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Welcome to the ‘Pyrocene,’ an Epoch of Runaway Fire

Fire scholar Stephen J. Pyne proposes a pyrocentric view of the last 10,000 years — and warns that California’s wildfires herald a very combustible future. 

Wildfires across Northern California are burning out of control amid a punishing heat wave. To historian Stephen Pyne, the disaster is part of a larger planetary phenomenon — a human-caused “fire age” he’s dubbed the Pyrocene. 
Photographer: Philip Pacheco/Bloomberg

It isn’t just California that’s burning. This summer, smoke from massive wildfires in Siberia choked skies as far as Alaska and set new pollution records, in a second consecutive year of unprecedented blazes in the Arctic Circle. Rising temperatures, a loss of precipitation, and parched vegetation are hallmarks of climate change, scientists say, as are the increasingly extreme wildfires that result, from the arid Western U.S. to some of coldest places on Earth.

Yet these infernos are but one dimension of a vast human geography of fire. That’s according to Stephen J. Pyne, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and former wildland firefighter with more than 30 books to his name, most of which, as he writes, “make fire a protagonist.” His forthcoming book proposes that the past 10,000-12,000 years — an epoch officially known as the Holocene, starting at the end of the last Ice Age — are coterminous with what he calls the “Pyrocene.” The book, built on a 2015 essay called “The Fire Age” published in Aeonwill summarize how the destiny of Homo sapiens is tied to its habit of burning things.