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Fires have plagued American cities for centuries. During the 18th century, the Great Fire of Boston (1760), the First Great Fire of New York City (1776), the First Great New Orleans Fire (1788), and the Great Fire of Savannah (1796) each destroyed hundreds of buildings and challenged municipal authorities to improve safety in an increasingly risky environment. Beginning in the 19th century, with increasing commerce, rapid urbanization, and the rise of industrial capitalism, fires became more frequent and destructive. Several initiatives sought to reduce the risk of fire: volunteer fire companies emerged in all major cities, fire insurance developed to help economic recovery, and municipal infrastructure like fire hydrants became ubiquitous to combat blazes. Despite significant efforts to curb this growing urban problem, fire dangers increased in the late 19th century as cities became epicenters of industry and the populations boomed. The “great” fires of the late 19th century, like those that took place in Chicago (1871), Boston (1872), Seattle (1889), Baltimore (1904), and San Francisco (1906), fundamentally altered cities. The fires not only destroyed buildings and took lives, but they also unearthed deep-rooted social tensions. Rebuilding in the aftermath of fire further exacerbated inequalities and divided cities. While fire loss tapered off after 1920, other issues surrounding urban fires heated up. The funneling of resources to suburbs in the post-war white-flight period left inner cities ill-equipped to handle serious conflagrations. In last few decades, suburban sprawl has created exurban fire regimes, where wildfires collide with cities. Extreme weather events, dependence on fossil fuels, deregulation of risky industries, and a lack of safe and affordable housing has put American metropolitan areas on a path to experience another period of “great” fires like those of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Article

Silje Bentsen

Fire is one of the oldest technologies of humankind; indeed, the earliest signs of fire appeared almost two million years ago. Traces of early fire use include charcoal, baked sediments, and burnt bone, but the archaeological evidence is ambiguous due to exposure to the elements for hundreds of thousands of years. Thus the origin of fire use is debatable. The first fire users may have been occasional or opportunistic users, harvesting flames and heat-affected food from wildfires. The art of maintaining the fire developed, and eventually humans learned to make fire at will. Fire technology (pyrotechnology) then became a habitual part of life. Fire provided warmth and light, which allowed people to continue activities after dark and facilitated moving into colder climates. Cooking food over or in the fire improved digestibility; over time, humans developed a culinary technology based on fire that included the use of cooking pits or earth ovens and preservation techniques such as smoking the food. Fire could even help in the procurement of food—for example, in clearing vegetation for easier hunting, to increase the fertility of the land, and to promote the growth of certain plants or to trap animals. Many materials could be transformed through fire, such as the color of ochre for use in pigments or the knapping properties of rocks for production of stone tools. Pyrotechnology ultimately became integral to other technologies, such as the production of pottery and iron tools. Fire use also has a social component. Initially, fires for cooking and light provided a natural meeting point for people to conduct different activities, thus facilitating communication and the formation of strong social relationships. The social organization of a campsite can sometimes be interpreted from the artifact types found around a fire or in how different fires were placed. For example, access to household fires was likely restricted to certain family members, whereas communal fires allowed access for all group members. There would have been conventions governing the activities that were allowed by a household fire or a communal fire and the placement of different fire types. Furthermore, the social uses of fire included ritual and ceremonial uses, such as cleansing rituals or cremation. The fire use of a prehistoric group can, consequently, reveal information on aspects such as subsistence, social organization, and technology.

Article

Biomass burning is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, which harbors more than half of global biomass burning activity. These African open fires are mostly induced by humans for various purposes, ranging from agricultural land clearing and residue burning to deforestation. They affect a wide variety of land ecosystems, including forests, woodlands, shrublands, savannas, grasslands, and croplands. Satellite observations show that fires are distributed almost equally between the northern and southern hemispheres of sub-Saharan Africa, with a dipole-type annual distribution pattern, peaking during the dry (winter) season of either hemisphere. The widespread nature of African biomass burning and the tremendous amounts of particulate and gas-phase emissions the fires produce have been shown to affect a variety of processes that ultimately impact the earth’s atmospheric composition and chemistry, air quality, water cycle, and climate in a significant manner. However, there is still a high level of uncertainty in the quantitative characterization of biomass burning, and its emissions and impacts in Africa and globally. These uncertainties can be potentially alleviated through improvements in the spatial and temporal resolutions of satellite observations, numerical modeling and data assimilation, complemented by occasional field campaigns. In addition, there is great need for the general public, policy makers, and funding organizations within Africa to recognize the seriousness of uncontrolled biomass burning and its potential consequences, in order to bring the necessary human and financial resources to bear on essential policies and scientific research activities that can effectively address the threats posed by the combined adverse influences of the changing climate, biomass burning, and other environmental challenges in sub-Saharan Africa.

