Tree ring scars and charcoal layers in lake beds can tell scientists how often fire visited those places. By joining many of these records experts can stitch together a portrait of how the land burned, over centuries and across continents. Fire ecologists estimate that when Europeans arrived in North America 500 years ago, an area more than twice the size of New Mexico burned across what is now the Lower 48 states each year. In California alone, fire annually burned an area bigger than Connecticut. Ignited by lightning or California Indians, these fires burned unhindered for months at a time, creeping through forests, sprinting across grass and brush. For millennia, in what is now the Bay Area, summer and fall brought smoke.
Then, slowly, the fires stopped. By the early 1900s, Native Americans were no longer lighting fires, and many Americans had moved to cities. Their attitude toward fire changed, writes fire scientist and historian Stephen Pyne in his book Fire in America. They deemed fire a problem and began snuffing it wherever they could, trying to drive it from the landscape. Mostly, they succeeded. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, says that of the thousands of fires that start annually in the parts of the state where it manages firefighting, it prevents 95 percent from getting bigger than 10 acres. The total area that burns in the Lower 48 each year is no bigger than Maryland. But it now seems that in trying to solve the problem of fire, we only postponed it.
This fall the Bay Area was once again shrouded in smoke. The fires that started October 8th and 9th killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses across Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties. They were a human tragedy and an economic disaster, the deadliest and costliest fire in state history. In some ways, California was especially vulnerable to fire this fall—the five-year drought that ended last spring and the accompanying bark beetle problem, which has left more than 129 million trees dead across the state, and the heavy rain that followed birthed a flush of brushy vegetation.
But for all the ways the recent fires were unique, they closely resemble other disastrous fires that have burned across the state in recent decades: the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego destroyed 2,800 structures and killed 15 people; the 2015 Valley Fire near Clear Lake destroyed nearly 2,000 structures and killed four people; the 1991 Tunnel Fire in the Oakland hills destroyed almost 3,000 structures and killed 25; and the 2017 Southern California fires continue to burn in late December. These are the kinds of fires that remain: They burn when it is hottest and driest and the wind is howling, when fire crews can’t fight them. In trying to stop fire, it is as if we tried to stop the wind and rain, but in our hubris were left with only hurricanes.
The situation is getting worse. The number of acres consumed by fire each year in the state is growing, and the number of buildings destroyed annually has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Climate change is a factor—the length of the state’s fire season has increased by more than two months since the 1970s, and seven of the ten largest and eight of the most destructive fires in the California’s recent history have occurred since 2003. As the state’s population has grown, expanding into the wildlands, so has the number of Californians in harm’s way, with more than 2 million homes now in locations at high or extreme risk of damage from wildfires.
Holding up the 2017 fire season as a vision of the near future, many are arguing for a change in tactics in our long war against fire. Scientists, environmentalists, federal, state, and local officials, and even the head of Cal Fire all agree that a century of fire suppression is largely to blame for our current predicament. But for all the years, effort, and money it took for us to banish fire, it may be just as hard to bring it back.
How long have people been lighting fires in California? The oldest known archaeological sites in the state are on the Channel Islands, says UC Berkeley archaeology professor Kent Lightfoot, and date to around 13,000 years ago. Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, suggests that indigenous people have lived in the state much longer, perhaps since before the beginning of the last ice age. However long they’d lived here, by about 6,000 years ago, the inhabitants of central and northern coastal California were numerous enough to begin shaping the landscape to their purposes.
Their activities are recorded on the landscape. Archaeologists have uncovered the plant remains of extensive coastal prairies all around what is now the Bay Area. Such prairies would have been quickly overrun with brush and trees without fire to clear them, U.S. Geological Survey fire ecologist Jon Keeley wrote in a 2002 study. Although the Bay Area gets few lightning strikes, some of these prairies persisted for thousands of years.
