporary societies are being literally “immersed” into the new and adverse geophysical conditions that are besieging them (Jean-Michel Valantin “Hyper Siege: Climate change versus U.S National security”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 31 2014, and Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth, The fate of the Humans in the Anthropocene, 2017).

Moreover, the mega-fires are producing mammoths amounts of greenhouse gas. Thus, they become drivers of climate change and of its acceleration. This process reinforces the intensity of the hyper siege (Emma Newburger, “Massive Arctic wildfires emitted more CO2 in June than Sweden does in one year“, CNBC, August 17, 2019 and Chris Baynes, “Australia wildfires: Devastating blazes pushing global CO2 levels to record high“, The Independent, 25 January, 2020″.)

It also means that climate change turbo-charges wildfires and mega-fires. Those are thus becoming a political, security and social condition.

We shall study the political and geopolitical consequences of the installation of our modern societies on this new planet that is the Burning World in the second part of this article.

Credit featured image: Wildfire near Lake Echo, Tasmania, Australia, 25 January 2019 – Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data [2019], processed by Pierre MarkuseCC BY 2.0.

Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red Team Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

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