MSc Environmental Monitoring, Modelling and Reconstruction

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Pyrogeography: Fire in the Earth System

Course unit fact file
Unit code GEOG62012
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Geography
Available as a free choice unit? No


Wildfires are a major agent of change on the planet and have been for millions of years. Wildfires are a natural component of many landscapes maintaining the health and vitality of ecosystems. However, large, dangerous wildfires, sometimes known as mega-fires, are becoming more frequent (e.g. Black Saturday Bush Fires, Australia 2009, burned 4500 km2; Fort McMurray, Canada, 2016, 5896 km2; Portuguese wildfires 2017, 5200 km2; Amazon rainforest fires, 2019, 9060 km2) and many can be found close to human habitation in the wildland-urban interface. This then poses a challenge for those working with wildfire – how do we balance the competing tensions between humans, ecosystems and natural processes?

 In this module we will explore the idea of pyrogeography as the comprehensive study of the physical and cultural parameters of fire. We will see how fire plays its role in maintaining ecosystems, how biotic and abiotic factors determine the nature and behaviour of fire, and how these aspects of fire ecology interact with human decisions in order to understand current fire management strategies. 


  • To introduce the ideas of pyrogeography (past, present and future distribution of wildfire) and fire ecology (fire effects on ecosystems, how ecosystems themselves influence fire activity, and the role of fire as an ecosystem process).
  • To investigate the different types of fire and their differing ecosystem effects.
  • To consider the challenges associated with managing wildfires.
  • To reflect on the debates around the use of prescribed fire as a management tool, both globally and in the UK.

Learning outcomes

  • Critically evaluate contrasting and complementary scientific theories
  • Evaluate different environmental impacts of fire and explore trade-offs across different temporal and spatial scales
  • Describe ecosystem management debates with regards to fire management
  • Explain the latest advances in wildfire management


The course will comprise 10 weeks of 2-hour lecture sessions and associated seminars/practicals, with two study weeks.


  1. Introduction: Fundamentals of fire

Section 1: Fire in the Earth System

  1. Geological history of fire
  2. Fire in the Earth System

Section 2: Fire and the Biosphere

  1. Pyrogeography: temporal and spatial patterns of fire
  2. Plants, fauna and fire
  3. Fire as an ecosystem process

Section 3: Anthropogenic fire

  1. Fire behaviour and danger ratings
  2. Fire and land management
  3. Fire, the media and communication


  1. Summary lecture

Teaching and learning methods

The course is delivered through a series of 2-hour lectures and 1-hour seminars/practical sessions. Students will be expected to complete assigned readings between lectures and undertake the support activities indicated for each class. A high level of attendance is expected and will help ensure that you possess basic knowledge on which to build for the course assessment.

Across the module, a range of methods will be used including lecture-style sessions with student discussion and activities, seminars, practical sessions and discussion exercises.  The sessions will be supported by online material, directed reading, and practical assignments, which will all be available via the Blackboard site. 

It is hoped that this course will include an optional field trip to demonstrate some of the concepts introduced in class. We will either visit a prescribed burn in the local area (e.g., Peak District) and learn first-hand from land managers and/or Fire and Rescue Services how they work with fire, or see the impact of a recent wildfire. If neither are possible, we will visit historical wildfire scars in the local area (e.g., Saddleworth wildfire, June-July 2018) to explore the long-term recovery of fire affected ecosystems. Trips will be subject to local weather conditions, any recent fire activity, class size and any travel restrictions.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

During this unit, you will be encouraged to develop the following abilities and skills:

  • Skills in data collation, evaluation and synthesis
  • Ability to source the latest information on wildfire science at global, regional and local levels
  • Ability to communicate technical information to a range of audiences 

Assessment methods

  • 1 page ‘Letter to an Editor’ (formative assignment)
  • 2500 word review paper on a wildfire issue of your choice (50%)
  • 1500 word journalistic ‘popular science’ article on a recent wildfire event (50%).

Feedback methods

Feedback will be provided in the following ways during this course unit:

  • Verbal feedback through Q&A and activities during lecture sessions
  • Verbal feedback on any course unit issue through consultation hours
  • Detailed written feedback on coursework assignment 

Recommended reading

There is no core text for this course, but the following are useful general texts for the module.


Belcher, C.M. (2013) Fire Phenomena and the Earth System: An Interdisciplinary Guide to Fire Science. Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester

Scott, A.C., Bowman, D. M.J.S., Bond, W.J., Pyne, S., Alexander, M.E.  (2014) Fire on Earth - an Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester

Scott, A.C. (2018) Burning Planet: The Story of Fire Through Time Oxford University Press: Oxford


Specific journals of interest

International Journal of Wildland Fire; Fire Ecology


General journals of interest

Science; Nature; Journal of Ecology; Biogeochemistry; Science of the Total Environment; Journal of Geophysical Research - Biogeosciences; Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – B; Forest Ecology and Management

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Fieldwork 7
Lectures 20
Seminars 8
Independent study hours
Independent study 115

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Gail Millin-Chalabi Unit coordinator
Gareth Clay Unit coordinator

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