On the northwestern edge of Los Angeles, where I grew up, the wildfires came in late summer. We lived in a new subdivision, and behind our house were the hills, golden and parched. We would hose down the wood-shingled roof as fire crews bivouacked in our street. Our neighborhood never burned, but others did. In the Bel Air fire of 1961, nearly five hundred homes burned, including those of Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor. We were all living in the “wildland-urban interface,” as it is now called. More subdivisions were built, farther out, and for my family the wildfire threat receded.
Tens of millions of Americans live in that fire-prone interface today—the number keeps growing—and the wildfire threat has become, for a number of political and environmental reasons, immensely more serious. In LA, fire season now stretches into December, as grimly demonstrated by the wildfires that burned across Southern California in late 2017, including the Thomas Fire, in Santa Barbara County, the largest in the state’s modern history. Nationally, fire seasons are on average seventy-eight days longer than they were in 1970, according to the US Forest Service. Wildfires burn twice as many acres as they did thirty years ago. “Of the ten years with the largest amount of acreage burned in the United States,” Edward Struzik notes in Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, nine have occurred since 2000. Individual fires, meanwhile, are bigger, hotter, faster, more expensive and difficult to fight, and more destructive than ever before. We have entered the era of the megafire—defined as a wildfire that burns more than 100,000 acres.
In early July 2018, there were twenty-nine large uncontained fires burning across the United States. “We shouldn’t be seeing this type of fire behavior this early in the year,” Chris Anthony, a division chief at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told The New York Times. It has been an unusually dry winter and spring in much of the West, however, and by the end of June three times as much land had already burned in California as burned in the first half of 2017, which was the state’s worst fire year ever. On July 7, my childhood suburb, Woodland Hills, was 117 degrees. On the UCLA campus, it was 111 degrees. Wildfires broke out in San Diego and up near the Oregon border, where a major blaze closed Interstate 5 and killed one civilian. The governor, Jerry Brown, has declared yet another state of emergency in Santa Barbara County.
How did this happen? One part of the story begins with a 1910 wildfire, known as the Big Burn, that blackened three million acres in Idaho, Montana, and Washington and killed eighty-seven people, most of them firefighters. Horror stories from the Big Burn seized the national imagination, and Theodore Roosevelt, wearing his conservationist’s hat, used the catastrophe to promote the Forest Service, which was then new and already besieged by business interests opposed to public management of valuable woodlands. The Forest Service was suddenly, it seemed, a band of heroic firefighters. Its budget and mission required expansion to prevent another inferno.
The Forest Service, no longer just a land steward, became the federal fire department for the nation’s wildlands. Its policy was total suppression of fires—what became known as the 10 AM rule. Any reported fire would be put out by 10 AM the next day, if possible. Some experienced foresters saw problems with this policy. It spoke soothingly to public fears, but periodic lightning-strike fires are an important feature of many ecosystems, particularly in the American West. Some “light burning,” they suggested, would at least be needed to prevent major fires. William Greeley, the chief of the Forest Service in the 1920s, dismissed this idea as “Paiute forestry.”
But Native Americans had used seasonal burning for many purposes, including hunting, clearing trails, managing crops, stimulating new plant growth, and fireproofing areas around their settlements. The North American “wilderness” encountered by white explorers and early settlers was in many cases already a heavily managed, deliberately diversified landscape. The total suppression policy of the Forest Service and its allies (the National Park Service, for instance) was exceptionally successful, reducing burned acreage by 90 percent, and thus remaking the landscape again—creating what Paul Hessburg, a research ecologist at the Forest Service, calls an “epidemic of trees.”
