California’s apocalyptic fires are a side effect of modern life

The ‘new normal’ of a year-round wildfire season is a problem of our own making.


California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West. 

Megafires, firenados, constantly drifting smoke: The words seem to come straight out of the latest apocalyptic superhero flick, but lately we’ve been tossing them around without giving it too much thought.

The Thomas Fire that destroyed parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last December established a disconcerting new reality: a year-round fire season. It burned 281,893 acres, becoming the largest wildfire in modern California history. Then, this summer, the Carr, Mendocino Complex and Ferguson fires beat that record, leaving a combined footprint of destruction that, at the time of this writing, has surpassed 500,000 acres. In the past year, seven of the most destructive wildfires in California’s history have ignited, burning for almost twice as long as fires used to burn back in 1990, according to Cal Fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Lilac Fire burned southern California in December 2017, during what was once considered wildfire off-season.
Jeff Hall/Cal Fire

Yet there’s nothing supernatural about these phenomena. Violent wildfires like the ones we’re witnessing today are of our own making. They’re the accidental yet catastrophic side effects of the way we live our lives; witness Redding, California, where the rim of a flat tire scraped the asphalt on a highway, causing the sparks that started the Carr Fire. They’re the result of people moving into fire-prone areas, along with forestry practices that suppress natural fires and human-caused global warming. Speaking to the media, Gov. Jerry Brown warned that we’d better get used to this, the “new normal.”

“We’ve got to re-examine the way we manage our forests, the way we build our houses, where we build them, how we build them and how much we invest in our fire protection services,” Brown said. “I don’t like to scare people, but … we’ve got tough times ahead.”

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid. Almost every state and national park I love and visit in California already has been seriously damaged by fire. Some friends have been evacuated and others have lost their homes altogether. When the Thomas Fire scorched an area 100 miles north of my suburban Los Angeles neighborhood, a quarter of a million people here lost power. Soot and heavy smoke made it difficult to go outside for days. And now, National Weather Service data show that smoke from California’s wildfires is traveling thousands of miles, ending up as far away as New York City.

It’s not like we haven’t seen the signs: The ever-rising temperatures, persistent drought and permissive development policies have been with us for over a decade, making our current reality anything but new. But this summer of firenados, megafires and cross-country smoke should give us pause. If the environmental conditions that are fanning these wildfires keep growing at the current rate, many parts of California could simply become uninhabitable in a matter of decades. Are we ready for our climate future — now?

We’re living through tough times, and we are running out of long-term solutions. On the one hand, Brown has been investing in the state’s firefighting capability, spending $285 million for a fleet of night-flying helicopters with greater water and fire retardant carrying capacity. According to Ken Pimlott, Cal Fire’s director, the department has the largest aerial firefighting fleet in the world and is currently staffing 52 once-seasonal fire engines year-round.

This is coming at a cost to firefighters from local, state and federal agencies, who are already taxed to the limit and in a near-constant state of deployment. “We need to invest in building out the capacity so that we can better protect lives and property in large-scale climate disasters,” Carroll Wills, spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters union, told me. The union has suggested stationing firefighting personnel and equipment in high-risk areas before major weather events occur.

Firefighters would also like to see more policies focused on forest management and smarter land-use policies in the wildland-urban interface. Typically known as the WUI (pronounced “wooey,”), the wildland-urban interface is the main battleground for today’s megafires. Over the past two decades, housing development has exploded in these in-between areas in Western states from California to Montana, occupying land in forests that were once considered far removed from urban areas. The Montana-based think tank Headwaters Economics estimates that at least 2 million homes are at direct risk of wildfires in the region. And the trend is likely to continue. Currently, thousands of people across the state who were evacuated this summer are eager to get back to their communities — and rebuild what’s left of their homes.

If residential communities like those bordering California’s Mendocino National Forest keep growing unabated, future wildfires will keep burning with scary speed and efficiency, regardless of how much firefighting manpower is in place. “Cataclysmic incidents like the Carr Fire, which produced actual fire tornadoes, can’t be stopped, no matter how much force is applied,” Wills told me. In other words, no amount of firefighting power may be able to deal with the fires we have engendered. It’s a terrifying new normal that none of us should be getting used to.

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