Can you really fight fire with fire?

By: Robert Lamb  | 
A U.S. Forest Service firefighter… sets a fire? What's all this about? See more pictures of natural disasters.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Controlled burns are a strategy used to prevent the spread of wildfires by reducing the amount of combustible material.
  • These burns create firebreaks that help contain wildfires and are a part of natural ecological cycles, with some plant species depending on fire for their reproductive cycles.
  • Backfiring is a technique where firefighters burn fuel in the path of a wildfire to halt its advance or redirect it.

Chances are your experiences with the phrase "fight fire with fire" have more to do with the opening track on Metallica's 1984 album "Ride the Lightning" than they do with actual flames. Or when your closest friend hears about your nasty breakup and says, "Girl, you better fight fire with fire," this usually isn't encouragement to purchase a flamethrower. Likewise, don't take that halftime pep talk too seriously. Your football coach isn't suggesting a fourth-quarter napalm strike on the home team.

The phrase goes back at least as far as 1597, when William Shakespeare wrote "Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire; Threaten the threatener and outface the brow of bragging horror" in his play "The Life and Death of King John" [source: Martin]. In other words, match aggression with aggression. Meet violence with violence. Take an eye for an eye. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. You know -- the Chicago way.


Metaphors, Sean Connery and heavy metal aside, the phrase takes on literal significance in the world of preventing and fighting forest fires. When faced with a massive, woodland-consuming storm of flames and ash, your first instinct might not be to apply more fire to the dire situation. But think about it for a second: A fire needs oxygen and fuel, such as leaves and vegetation, to continue raging. Rob the fire of either source of nourishment and you squelch the chemical reaction that produces it.

When faced with an oil-well fire, firefighters have been known to remove the oxygen from the equation by detonating a little dynamite. The blast eats up all the local oxygen, leaving nothing to keep the fire going. When an entire forest is ablaze, however, a different tactic is in order. Firefighters remove the fuel -- and what better way to quickly remove combustible underbrush than to carefully set it on fire?

Skip to the next page. It will all make sense soon.


Controlled Burns and Backfiring

A U.S. Forest Service hotshot uses a drip torch to light a backfire. A drip torch dribbles and ignites fuel (usually either diesel or stove oil) at the pull of a trigger.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In pondering a fire's hunger and growth, it's easy to think of it as some form of organism -- like a rat infestation. In addition to putting out poison, major metropolitan areas such as London encourage residents to help combat rodent infestations through anti-litter campaigns. You don't want rats in your home? Great, don't litter the streets with a buffet of fast-food garbage.

Likewise, you can help prevent the spread of forest fires by keeping less fuel sitting around. Around the home, this strategy often means keeping your property free of vegetation that could act as fuel. If you're managing a farm, forest or grassland, it often pays to conduct a controlled burn. In this scenario, wildlife managers set fire to an area under controlled conditions, burning fuel that could potentially feed a future wildfire. The burn creates a manmade firebreak, or gap, in combustible material to contain spreading wildfires.


Such burns can make nearby homeowners nervous even if they are, for the most part, controlled, and even if they do knowingly live in a fire zone. Deliberate fires occasionally don't go as planned, as was the case when the National Park Service set a fire that consumed 200 homes near Los Alamos, N.M., in 2000 [source: Egan].

Don't fret over the burned vegetation, though. Grass and forest fires are a natural occurrence. In a world free of humans, they'd still occur thanks to lighting strikes, sparks from falling rocks, volcanic activity and the spontaneous combustion of organic materials. While an occasional burn might greatly inconvenience local human populations, it's all a part of the natural ecological cycle.

Some plant species actually depend on fire as part of their reproductive cycle, while others evolved long ago to weather regular wildfires. Sequoia seeds, for example, actually remain dormant until fire breaks down the seeds' outer coating [source: Science Daily]. As such, a good controlled burn can also aid the environment by stimulating local vegetation.

Backfiring is an additional take on the controlled burn, though to return to the rodent analogy, this one is more "The rats hordes are coming! Hide all the food!" In this strategy, firefighters attempt to halt the advance of a wildfire (or redirect it) by burning up fuel in its path. Several different fire-spreading gadgets help firefighters pull this off, including forest fire torches or fusses (which work much like a road flare), propane torches and drip torches.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about wildfires and firefighting.


Frequently Asked Questions

What safety precautions are necessary during a controlled burn?
Controlled burns require careful planning, monitoring by experienced fire management teams and clear communication with local communities to ensure safety and effectiveness in reducing wildfire risks.
How does a controlled burn benefit the ecosystem?
Controlled burns can stimulate the growth of certain plant species, maintain the health of fire-adapted ecosystems and reduce the severity of future wildfires by eliminating excess fuel.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Ainsworth, Jack and Troy Alan Doss. "Natural History of Fire & Flood Cycles." California Coastal Commission. Aug. 18, 1995.
  • "Controlled burn." Science Daily. 2009. (Oct. 20, 2009)
  • Egan, Timothy. "Ideas & Trends; Why Foresters Prefer to Fight Fire with Fire." New York Times. Aug. 20, 2000.
  • "Firing Devices (Fusees, Drip Torches)." Forest Encyclopedia Network. 2009. (Oct. 20, 2009)
  • Forestry Suppliers Inc. 2009. (Oct. 20, 2009)
  • Martin, Gary. "Fight fire with fire." The Phrase Finder. 2009. (Oct. 20, 2009)