California’s largest fires on record are not the state’s largest ever. Far from it.
Long before humans arrived, the rain disappeared like now for five to eight months at a time, sometimes longer. The grass cured, the winds blew, lightning struck. Wildfires burned the summer long with no one to put them out.
The giant sequoias are only the most obvious evidence of the forest cathedrals formed and tended by fire in the Sierra Nevada. The brush fields throughout the state, dominant in Southern California, grow half dead in a dozen years and carry basically gasoline for sap to ensure they burn regularly and hot, clean to the ground.
We live in a fire landscape and build our homes not only in fire’s equivalent of flood zones but smack in the middle of the stream. A lot of homes for a lot of people. In 1970, California’s population was 20 million. Today it’s 40 million. Yeah, structures are going to burn more than ever before.
The indigenous peoples sculpted landscapes with fire all around the world, and here in California, for thousands of years. Flame was a useful tool as well as something occasionally to dodge.
The Santa Anas, the Sundowners, the El Diablos all preceded us, blowing whatever embers remained from old lightning fires to life and often enough, to the ocean. And later, blazes humans started. Can there be any real surprise today at the consequence of letting power line maintenance go for a few measly decades? That more fires ignite in more ways than ever?
Wildfire helped create great groves of huge trees and little undergrowth throughout the Sierra, those walkable sanctuaries John Muir, the wildfire historian Stephen Pyne, and the poet and deep ecologist Gary Snyder wrote and spoke about.
But weary of the Peshtigo, the Great Fire of 1910 and some others that gobbled up more than a million acres each, we set about putting out all fires as soon as possible.
We organized the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, what became Cal Fire and municipal fire departments equipped for wildfire suppression.
Keep ’em all under 10 acres, policy dictated. Do what it takes to make this so. And for the past 120 years we have tried.
The result? The forests and brush fields across the West have overgrown. The sanctuaries largely are gone, except for some experimental spaces where fires we set have saved some of the remaining sequoia glades, those that haven’t gone up with the thickets that grew around them.
Fire is simple, the sum of enough heat, oxygen and fuel. Take one leg of this triangle away and it can’t burn. Applied to wildland firefighting, the legs morph into weather, topography and vegetation, each feeding the other.
Fire seasons in this new millennium so far have lengthened, along with the size of wildfires and amount of land burned each season.
California’s climate has warmed, certainly, any way you care to measure. The rise in annual temperature has had an obvious effect on wildfire’s triangle.
Of course, the landscape hasn’t changed, just where we insist on building.
This leaves vegetation, the fuel leg, the main one in play when we fight wildfires. For all the hose lays and red retardant drops aimed at cooling and smothering, it’s the fireline scraped to bare dirt we count on for containment.
Some may still argue against humanity’s influence on the climate through the emissions of fossil fuels, though they sound more and more unhinged from the evidence, the Marlboro Man waving off the cause of his lung cancer.
The tremendous overgrowth of the wildlands as a direct result of trying to put out fires right away is obvious, however. Even absent extra warming, we’ve still set up the forests to explode.
I think I see more realization of what we can do, must do, now. More people are clearing their properties. Large fuelbreak projects like Ponderosa West in Grass Valley are progressing. A certain infamous former mayor of Nevada City championed goats.
Forestry and fire agencies are toying ever more with prescribed burns and letting some fires in wilderness areas continue to burn. I say toying because so much more is needed: thousands of acres burning in May and June and even into July some years. Cooler, cleansing fires mainly in the understory that reduce the potential later for conflagrations beyond control.
Strange as it might seem, the problem is not that California is burning too much, but not nearly enough.