Ozark Butterfly

Fire can promote biodiversity amongst plants and animals. Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri.

Cultural Interpretations of Fire

Fire has been a benevolent, mystical and religious symbol of great significance for cultures throughout the world.

Culture and History

The mythology of ancient Egypt contained a large, magnificently colored bird named the Phoenix. According to the myth, the Phoenix lived for up to 600 years. At the end of its life, the great creature built a funeral pyre (fire) and immolated (sacrificed) itself. From the funeral fire's ashes a new Phoenix emerged with the freshness of youth to live out yet another cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Other mythical stories from the hills of ancient Italy tell of the guardian priest, the King of the Wood. He was regarded as the spirit of vegetation and was believed to be endowed with a magical power to make trees bear fruit. While his life was held precious by his worshipers, the very value attached to it ensured his death. The ritual killing of the incarnate Tree-Spirit was believed to be the only way of preserving the spirit from inevitable decay. Each King of the Wood had to be killed by fire so that the divine Tree-Spirit within him would be transferred in its entirety to a younger and more robust successor.

An analogy can be made between these recurring stories from classical antiquity and wildland fire management today. In a sense, naturally recurring wildland fires are analogous with a contemporary killing of the Tree-Spirit or the rebirth of the Phoenix. Wildland fire, where properly prescribed and managed, fosters new plant growth and expands wildlife populations.

Forest Health

Fires remove dead trees and litter from the forest floor. Shrubs and trees invading grasslands also are killed by fires. In each example, new healthy regrowth occurs. Fire does not imply death, but rather change. As fire was associated with rebirth and renewal in mythology, so fire is now recognized as an instrument of change and a catalyst for promoting biological diversity and healthy ecosystems.

People often mistakenly consider all fires to be negative, destructive forces. However, properly managed, fire can be an effective natural resource management tool.