The Big Burn and the Fires in the West

From the perspective of a native Californian

Happy the man whose wish and care a few paternal acres bound, content to breathe his native air in his own ground.

— Alexander Pope

More than 4 million acres in California have burned in 2020, and more than 1 million acres have burned in Oregon. We in the West are choking on smoke and falling ash, our native air. Nobody is happy about this.

Most Californians have a relationship with fire. I have lived in every continental time zone in America, but I am a Californian at heart, San Fernando Valley born and raised.

I left Connecticut in August to move back to California. After two years in the East, I landed near Santa Cruz just in time for the CZU Fire Complex. I had forgotten about living with the threat of fires, watching the news for evacuation warnings, looking at the sky expectantly, smelling smoke, thinking about the best highways to use to escape a conflagration along with a million of your closest friends.

Giant stands of pine trees, redwoods, and eucalyptus dot the landscape, filling the arroyos and canyons on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It is hotter and drier now, a combination of drought and climate change drying the land. And most of this land has never burned. The fire is less than 8 miles away and only 5% contained. We pack a bag, clothes, medicine, toiletries, a case of water and some canned foods, dog food, sentimental wall paintings, computers and backup drives, and back the car into the carport for an easy escape. Just in case.

A few days ago, the sky was orange. The street lamps came on two hours before sunset, earlier than usual, and the air was thick with smoke. According to the maps, however, I am not in an evacuation zone nor in harm’s way. We are not even at that time of year when the hot, treacherous Santa Ana and Diablo winds blow. The heat, though, from climate change, has made everything tinder dry. We don’t dare speak too loudly for fear a spark of passion may set the world on fire. We hold our breaths, an expectant hush. Fire season is now year-round.

After a week of nervous, expectant waiting, we unpack our bags. Firefighters have saved Santa Cruz this time. The CZU Fire Complex is still burning, but it’s now mostly contained.

Mom, I’ll be up on the roof watching the fire.
Okay, honey, be careful.

Mission Peak was on fire. A 125-foot flame burned uncontrolled like a candle on the top of the highest point at the north end of the San Fernando Valley. Below the golden hill is row after row, street after street of houses, a dense suburban jungle. It would only take a spark, a floating ember, to set the surrounding hills on fire.

My friends and I shimmied up the tree on the side of our house to the roof. We sat folded with our arms around our knees and watched the fire dance in the warm January sky 1975.

The Aliso Canyon fire was caused by a natural gas leak, not a hillside wildfire. But even at 11 years old, I was aware of the risks of any fire on our beloved foothills. By 11 years old, I had already survived a major earthquake, including the threat of a dam break that would have flooded the entire valley, and yearly fire seasons caused by the strong Santa Ana winds of early fall.

The Aliso Canyon fire burned for several weeks until the authorities called in the mythic Red Adair, famous Texas oil well firefighter. He and his team failed three times to put out that gas fire. One day, the flame disappeared. Rumor was that someone had turned a valve and shut off the gas. So much for the expert Red Adair, one of my first lessons about myth versus reality.

Today, the West is on fire. In California, 7,718 fires have burned thus far in 2020. (As of December 12, that number has changed to 9,639 with 4,359,517 acres burned). Washington and Oregon have also had record-breaking heat and firestorms. Governor Newsom has said, “California, folks, is America fast forward. What we’re experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change.

Some of the words used to describe this year’s fires are “record-breaking” (Los Angeles Times, Sept .13), “unprecedented disaster,” (The Washington Post, Sept. 13), “mass fatality event” (cnbc.com, Sept. 12), and “apocalyptic” (cnbc.com, Sept. 12). In fact, the August Complex is now the largest fire in California history, only 34% contained as of September 20. “Five of the 20 biggest wildfires in state history have happened this year.” So far in 2020, 4.3 million acres have burned in California.

A million of anything is a lot. But how much, exactly, is an acre?

One of my earliest memories is of fire. Our family was returning from a day trip to Ventura, an hour north of the Valley. We were stopped in a Ventura freeway traffic jam, unusual for a weekend afternoon. Ahead of us, firefighters wielded hoses, all snaky motion like a cartoon, frantically holding on. I heard the radio announcer say that the fire had jumped the freeway, burning the rolling hills north of Malibu along the 101 Freeway, the corridor between Los Angeles and the coastal towns of Oxnard, Ventura, and Santa Barbara. Some firefighters directed traffic, motioning vehicles through when it was safe, stop and go.