Article

A. Johannes Dolman, Luis U. Vilasa-Abad, and Thomas A. J. Janssen

Drylands cover around 40% of the land surface on Earth and are inhabited by more than 2 billion people, who are directly dependent on these lands. Drylands are characterized by a highly variable rainfall regime and inherent vegetation-climate feedbacks that can enhance the resilience of the system, but also can amplify disturbances. In that way, the system may get locked into two alternate stable states: one relatively wet and vegetated, and the other dry and barren. The resilience of dryland ecosystems derives from a number of adaptive mechanisms by which the vegetation copes with prolonged water stress, such as hydraulic redistribution. The stochastic nature of both the vegetation dynamics and the rainfall regime is a key characteristic of these systems and affects its management in relation to the feedbacks. How the ecohydrology of the African drylands will change in the future depends on further changes in climate, human disturbances, land use, and the socioeconomic system.

Article

Larry Ball

The Domus Aurea (Golden House) was the opulent residence of the emperor Nero (r. 54–68 ce), set in a vast park in Rome. Ancient literary sources on the Domus Aurea are abundant, albeit not wholly reliable or fair to Nero. Both Suetonius (Ner. 31) and Tacitus (Ann. 15.38–40 and 42) describe the construction. The first phase started in c. 60 ce. This was called the Domus Transitoria, which was interrupted by the great fire of 64 ce. “Domus Aurea” refers to the second phase, after the fire. Given its enormous scale, the Domus Aurea may not have been fully completed in just four years, but at least part of it was finished, most likely the core of the residence, on the Palatine Hill, near the forum, and Nero did move in. The palatine core is largely unknown to us, but the vast parklands created to the east of the forum area include a fine villa on the Esquiline Hill that bespeaks a spectacular new standard both for architectural design in vaulted Roman concrete and in decoration. After Nero, systematic obliteration of the Domus Aurea began with Vespasian (r. 69–79 ce), who sought to erase Nero’s memory.

Article

Transboundary haze pollution affects about half of the countries in Southeast Asia with varied intensities on an almost annual basis. Haze not only affects visibility, but also causes widespread health problems, transportation disruptions, and other socioeconomic issues. This haze, and the fires that cause it, has been a key topic for environmental politics research in the region since the late 1990s. This has largely been driven by one overarching objective: how to prevent haze from returning in the following years. However, conditions on the ground (mostly in Indonesia and in the larger Southeast Asian region) have been changing and evolving drastically. This has resulted in a very dynamic research agenda that has to keep up with these changes. Within the context of environmental politics, fires and haze can be viewed through the broad lens of national interest. There is a strong link between the severity of haze and the burgeoning agribusiness sector in the region: that of oil palm in particular. Oil palm is a very important crop in the region, with Indonesia and Malaysia making up almost 90% of total global palm oil output. Hence, national and business interest theories have often been used as a framework for research in this area, with commercial oil palm plantations often being the unit of analysis. This includes research by this author, using the patronage politics framework. However, this has been called to question lately as these plantations face increasing market pressure to act more sustainably. A new group of actors that have since been highlighted are smallholders, either independent or in contract with larger plantations. There is potentially much to be uncovered with regard to the relationships between smallholders and commercial plantations, and how this affects patterns of fire use and global sustainability issues. Related to this is the ever-evolving collection of local, regional, and national policies (and related enforcement issues) over land and fire use in Indonesia. One key area of contention is the use of peatlands. Fires on peat produce the thick, sooty smoke that travels across national boundaries, and are notoriously hard to put out. Political research in this area is heavily framed by a tough debate between the scientific community and socioeconomic concerns. While peatlands play an important role in the global climate change balance, at the same time, these peat areas face immense pressure for development fueled by the scarcity of land. The regional context has also been an important theme for haze research. Haze primarily affects the Southern Southeast Asian subregion. And the major players of the palm oil sector also come from this region. The Indonesian palm oil sector is a vibrant combination of Malaysian, Singaporean, and local companies. And ASEAN has been the hub of cooperation and mitigation activities over haze. Hence, many scholars have searched for answers at the regional level. However, new national developments like Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act suggest that countries may be losing confidence with regional efforts, which may be an indicator for future directions for solutions as well.