- Fighting Fire with FireMobile Pastoralists and French Discourse on Wildfires in Nineteenth-Century Algeria
Every night, we see great fires rise at the edge of the plain. The Arabs are burning the brush, using this expedient to clear the land as quickly as possible without billhook or plow. [. . .] In the evening, the flames reappear; distinctly they resume their course, lighting up the horizon of the Sahel in a sinister way.—EugèneFromentin, Une année dans le Sahel
Ray Bradbury once called fire “the thing man wanted to invent, but never did.”1 As an author of science fiction, Bradbury may have had insight beyond his era, but he was no historian. The study of history teaches us that human conceptions of fire are culturally, spatially, and temporally relative. History also reveals contexts where fire was perceived as something artificial, where it was invented. Nineteenth-century French colonial Algeria was one such context. French observers generally agreed that Algerian wildfires were disastrous. Yet they framed them not as “natural” disasters but as the direct result of human actions.2 Such interpretations conflicted with indigenous views of fire as normal, natural, and even useful. Algeria’s pluralistic culture of fire had major consequences for its environment, administration, and indigenous population. While French wildfire management failed to protect forest lands, it succeeded in promoting the subjugation of indigenous tribes. For their part, indigenous Algerians increasingly used fire to protest the colonial regime. As colonial tensions heated up in the late nineteenth century, they effectively fought fire with fire.3 [End Page 71]
Following the conquest of Algeria in 1830, French state and military officials worked quickly to safeguard the new colony’s environmental resources. The French Forest Code, implemented in Algeria in 1838, instituted a regime of forest protection and outlawed traditional practices such as burning for pasture. Yet the rate of deforestation actually accelerated during the colonial era, as did the incidence of fire. The French forest regime proved more successful at regulating people than at regulating the environment. Initially, foresters and other officials interpreted most wildfires as accidental, the result of human negligence. As the century progressed, however, French colonial perceptions of fire shifted, and foresters increasingly cast fire as a deliberate and malicious act of indigenous rebellion. By the late nineteenth century, the war against forest fires had become emblematic of the divide between colonizers and colonized.
Northern Algeria shares with its neighbors in the Maghreb a Mediterraneanoid climate of hot, dry summers; wet winters; and periodic strong winds. Its landscape hosts arable land and forests as well as extensive scrubland.4 The region’s very ecology has adapted to fire, producing heat-tolerant maquis and the thick, fire-resistant bark of cork and holm oak trees.5 In contrast to fire-prone environments in other parts of the world, summer thunderstorms are rare in the Mediterranean world, making lightning—the most obvious natural source of wildfires—an unlikely cause in Algeria. Although wildfires can and do occur without human interference, human inhabitants have long played a central role in Algeria’s fire ecology.
Since antiquity and probably before, pastoralists have herded sheep and goats seasonally between the low and upland pastures of the Maghreb. The tradition of mobile pastoralism is so important to the Algerian past that one historian has called it the “land of sheep.”6 Indeed, Algeria’s Roman name, “Numidia,” comes from the Greek word for “nomad.”7 These mobile pastoralists cultivated a symbiotic relationship with fire, burning scrubland, forests, and fields to regenerate and expand pasture. Such regular, controlled burns encouraged the regeneration of edible plants and shrubs, removed distasteful or poisonous vegetation, and hindered the growth of trees.8 In this practice, timing was [End Page 72] everything. After a pasture was burned, it needed time to regenerate, so the burn cycle necessarily occupied multiple years. If left too long, however, occupational fires were much more likely to escalate out of control.9 Mobile pastoralists and other inhabitants also triggered wildfires unintentionally, through the smoldering embers of a forgotten campfire or the spark of a gun. Such minor gestures could set the countryside ablaze, especially...