Preserving trees was not, however, the goal of the Forest Service, which worked closely with timber companies to clear-cut enormous swaths of old-growth forest. (Greeley, when he left public service, joined the timber barons.) The idea was to harvest the old trees and replace them with more efficiently managed and profitable forests. This created a dramatically more flammable landscape. Brush and woodland understory were no longer being cleared by periodic wildfires, and the trees in second-growth forest lacked the thick, fire-adapted bark of their old-growth predecessors. As Stephen Pyne, the foremost American fire historian, puts it, fire could “no longer do the ecological work required.” Fire needs fuel, and fire suppression was producing an unprecedented amount of wildfire fuel.
Climate change, meanwhile, has brought longer, hotter summers and a series of devastating droughts, priming landscapes to burn. Tree-killing insects such as the mountain pine beetle thrive in droughts and closely packed forests. The most recent outbreak of bark-beetle infestation, the largest ever recorded, has destroyed billions of trees in fourteen western states and much of western Canada. Dead trees make fine kindling for a megafire.
Invasive species also contribute. The sagebrush plains of the Great Basin, which spreads across six states in the Intermountain West, are being transformed by cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), a weed that arrived in contaminated grain seed from Eurasia in the nineteenth century. Cheatgrass is highly flammable, grows rapidly, and is nearly indestructible. It has a fire return interval—the typical time between naturally occurring fires—of less than five years. Sagebrush, which is slow to reestablish itself after a fire, is unable to compete. Cheatgrass, with its ferocious fire cycle of burning and quick regeneration, now infests fifty million acres of the sagebrush steppe. Farther south, cheatgrass and other invasive weeds are threatening the towering saguaro cactus and, in California, the Joshua tree.
Nonnative species can also be a fire risk when they are deliberately introduced. Portugal has been tormented by wildfires, including an inferno last summer that killed more than sixty people, partly because of the flammability of eucalyptus, which is native to Australia and has become the mainstay of the national wood industry, transforming the Portuguese countryside, according to an environmental engineer who spoke to The New York Times, “from a pretty diverse forest into a big eucalyptus monoculture.”
In the United States, exurban and rural property development in the wildland-urban interface has been, perhaps, the final straw—or at least another lighted match tossed on the pile. Most wildfires that threaten or damage communities are caused by humans. Campfires, barbecues, sparks from chainsaws, lawnmowers, power lines, cars, motorcycles, cigarettes—the modes of inadvertent ignition in a bone-dry landscape are effectively limitless. Let’s say nothing of arson. Houses and other structures become wildfire fuel, and vulnerable communities hugely complicate forest management and disaster planning. In his panoramic 2017 book Megafire, the journalist (and former firefighter) Michael Kodas observes pithily that “during the century in which the nation attempted to exclude fire from forests, they filled with homes.”1
Starting around the 1960s, the Forest Service and its sister agencies, including the National Park Service, did eventually come to see some of the deep flaws in the policy of total fire suppression. The virtues of “prescribed burning”—deliberately set, carefully planned fires, usually in the late fall or early spring, meant to reduce the amount of fuel and the risk of wildfires—had become blindingly obvious. Still, prescribed burns were, and are, a hard sell. People don’t like to see forest fires or grass fires, particularly not anywhere near their homes. Downwind communities hate the smoke, quite understandably. Politicians lose their nerve.
On rare occasions, a prescribed burn escapes the control of firefighters, and those disasters tend to be remembered. The 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, in New Mexico, started out as a prescribed burn. It escaped, destroyed four hundred homes, and nearly burned down the Los Alamos nuclear research facility. Political support for prescribed burning took a heavy hit. Bruce Babbitt, then secretary of the interior, suspended all federal prescribed burning west of the 100th meridian, which basically meant the entire West.
For backcountry fires, the wisdom of “let it burn” also slowly became clear to forest managers. National parks started calling wildfires that didn’t threaten lives or structures “prescribed natural fires.” Firefighters might herd a blaze in the direction they wanted it to go, but would otherwise let it run its course. This enlightened policy hasn’t always survived political pressure either. In 1988, a drought year in the West, hundreds of wildfires erupted in Yellowstone National Park. President Ronald Reagan denounced the wait-and-see response of firefighters as “cockamamie.” His interior secretary, Donald Hodel, ordered the park’s officials to fight the fires.
