The View From the Ground

A wildland firefighter on how fires have transformed since his career began 20 years ago.

Firefighters look on as the out-of-control Woolsey Fire explodes behind a house.
Firefighters look on as the out-of-control Woolsey Fire explodes behind a house in the West Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles on Nov. 9.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

So, California is burning again. Over the weekend, my buddy up in Los Angeles—another wildland firefighter—texted me a picture that was bouncing around on Instagram. Taken at Zuma Beach near Malibu, the beautiful sunset shot was made all the more dramatic by an apocalyptically black column of smoke drifting out over the Pacific. The wildfire causing the smoke is just out of frame but is inferred to be massive. On the sand in the foreground are horses and other pack animals taking refuge with their owners. His only comment to accompany the picture: “They’re tying up llamas to lifeguard towers now.
Because this is California.”

Yeah, this is California, the land of tectonic and pyric upheaval. This is familiar territory, and all the usual events related to the fire will play out with time. The beleaguered California firefighter never really has the opportunity to relax anymore. By extension, neither does the beleaguered fire-prone California community. We are seeing this unfortunate story unfold yet again in the dry Sierra foothills in the Camp Fire, and in the Southern California canyons of western Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.

Just in the 20 or so years that I’ve been fighting wildfire, I’ve seen changes. All of us who do this work have. The problem is that it’s a slow-moving change and it’s not everywhere at once, so it’s hard to point your finger at the problem. Most of the time we still easily put out the fires that need putting out. Unfortunately, we’re still putting out most of the fires deep in the back country that we don’t need to be, which is just adding to the burden.

Lately it seems that the fires that defy our initial suppression efforts are escalating rapidly and catastrophically. Fires are doing things we aren’t used to them doing. Climate change and a legacy of putting out every fire that would have burned naturally seem to be the most likely reasons for it. We’re seeing new things on the ground while we fight fire. Live green trees are falling over for no apparent reason. Also, something caused 130 million pine trees to die essentially all at once in the Sierra Nevada. The consequences of that for our work and for the communities embedded within are staggering to contemplate.

The Camp Fire has destroyed more than 6,700 structures already, making it the new most destructive California fire ever. But the previous record only held up for a year. This year also saw us break the all-time size record in California: More than 410,000 acres in the Ranch Fire that burned in the west-central Mendocino area of the state. We like to talk about them in terms of the numbers. The problem with thinking in those terms is that everything with wildfire is changing, and it’s getting hard to keep track of these broken records. As recently as the 1970s, a fire reaching 100,000 acres in size was virtually unknown. The Camp Fire burned half that acreage in the first day, taking the whole town of Paradise with it. It burned another 50,000 the next day. This size fire is becoming fairly routine in California, but until recently fires have mostly just nibbled at the edges of municipalities. The Camp Fire just seemed to walk over the top of the town and keep going. This was something new altogether.

Wildland firefighters have a more personal way of marking firsts. In 2006 we burned over an entire engine crew, in 2013 an entire hotshot crew, and now in 2018 an entire town. Is an entire county next? Certainly an entire national forest could burn. An entire state? Be careful when it comes to saying something “can never happen” in wildfire anymore. In recognition of the reality on its land, the U.S. Forest Service has changed its nomenclature from a “fire season” to a “fire year.” This doesn’t actually solve anything, but it does acknowledge the fact that the land management agency is moving toward being a full-time fire department.

So what can we do to prevent these fires in the future? Academics will point to climate change and feed us data about long-term drying trends. Undoubtedly true, but it gives us little to work from at the community level. Firefighters will ask for more resources, despite the fact that California has the most expansive (and expensive) professional firefighting force in the world. Environmentalists will argue that people should retrofit their own properties to be fireproof and let the fires burn around them. This ignores the true extent of the problem and fails to recognize the high costs of retrofit technologies in a state that already has an extremely high cost of living.

The unpalatable truth is that there may not be an overarching solution to California’s wildfire problem. There are certainly good solutions to parts of the problem, and as these are implemented, they may aggregate to help soften the blow of future wildfires. Technology, community planning, and fire risk awareness are all improving in the wildland fire environment, but the inherent flammability of much of the state will not change. If anything, it is slated to get worse. I wish I could paint a rosier picture, but this seems to be the reality of the situation. Unless we start taking some unprecedented steps toward being proactive about the changing fire environment, those of us in California and elsewhere across the West where these scenarios are playing out will have no choice but to accept the consequences of inaction.

Correction, Nov. 12, 2018: Due to a production error, the byline of this article originally misidentified the author.