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Burning PlanetThe Story of Fire Through Time$
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Andrew C. Scott

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780198734840

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198734840.001.0001

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(p.55) 3 Kindling
Burning Planet

Andrew C. Scott

Oxford University Press

What does it take to make a fire? The factors underlying fire can be illustrated with a triangle, and five fire triangles, relevant to different scales in area and time, have been defined. Let’s start with the most basic, at the smallest scale. The ‘fire fundamentals triangle’ has three elements: fuel, as there needs to be something to burn; heat, because fires can’t start without a source of heat; and oxygen, essential for a fire to combust and spread. The importance of oxygen becomes obvious when we put out a fire. The use of sand or CO2, or even smothering, is a way to exclude air, and more specifically to remove oxygen from the system so that the combustion reaction stops. Water has two effects. It reduces the amount of oxygen getting to the fire, but more importantly the heat energy from the fire goes into evaporating the water rather than heating the fuel that allows the combustion reaction to continue. Our second triangle can be called the ‘fire environment triangle’. Here again, fuel forms one of the points. Another is the weather, as this controls the moisture in the fuel, affecting its flammability. The drier the fuel, the more easily it can burn. Perhaps surprisingly, the third point of the triangle is topography, which impacts on the rate and pattern of spread of the fire. Hill slopes, for instance, can provide an updraft of air that allows the fire to spread more quickly. The next triangle up widens our perspective in terms not only of spatial scale but also time. This triangle can be called the ‘fire regime triangle’. Here we consider not simply the fuel but the type of vegetation that is being burned. Some types of vegetation are more flammable than others. The overall climate is also significant at this bigger scale. For example, temperate seasonal climates are more fire-prone than wet tropical climates, where there is rain every day. The third arm of this triangle is landform: mountainous regions are more susceptible to fire than low-lying flat areas.

Keywords:   Araucaria, Calamites, Devonian, Eocene, Ginkgo, Mesozoic, Oligocene, Paleozoic, Siberia, Tertiary

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