Fire has a bad reputation. Wildfires raging across parts of California and Australia make headlines. In the news bulletins, it is a destructive force that has to be quenched. But that is far from the whole story. Fire has a long history. In our deep past, wildfire helped shape aspects of our planet, and plants and animals have adapted to it in a variety of ways. In this book, we will follow the story of fire through time. But we begin with the present, with the fires that occur around the world today, and how satellites are changing our view of wildfire. Most of us have little or no experience of a wildfire, apart from those dramatic scenes shown on our television sets from time to time. Almost invariably, two questions are asked: who started the fire, and how quickly can it be put out? Reasonable though they seem, these two questions betray a potential misunderstanding of how fire works on our planet. We assume that the fire was started by humans, either accidentally or deliberately. This may indeed be true, but more than half of the fires started across the globe have a natural cause—mostly lightning strikes, but also other causes such as volcanic activity. Every moment of every day, a fire is burning somewhere in the world. The second assumption is that a fire should always be suppressed. But should we always be rushing to put out a vegetation fire? Wildfire is one of nature’s most frightening manifestations. Winds and storms may die down, and we can seek shelter from them, but fire can be difficult to outrun and escape. Many who are killed by wildfire have underestimated this force of nature, and even those with experience in putting out fires can find themselves cut off, and succumbing to the flames. As we shall discover, not all vegetation burns in the same way, and there are many different kinds of fire, from those burning surface vegetation to those moving through the crowns of trees. Their consequences may also be very different.
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