Written by Carmen Critelli
Posted on November 20 2020
Is fire a symbol for human progress or decline?
Over the centuries, the fire was always considered a symbol of purity. The bible describes it as “ symbol of closeness to God”. One can just think of the importance that fire has assumed through the image of torches poured out by the Holy Spirit on the heads of the apostles during Pentecost. The unquenchableness of this primary element has always inspired many philosophers to reflect upon the importance of human evolution that would have not existed without the discovery of fire.
However, if I would ask the reader what she/he thinks by saying the word fire, the symbolism and the Christian heritage nowadays would have less effect on the answer. Fire has acquired an image of disruption, deathfulness and irrationality. There’s a reason why: 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, 328 thousand of forests and other habitats in Indonesia were destroyed by bushfires .
Consequences of bushfires
The consequences are not only direct, such as the deforestation or the loss of human lives, but even show their threat indirectly. For instance, the Earth’s energy balance is controlled by clouds : they act as mirrors reflecting sunlight back to space, cooling the Earth. Noxious smokes 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 influence on clouds. Indeed, their colour would become whiter, reflecting more solar radiation, becoming less likely to produce rain and therefore subverting the energy balance . Furthermore, 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, adapt itself to changes.
Indian Ocean Dipole
The Australian “Black summer” is the best example to demonstrate this. Indeed, one of the root causes of bushfires in Australia is the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). The IOD is an irregular oscillation of sea surface temperatures. There are two phases which 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 get more rainfall because the clouds tend to move with warm water. On the other side, the western surface will be colder, and less rainfall will occur, causing higher temperatures. Therefore, higher risks and favourable conditions (arid soils and plants) to cause bushfires. Hence, the question arises spontaneously: What causes the IOD oscillation? Scientists are examining the causes, since the phenomenon was discovered only a few years ago. However, as we can see, 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.
Since 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. Indeed, 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 program 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” .
Moreover, some groups of volunteers arose during those years by monitoring wildfires and helping civil protection. For instance, 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. Indeed, 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.
Moral of the Story
These stories have a common ethical purpose: the balance of our ecosystem is in our hand. If we continue to destroy it by altering the energy balance and the consequent effects on temperatures, the IOD effect is only one of the several consequences that will occur. Mother Nature will turn against us. The same fire that Prometheus thought was essential for human progress or christianity considered as the expression of purity and light, 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” . Thus, let’s begin!
 Bruce Wielicki, On clouds and Earth’s energy balance (https://earthsky.org/earth/bruce-wielicki-on-clouds-and-earths-energy-balance)
 COUNCIL DECISION of 27 June 1985 – Official Journal of the European Communities (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/eudn/1985/338/pdfs/eudn_19850338_adopted_en.pdf
 Sir Rober Baden Powell- Scouting for Boys