I looked through our closed station wagon windows at the great surging flames, trying to see what springy legs could cause it to jump so high and so far. It leapt and danced, waving back and forth with the wind. There was too much fire and not enough water. My mother worried in the front seat while my father sat behind the wheel, waiting for instructions. An abandoned car on the side of the road was completely engulfed in flames. There was a line of cars two lanes wide in front of and behind us. This was in the late 1960s, when the rest of America was burning as well due to unrest.

There was nowhere to go.

Finally, we were waved through, the firefighter twirling his arm frantically (Go now! Go! Go! Go!) as if he were the 3rd base coach sending us home. This fire looms large in my memory, but it doesn’t even register in the lists of major fires in California history.

Joan Didion has famously written about southern California fires. She cites acreage burned in the 1970s and 1980s:

“Some thirty-four thousand acres of Los Angeles County burned that week in 1978. More than eighty thousand acres had burned in 1968. Close to a hundred and thirty thousand acres had burned in 1970. Seventy-four-some-thousand had burned in 1975, sixty-some thousand would burn in 1979. Forty-six thousand would burn in 1980, forty-five thousand in 1982.”

— Joan Didion, After Henry, “Fire Season”

Let’s line those figures up and look at them in date order:

That’s just Los Angeles county. Here’s a look at the state totals for the 21st century so far:

Including 2020 (reminder, California is still burning), three of the past four years have been well above average, doubling, more than doubling, and quintupling (5X) the average, 3.7 million acres and counting. In 2020, that number exploded into the 4 million acre slot, ranking as the worst fire season in California ever.

From 2007–2010, California experienced a multiyear drought. And from 2012–2017, California again had one of the most severe droughts in its history. During droughts, the land dries and the foliage becomes brittle, tinder waiting for a spark. Each of these recent droughts were accompanied by or directly followed by years of massive fires.

After leaving southern California, I returned 20 years later to San Diego, many years before I lived in Connecticut. San Diego county has the same population as the entire state of Connecticut. You’ll want to remember that.

In 2007, the university where I worked shut down for a week due to wildfires. The normal June to October fire season became year-round, exacerbated by the drought, hot weather, and unusually strong Santa Ana winds. More than 1,000,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Six major fires started and merged into two large complexes between October 21 and 23, burning 2,588 structures, among which were 1,518 homes. Ten civilians were killed. The fires were brought under control by November 13. It was the 2nd massive fire year in San Diego following the Cedar Fire of 2003, which killed 15 people and destroyed 2,232 homes.

During that week off work, I tried to find some way to occupy my time. I lived a couple of miles from Mission Beach and the beautiful Pacific Ocean. I stood in the water up to my ankles as ash rained down from the sky. The Santa Ana winds carried the smoke out to the horizon over the ocean from both the south and north, browning the skies and making it hard to breath. I spent the rest of that forced week off work huddled in my apartment.

There was nowhere to go.

Caused by lightning strikes, much like the August Complex fires in California this year, the Yellowstone fires of 1988 burned more than 36 percent of the granddaddy of National Parks, a total of 793,800 acres. The fires burned for 5 months, from June 14 to November 18. Only the arrival of winter helped to end the fires.

The Rim fire of 2013, the largest wildfire ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada, burned for 2 months in Yosemite National Park, from August 17 to October 24.

The names of fires, each one surpassing the last to become the biggest, the most destructive, are becoming lore: Cedar Fire, Harris Fire, Witch Fire, Gap Fire, Tubbs fire, Redwood Valley Complex fire, Cascade Fire, Thomas fire, Carr Fire, Woolsey Fire. Each fire has a story, thousands of stories.

The Mendocino Complex Fire started in July 2018 and had hotspots that remained for 6 months into January 2019. Part of the Mendocino Complex fire, the Ranch fire, burned into the first week of November. It was started by a man trying to plug the entrance of a wasp nest with a hammer and stake.

The Camp Fire of 2018 was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California, surpassed only by the 2020 August Complex Fire. The Camp Fire destroyed 18,804 structures, and resulted in 85 deaths, 2 missing, and 17 injured. It effectively destroyed the towns of Concow and Paradise in the first six hours. It burned for 17 days from November 8 to November 25.

