Fall 1998


The History of Fire

By Eugene Bender

300 million years ago
The atmosphere is so rich in oxygen — 30 percent — that a world like today's would have been impossible. Fires would not stop; everything burnable burned repeately, as soon as it grew and was ignited.

200 million years ago
Due to changes in the interactions between animals, plants and fire, the Earth's oxygen levels dropped to about 21 percent of the atmosphere, as it is today. 15 to 5 million years ago The world's grassland communities developed, with fire a crucial component, leading to new forms of life including the large grazing animals, and humans.

12,000 BC – 1900 AD
As the glaciers retreated, human-set fires joined lightning-set. Studies of fire scars and even-aged stands of old timber show consistent patterns of fire frequency.

Euro-American settlers learned burning from the Indians, but a cultural reaction against fire, starting in Europe in the 1800s, was soon reflected here in controversy over fire.

Yale's H. H. Chapman studies the burning of southern pine by timber growers to prepare seedbeds for longleaf pine and to prevent pine from being taken over by hardwoods and brush. As a result, he champions prescribed burning.

5,000,000 acres of natural forests burn, 3,000,000 in Idaho and Montana alone, in the Big Blowup. 78 fatalities reported.

US National Park Service is established and adopts strict fire suppression policy.

US Forest Service standardizes a policy of intensive fire suppression.

Forest Service Chief Lyle Watts encourages the experimental use of prescribed burning.

"Smokey the Bear" ads appear.

Prof. Harold Biswell of the University of California researches the use of prescribed burning and almost loses his job because the School of Forestry fears being associated with prescribed fire.

Ed Komarek of the private Tall Timbers Research Station in Florida advocates prescribed fire worldwide, based on studies made by the station.

A. L. Shiff's book, Fire and Water, shows that productivity in southern pine forests was increased by periodic controlled burning.

Biswell's studies show that giant sequoias depend on fire to kill the seedlings of competing tree species.

National Park Service publishes new policies recognizing fire as a natural phenomenon.

Forest Service admits some fire is good in its bulletin Protecting the Forests from Fire. Cook County Forest Preserves are on record conducting regular controlled burns as part of land management policy. However, all wildfires and vandal fires are to be extinguished as soon as possible.

Illinois Department of Conservation incorporates controlled burns as part of its land management policy.

Illinois Beach State Park begins controlled burns.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore incorporates prescribed fire as part of its land management program.

One-third of Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres are scorched by 248 wildfires that are at first allowed to burn.

Report of the US Fire Policy Review Committee concludes that the public did not understand fire terminology or policy and advises that prescribed and natural fires be used more often to reduce hazardous fuel build-up. 1996 DuPage and Cook County Forest Preserve Districts impose a moratorium on prescribed burning as a result of criticism in the press. The DuPage moratorium is soon lifted.

A paper in Science reports that the suppression of wildfires led to the loss of a third of the plant species in Wisconsin prairies over the past 50 years.

Cook County FPD rescinds a moratorium on prescribed burning after its Community Advisory Council votes 13 to 1 to resume the process. Now prescribed burning is conducted by all county, state, and federal conservation agencies in the Chicago region.