BA Geography / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Pyrogeography: Fire in the Earth System

Course unit fact file
Unit code GEOG32011
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


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. e.g. Black Saturday Bush Fires, Australia 2009, burned 4500 km2; Fort McMurray, Canada, 2016, 5896 km2; Portuguese wildfires 2017, 5200 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.



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


The course comprises 10 weeks of 2-hour lecture sessions and associated seminars/practicals, with two study weeks, and broken into three sections:

i) Introduction: Fire behaviour

Section 1: Fire in the Earth System
ii) Geological history of fire
iii) Fire and climate

Section 2: Fire and the Biosphere
iv) Spatial and temporal patterns of fire
v) Plants, fauna and fire
vi) Fire as an ecosystem process

Section 3: Anthropogenic fire
vii) Fire behaviour and danger ratings
viii) Fire and land management
ix) Fire, the media and communication

x) 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. If you are not able to attend classes, please let the course leader know beforehand as it does make a difference to how we run some activities.

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. You will need to be prepared to engage with all material provided, as well as demonstrate wider reading around the course. Online teaching tools such as Blackboard Collaborate may also form part of the teaching and learning delivery. 

Knowledge and understanding

  • 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.

Intellectual skills

  • Critically evaluate contrasting and complementary scientific theories.
  • Develop arguments based on the latest academic and non-academic literature.

Practical skills

  • Demonstrate their skills in data collation, evaluation and synthesis.
  • Source the latest information on wildfire science at global, regional and local levels.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Communicate technical information to a range of audiences.

Assessment methods

Formative Assessment Task        Length (word count/time)    How and when feedback is provided
One page ‘letter to editor                1-page max                 
                                                        Submitted mid-semester                  In 15 working days

Assessment task          Length          How and when feedback is provided                Weighting

Coursework review paper  2000 words      In 15 working days and before the exam period.   50%

End of module exam       2 hours                Via academic advisor or SEED administration.     50%

Recommended reading

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

Fire science textbooks (all available as e-books via the Library website)

Belcher, C.M. (2013) Fire Phenomena and the Earth System: An Interdisciplinary Guide to Fire Science. Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester. Available as an e-book via the Library website. 
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. Available as an e-book via the Library website.
Scott, A.C. (2018) Burning Planet: The Story of Fire through Time Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Key Journals: Science; Nature; International Journal of Wildland Fire; Fire Ecology; Journal of Ecology; Biogeochemistry; Science of the Total Environment; Journal of Geophysical Research - Biogeosciences; Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society - B. 

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 20
Seminars 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 170

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Gareth Clay Unit coordinator

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