“Prescribed natural fires” were abandoned, and as many as nine thousand firefighters fought the Yellowstone megafire, which burned for four months. John Melcher, a Montana senator, told The New York Times, “They’ll never go back to this policy. From now on the policy will be putting the fire out when they see the flames.” The Yellowstone effort cost $120 million ($250 million in 2018 dollars). Cool weather and autumn snow ultimately put out the fires. Surprisingly few animals perished, and the land soon began to regenerate. The “let burn” policy took somewhat longer to recover.
This alternation between firefighting and wildfire risk reduction continues. But since wildfires are getting steadily worse, stop-it-now firefighting always gets more funding. The Forest Service spent 16 percent of its budget on fire suppression in 1995. In 2015, it spent $2.6 billion—more than half of its budget. In Stephen Pyne’s formulation, we’re getting more bad fires and fewer good fires. As resources are drained from the forest management side, the buildup of dangerous, unhealthy forests continues, fueling more terrible fires, many of which will need to be fought.
Into this breach, a small army of private contractors has streamed,2 ready to feed firefighters, wash their clothes, and rent them, at prices sure to make a taxpayer’s eyes water, anything from helicopters to bulldozers to twelve-stall shower trailers. Politicians, never eager to tramp along on a smoky prescribed burn or wade into the woods with crews doing mechanical brush-thinning, are generally happier to be seen calling for military aircraft, say, to drop retardant on a raging blaze. Firefighters call these “air shows.” Aviation has an important part to play in certain types of fire suppression, usually early in the course of a wildfire, but commanders on the ground have learned that it can also be necessary to let the governor or congressperson appear to be riding to the rescue of his constituents with a fleet of C-130s, no matter how expensive and unhelpful they may be. In Southern California, Representative Duncan Hunter, whose district is near San Diego, is known as the region’s leading wildfire showboat.
In Wildfire, the journalist Heather Hansen embeds herself in an elite crew of wildland firefighters based in Boulder, Colorado. The crew, known as Station 8, primarily works in the wildland-urban interface of Boulder and the surrounding Rocky Mountain Front Range, but its members also travel to every corner of the country to help fight wildfires. It’s a reciprocal arrangement—when they need help on a fire at home, hotshots from those far-flung places will show up. Hansen learns and shares some fire science and fire history, filling in the background of the current crisis. She describes the crew’s punishing training and their powerful camaraderie, and recounts their stories of fires fought, disasters survived, lessons learned.
Then she goes out on a prescribed burn near the edge of Boulder. It’s an eighty-five-acre open ridge on city-owned property, a small project, but not far from thousands of homes. The crew’s preparation has been long and meticulous, including outreach to the neighborhood. “You’re a hero when you put out fire but not when you start one, especially if something goes wrong,” the fire operations manager, Brian Oliver, tells her:
Boulder is a very smart community, a lot of PhDs, and they understand what we’re trying to do with the fuels reduction and the thinning…. In theory they are very supportive and receptive, but then, “Wait, you’re going to light fire on purpose? That’s weird. We don’t want you to do that.” Or it’s, “We want you to do it but we don’t want to be impacted.” As soon as the smell of smoke gets in their window it’s, “What are you guys doing? I can’t believe this, you’re terrible. My curtains smell like smoke; who’s going to pay for my dry-cleaning?” Or “Yeah I support prescribed burns but this is the trail I run on every day. You’re ruining my workout.”
