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Articles by Stephen J. Pyne

Stephen J. Pyne is an emeritus professor at Arizona State University and the author of numerous books on fire, including Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America and To the Last Smoke, a 9-volume series of regional fire surveys.

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This piece is adapted from the forthcoming book The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next, which will be published by University of California Press in September.

The fires of 2020 seemed to be everywhere, a pyric pandemic.

Places that commonly burn, such as Australia, California, and Siberia, burned with epic breadth and intensity. Australia had established a historic standard for a single outbreak with its 2009 Black Saturday fires; its 2019–20 Black Summer burns broke historic standards for a season. California endured its fourth year of serial conflagrations, each surpassing the record set the season before. Like a plague, the fires spread across Oregon and Washington, and then leaped over the continental divide to scour the Colorado Rockies. Siberian fires moved north of their home territory and flared beyond the Arctic Circle. Places that naturally wouldn’t burn, or that would burn only in patches, were burning widely. The Pantanal wetlands in central South America burned. Amazonia had its worst fire season in 20 years.

What the fires’ flames didn’t touch, their smoke plumes did. Australia’s smoke... Read more