No ordinary fire

 

On a Friday afternoon in July, a wildfire sparked on Southern California’s Cajon Pass. The brush was dry and the winds were strong, speeding the fire toward Interstate 15 and its weekend traffic. Those who saw it later described what followed as surreal: flames shooting into the air, cars on fire, and semis on fire, and semis hauling cars on fire. People abandoned some 70 vehicles, fleeing across the hills, uncertain where to go, as flames merged into traffic like true Angelenos. Fights broke out at a nearby gas station. Looting, too.

Wildfire is terrifying. That may be why, in the 20th century — after the devastating “Big Blowup” of 1910, which burned 2.6 million acres in Idaho’s mountains — we tried so hard to vanquish it. This legendary policy blunder left our forests full of fuel and more vulnerable than before. Today, despite some ecological enlightenment, we still snuff many fires, for fear they will burn houses or towns. Meanwhile, as Michelle Nijhuis writes in this issue’s feature, “The Bigger Burn,” fuel is only one side of the equation. The other is climate. That side is catawampus, too.

Nijhuis profiles a town in Washington state, Pateros, disastrously surprised by the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014, and still recovering. We’ve supplemented her story with others that describe where, and how, wildfire is outrunning us. The West’s once-bounded fire season, for example, is running longer and could one day last all year, overwhelming managers, firefighters and their resources. Scientists, meanwhile, need to learn more about different fuels and what they mean for places like the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest, which is again ablaze this summer, as are the forests of Alaska.

There’s an even bigger picture. A recent study found that fire seasons between 1979 and 2013 had lengthened across 25 percent of the Earth’s vegetated surface. That matters because annual CO2 emissions from wildfires worldwide can be 50 percent greater than emissions from fossil fuels. Fire and climate, in other words, are in a feedback loop.

The I-15 wildfire destroyed 20 vehicles and four homes, and though no one died or was seriously hurt, it was an abrupt reminder of how close we live to fire and its whims — and to all the natural world, really. In the end, the blaze was deterred less by firefighters than by a freak rainstorm that swept up the coast. A quarter inch of water fell on Los Angeles in one day, breaking a record set in 1886. The storm soaked the brush of Cajon Pass, and by Saturday afternoon, a Forest Service official told the Los Angeles Times, the fire that had sown chaos on the highway was “just creeping around.” If only all such fires were so easily quelled.

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