The prescribed burn on the ridge is tense, unexpectedly dramatic. Dozens of firefighters from surrounding stations show up to help. Station 8 has made a close study of the diurnal wind patterns on the ridge and kept its own weather station up on the site for two months, but the wind this morning is fluky. They do a test burn, then quickly shut it down when an unexpected scrap of south wind puffs. They try again, and the wind whips harder. Oliver orders it shut down again, and this time it takes several minutes of furious water-spraying and hacking at burning stumps to put out the small test fire. That’s it. The burn is a no-go. Maybe they’ll get this ridge next year. Fire crews in today’s drought-plagued West have to work with “laughably small burn windows,” Hansen says, referring to the periods in which prescribed burns can be safely attempted. The burn windows in Boulder amount to eleven days a year.
Hansen goes on another prescribed burn, in another season, that’s more successful but equally tense. It takes place on a ranch in North Boulder, and the burn is shut down by a sudden snowstorm, with only half of the intended acreage burned, and yet it feels, in the reading, like a great triumph. Fire risk mitigation is not for the impatient.
The climax of Hansen’s narrative is, as one might expect, a wildfire: a six-day fight near a small mountain town at the top of Boulder Canyon. Station 8 is eventually joined by hundreds of other firefighters. Eighty-six air missions are flown, dropping water and fire retardant. Slightly more than five hundred acres burn. Eight homes and many outbuildings are destroyed, but there are no serious injuries and no lives lost. Three illegal campers are arrested for starting the blaze with a poorly tended campfire on private land. The suppression effort is considered a “good catch,” and the community is both grateful and querulous.
Station 8 goes back to planning prescribed burns and other forms of fuel reduction. But the scale of their risk-mitigation work is completely inadequate to the rate of vegetation growth and the lethal new climate. Brian Oliver describes it as “painting the Golden Gate Bridge”—as soon as you’re done, you have to start all over again.
Struzik’s Firestorm takes the story north. He is a Canadian science writer, and he concentrates on wildfires in the boreal, mountainous, and subalpine forests of North America and in the Arctic tundra. “Wildfire is no longer a California spectacle,” he writes. His tone is reportorial, not apocalyptic. But the picture he paints is dire. The Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the globe. We’ve become accustomed to seeing that tragedy dramatized by starving polar bears, the accelerating retreat of glaciers and sea ice, and the thawing of permafrost. Wildfires driving polar bears from their dens is something new, though, at least to me. But the size, frequency, range, and intensity of wildfires in Alaska and northern Canada have increased far more rapidly than in lower, more populated latitudes. Megafires have become every-year events up north. Soot and ash from these northern fires is blackening glaciers and the Greenland ice cap, causing them to melt at an even faster rate.
Boreal forests store enormous amounts of carbon that megafires release, to the detriment of the global environment. High-latitude peatlands store carbon that is released by tundra fires. Peat also stores vast amounts of mercury, which fire releases into the atmosphere. The lower edge of the stratosphere is significantly lower at high latitudes, and the fire clouds created by northern megafires—known as pyrocumulus, meteorological freaks that create their own weather, pouring lightning and embers back down on the ground—can also propel smoke upward, directly into the stratosphere, “where it becomes a global problem,” Struzik writes. The smoke from Canadian fires has been found to travel around the entire globe more than once.
The rate of hospitalization of elderly Americans on the Eastern Seaboard has spiked, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins, as a direct result of smoke from Canadian wildfires in 2002 that “contained a significant amount of mercury.” Air quality in New York and Chicago has been measurably degraded by Canadian wildfires. An Australian-Canadian research team, looking at global wildfires, estimated that between 260,000 and 600,000 deaths may be attributable to wildfire smoke each year.
Forest fires increase the level of mercury in wetlands. They also sweep across abandoned mine sites, sometimes releasing toxins. In Libby, Montana, a town that sits in a wildfire corridor, where an old mine has left asbestos fibers embedded in the bark of trees, people live in fear of a fire that “will spew out needle-like, cancer-causing asbestos fibers.” The water quality of Fort McMurray, Alberta, where 88,000 people were evacuated in 2016 during a megafire, has been compromised by the soot and chemicals that now blanket the watershed. In Colorado, drinking water quality suffered for years after a megafire in 2002. Some major fires burn so hot that the soil is sterilized, and forests cannot even begin to regenerate.
