Sometimes you have to set land on fire to save it. Setting fires intentionally was a land stewarding practice long before the industrial revolution began accelerating carbon output and human impact on the climate. It was this revelation—that burning landscape isn’t always a bad thing—that prompted former Knight Science Journalism Fellow M.R. O’Connor to delve into the science and culture around wildfires, fire management, and land conservation.
For her latest book, “Ignition: Lighting Fires in a Burning World,” O’Connor reported from the ground, on the edge of fire lines — as up close and personal as it gets. Through email, she spoke about her experience writing the book, and how it changed her view of the relationship between humans and nature. (The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
Knight Science Journalism: How did you come to write a book on both the science and cultural history of fire?
M.R. O’Connor: I’m not sure I had ever given much thought to fire–culturally or ecologically–until I had the opportunity to travel in Australia and saw recently burned landscapes in the country’s Northern Territories. I was so surprised to learn about the concept of fire-adapted landscapes and the fact that people had intentionally set these fires to benefit the land. It genuinely puzzled me why I had never heard about this practice before, it seemed so revolutionary. I read Bill Gammage’s incredible book “The Biggest Estate” on the plane ride home to America. Gammage’s book offers historical context for the ingenuity of Aboriginal land management practices that support plants and animals and culture through fire. The facts in that book subverted so many beliefs I had about wilderness, culture, and environmental degradation. It took a couple more years before various dots connected and I understood that the North American continent has a similar history of cultural burning. That’s when the opportunity to learn and report on the history of fire use and the people who practice this form of landscape management today became really exciting to me as a journalist. I find it hard to pass up a story that is capable of subverting people’s assumptions.
KSJ: As you researched for “Ignition,” was there anything you found that surprised you?
MRO: I didn’t expect to love working with fire. Initially, I thought I would do the basic training for wildland firefighting qualifications. It seems counterintuitive but most prescribed burns require these basic qualifications to ensure safety etc. I thought if I had them, I could observe and not be a hindrance to anyone. I also thought having basic qualifications would help me gain access if people thought I kind of knew what I was doing and they didn’t have to worry about me. But you can’t really be on the fireline and just stand around watching, someone is going to hand you a tool and give you a job. Once I had that experience, I kept wanting to do more. I started pursuing more training opportunities and qualifications. I am currently working on a Firefighter Type I qualification, which would allow me to be a squad boss on a firefighting/prescribed fire crew. I’m also a qualified Fire Effects Monitor (FEMO). I think how much I enjoyed the work changed the trajectory of the reporting and the shape of the book. It wasn’t really possible to write from the perspective of an observer, or as an objective reporter. I had to include some of the transformations I had undergone personally as a result of being close to fire. Prior to writing this book, including anything personal about myself in my reporting would have made me unbearably anxious yet, here we are.
KSJ: How did your own perspective and life experiences influence how you wrote “Ignition?”
MRO: My family background is very blue-collar, my dad is a house painter and my mom was a weaver, housecleaner, and cook. My grandparents were bus drivers and bakers. I suppose this might have influenced how I approached writing about the work and tools of firefighting and fire lighting. It’s a very demanding job that doesn’t pay nearly as much as it should. I certainly felt one of the things the book could try to do was highlight for the public what this work actually looks and feels like and the commitment and integrity demonstrated by those who do it.
You can’t really be on the fireline and just stand around watching, someone is going to hand you a tool and give you a job.”
KSJ: Ahead of your book launch at the Mass MoCA, the museum described “Ignition” as offering, “a wildly hopeful vision of an alternative environmental future.” Can you describe your own hope for the future of humans and fire on our planet?
MRO: I think there is a feeling today that people are inevitably a destructive force on the environment and if we weren’t here, things would be better from an environmental point of view. We pollute, exploit, ruin. Fire challenged that notion for me. In Australia, for example, it’s pretty much the exact opposite: the absence of people’s fire-lighting practices has created a less diverse and resilient landscapes and contributed to the catastrophic fires like those seen a few years ago during the Black Summer. Another example: many of us have internalized this notion of a carbon footprint, which creates this sense that each of us is causing harm simply by existing–eating, traveling, clothing ourselves. I’m not saying there isn’t reality to the concept of an individual carbon footprint but it is reductive, it can’t begin to capture what it means to be human today. Working on prescribed fires showed me one way that people are a positive force on the environment and can have an impact that benefits the full spectrum of life: carbon, soil, plants, animals. I’m not here to say fire is the solution or panacea to the grave crisis we face but I am here to report this evidence of an alternative relationship between people and nature, one that stands in small defiance to the doom of global warming.
KSJ: What do you hope your readers take away from the book?
I find it hard to pass up a story that is capable of subverting people’s assumptions.”
MRO: I hope readers might start to question their ideas about wilderness and nature, maybe even get inspired to look at the landscapes around them and get interested in their natural history. Folks might be surprised how many places are historically fire-adapted and the ways that people had influence in shaping them. Especially in America, we’ve been given this impression that until European settlers arrived, this continent was “pure” or “untouched.” Where did that idea come from? Whose interests did it serve?
KSJ: Do you have any advice for science journalists interested in writing books?
MRO: Obviously, some books do become successes and a few become bestsellers. But many excellent books, the majority in fact, don’t. So, I would advise people to have an extremely good reason outside of financial benefit to write a book. Wildland firefighters have a saying about “getting paid in sunsets.” Book writing is a bit like that too, you should probably be ok with getting paid in cool experiences. The ability to follow my curiosity over a long period of time is what has made book writing worth it. But I’ve always finished them barely breaking even.
KSJ: If people want to keep up with your journey as an author and journalist, where should they follow you?
MRO: Instagram! @The_OChronicle, but only if you are okay with seeing pictures of my boys in addition to flagrant tree-hugging and fire-lighting. Otherwise, I have a personal website with links to clips and occasionally publish in cool outlets like The New Yorker and Undark.