The Camp Fire was caused by electrical transmission, power lines poorly maintained by Pacific Gas & Electric. (If you are familiar with the movie Erin Brockovich, it’s that same PG&E that has been sued — not once, but twice — for polluting the earth with cancer-causing chromium 6 in residential neighborhoods and which has had a negligent hand in the creation of California fires. After the camp fire, PG&E filed for bankruptcy due to a liability of 30 billion dollars. In June of 2020, PG&E emerged from bankruptcy protection with a new board of directors, having pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Paradise had suffered from a drought. Normally receiving 5 inches of rain by November, it had only received 1/7th of an inch of rain.

California is not the only place that’s burning. British Columbia, Montana, Washington, and Oregon are frequently cited as having major wildfires in the past decade.

In 2011, Texas was consumed by drought. More than 4 million acres burned mostly in the spring and fall due to more than 31,453 fires. Almost 3,000 homes were destroyed, 2,000 on labor day weekend alone. These fires were so numerous and widespread that they were reported to be observable from space.

In 2016, Kansas and Oklahoma had the largest wildfire in Kansas history. In 2011, the Wallow fire in Arizona and New Mexico burned 538,049 acres, the largest fire in Arizona state history. One 24-hour burn period consumed 77,769 acres of forest land.

Which brings me back to the question: just how much is an acre? We’re almost there.

All fires are devastating. However, the fires today are different from the past. They are magnified, creating their own weather systems, spawning tornadoes, pillars of fire of Biblical proportion. They are, of course, caused by climate change — not forest mismanagement, not because we didn’t rake the damn leaves.

About the time of the 2007 San Diego fires, I joined a men’s book club. One of our first selections was The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan. It’s an eminently readable book, worthy of a read. This fascinating story details the start of modern firefighting and forest management as well as the beginnings of the national park system. But more than that, it’s about a fire, a single fire, smaller fires that joined to create a giant conflagration.

To date, in 8 ½ months, more than 4 million acres have burned in California, about the size of Connecticut.

The Big Burn, also known as the Great Fire of 1910, burned roughly 3,000,000 acres, from August 20–21. That’s not a misprint. Three million acres burned in two days.

Several forest fires combined to form one large complex fire, engulfing and destroying several towns. This multi-state fire burned on the borders of Montana and Idaho, with extensions into Washington and Southeastern British Columbia.

I am not trying to minimize the devastation of today’s fires. They are a record-setting, unprecedented, apocalyptic disaster. But there is perspective to be gained here, and a dire warning.

The Big Burn led to revolutionary ways of managing fire, including wildfire prevention and suppression strategies, without which firefighters couldn’t save as many houses and structures as they do today.

But if it’s possible for 3,000,000 acres to burn in 2 days, what happens if you add drought, extreme heat, all the contributing factors of climate change and pour them over the West like gasoline — how long will it take California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, the entire West, to burn?

On October 5, 2020, The Washington Post reports that “California’s wildfires have now burned more than 4 million acres, a record for the most acres burned in a single year. The figure, which equals an area larger than Connecticut, is more than twice the acreage burned in the state’s previous record-worst fire seasons, in 2018.” The total in 2018 was just shy of 2 million acres. The August Complex fires alone has burned 1 million acres and is still burning.

If we don’t do something about climate change, we will end up with another Big Burn. This is not a doomsday prediction. The numbers don’t lie. The temperature is getting hotter, the weather patterns have changed, the storms are stronger, and there are more fires. Human activity is causing this seemingly intractable problem.

And here we are — the United States of America — the richest nation in the world, the largest contributor by far of climate-changing greenhouse gases — who pulled out of the Paris Agreement. Absurd.

The fires burning in Washington, D.C. are affecting all of us in the West, too, and in the South, the Midwest, the Northeast. All over this nation, fires are raging out of control.

The good guys have their eye on the ball. They point to climate change, rightly so. But it’s the late innings. Time is running out.

So it’s climate change. What are you — what are we — going to do about it?

It’s time to act. Time to step up to the plate and swing the bat. A walk won’t do. There’s no walking away from this firestorm.

There is nowhere to go.

Lee G. Hornbrook taught college English for 25 years in every time zone in the continental United States. He writes about current events, literature, movies, mental health, growing up in the San Fernando Valley, and is at work on a memoir. Find him on Twitter @awordpleaseblog and at his personal blog A Word, Please, or his Medium publication Valley Dude.

Writer, Editor. Vegan, Sailor, Non-conformist. Former college writing teacher. **I Write. Mostly Words. Every Day.** https://awordplease.blog

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