Then there’s Russia, which has the world’s largest boreal forest and is already suffering more tree loss from fire than any other country. The planet’s biggest carbon stores threaten to become carbon sources, supercharging global warming. The deliberate illegal burning of enormous tracts of Amazon rainforest—more than 100,000 fires were detected by satellites in Brazil in September 2017—is the greatest example of this threat. Indonesian peat fires, also illegal and done for agricultural land clearing, cover much of Southeast Asia in toxic haze for several months a year and triple Indonesia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Now we can add boreal forest megafires and increasingly flammable tundra to the list of not-quite-natural disasters darkening our planetary future.
For a longer view of fire on earth, there is Burning Planet, by Andrew C. Scott, a professor of geology at the University of London. Scott’s story begins over 400 million years ago, in the Silurian Period, when the first vascular land plants make their appearance in the fossil record, and the chemical reaction we call fire might have first found something to burn. Evidence for extensive wildfires first appears in the late Devonian, 350 million years ago. Using fossilized charcoal found in coal to infer fluctuations in atmospheric oxygen over geologic time, Scott distinguishes between high-fire worlds (more oxygen) and low-fire worlds (less). The planet has been a low-fire world, despite appearances, for the last 45 million years.
Scott considers the theory that a global wildfire raged at the Cretaceous/Paleogene boundary, 66 million years ago, after an asteroid struck the Yucatan peninsula and helped set off (or caused) the extinction of the dinosaurs. Ultimately, as a fossil charcoal specialist, he is unconvinced. But his book is full of vivid ancient news. The climate has been getting drier for thirty million years, it seems. Did you know that Antarctica had vegetation as recently as two million years ago? Homo erectus may have been the first hominid to control and use fire, roughly two million years ago. Neanderthals definitely used fire, about 400,000 years ago. Cooking was a huge step. Fire provided warmth, protection from large predators, and a focus for social life. It was good for making tools. With the development of agriculture, it was used to clear land. Recorded history began.
With industrialization, according to Stephen Pyne, the fire historian, came the “pyric transition.” Open flame was replaced by fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas. This transition, Pyne writes, “left Earth with too much generic combustion, and too much of its effluent lodged in the atmosphere, but the industrialised world also left too little of the right kind of fire where it’s needed.” Thus do we enter the Anthropocene, having transformed the planet, for better and worse, and having given the climate a fateful shove. Scott quotes Frost:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
The world is not ending, needless to say—there are more geological periods to come—but it is, once again, getting hotter and more flammable. Political decisions have put us on this track. Different political decisions might slow our momentum toward catastrophic overheating. Unfortunately, the Trump administration shows little awareness of what’s at stake. Its decisions to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which placed strict limits on carbon emissions from power plants, are only the best-known actions taken among more than seventy environmental rules and agreements that it has moved to overturn in its first eighteen months. Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior and the administration’s point man on fire policy, sent his land management staff a lengthy memo in September calling for “new and aggressive” thinking about fire. And yet his own thinking fails to include the biggest single factor in the wildfire onslaught—our rapidly changing climate. His plans to reduce fuels to prevent wildfires amount to increasing logging, which does not prevent wildfires.
Zinke has the president’s ear, as shown by Trump’s decision last year to drastically reduce, on Zinke’s recommendation, the size of two national monuments in southern Utah. The wildland formerly protected as part of the Bear Ears and Escalante Grand Staircase monuments will be opened to mining, logging, and oil drilling. Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, wrote in an October opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times that the goal of this decision was “to privilege resource extraction over recreation, wildlife protection and climate-change mitigation, which may well result in less resilient forests and, of all things, more fire.”
This article was published by The New York Review of Books on the 16th of August 2018.
William Finnegan is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His most recent book, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, won the Pulitzer Prize for autobiography. (August 2018)