“It was this whole system where you get a more biodiverse and productive landscape,” says Peter Nelson, a tribal citizen of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and assistant professor of archaeology at San Diego State who studied vegetation preserved in an ancient house near Tolay Lake, in southern Sonoma County. Fire, he says, made the land “more habitable for people.” It kept the brush at bay, creating conditions attractive to deer and game birds. It promoted the growth of berries, willows for use in basketry, and other important plants. It made traveling easier. For millennia, the indigenous people of central and northern coastal California used fire to create the landscape they desired. The scene that Cabrillo and other Europeans found was not the wilderness they believed it to be, Pyne writes (speaking of the United States more generally). “Closer to the truth,” he writes, “is that Europe found a garden and has tried to render it into a wilderness.”
Archaeologists say that when Cabrillo sailed up the California coast, the Bay Area was one of the most densely populated parts of North America, home to tens of thousands of people. Over the next centuries, most of them died of European diseases or were murdered. European-Americans continued to use fire as an agricultural and landscaping tool for a while, but as they moved to cities, Pyne writes, they came to see fire as a threat. Eventually cities expanded back into the woods and fields, mixing together in what fire scientists call the wildland-urban interface, “a fractal fringe of wooden (and oftentimes wooden-roofed) houses that were, from a fire-behavior perspective,” Pyne writes, “jackpots of fuel.” Meanwhile, the garden grew wild. Though the landscape was no less flammable than it had ever been, it only rarely burned.
All told, the fires killed 44 people and damaged or destroyed some 9,000 homes and buildings, the largest loss of homes in the state since the 1906 earthquake, according to Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services; more than $9 billion in insurance claims have been filed so far. The fire has painted the landscape with a surrealist’s brush: here’s an intact split-rail fence surrounding a house gone missing; here’s a set of wooden stairs up to a second-story deck, now freestanding in a field of ash. Charred washer-dryers and brick chimneys poke from the ruins. The blackened ground is flecked with golden oak leaves, dropped in the days after the fire.
I roll slowly down the block, past FEMA workers in yellow vests, hard hats, and face masks, out looking for hazardous materials. Near the end of the street I find a man named Phil Clover sifting through the remains of his house. Tanned, wearing a ball cap and a flannel shirt tucked into his jeans, Clover looks at least two decades younger than his 83 years (unprompted, he pulls out his driver’s license to verify this). At 1 a.m. on the night of October 9th, firefighters woke Clover and his wife and told them to evacuate. His wife packed some of their things and went, but Clover stayed behind. He never saw the main Nuns fire, he says. The wind was whistling and the air was filled with smoke, and then there was a blizzard of “red little sprinkles coming down,” he says, what a fire ecologist calls firebrands. They didn’t hurt when they landed on his skin, he says, but they caught the grass on fire.
He raced back and forth with the garden hose, putting out the little fires that grew from the brands: on the front lawn, at the base of the eucalyptus, near the chicken coop. It was while he was focused on the coop that the woodpile caught fire. The fire spread to his fence, to the storehouse, then to his home. There was a sound like a jet engine and a brilliant white light. He retreated to his car, parked in the open space at the end of the driveway, and sat there through the night, breathing the air-conditioning system’s recycled air. He watched his neighbors’ houses burn one by one.
Farther south in Glen Ellen, near Jack London State Park, I meet Tracy Salcedo. Her street is densely wooded, scattered with houses, some burnt, others not. I knocked on her door because I noticed that her lawn was charred within feet of the house, which looked unscathed. She’d evacuated, she tells me, but her neighbor had stayed behind. With a garden hose, he managed to keep the small flames at bay. Across the street is a house that did burn.*
Salcedo’s property, nestled in the woods, seems vulnerable. But more houses survived here than in Clover’s neighborhood, where the homes sit on flat ground with big yards between. Usually, people imagine that wildfire burns through a neighborhood in an advancing wall of flame, burning house after house, “like some bombing raid or a tsunami,” says Jack Cohen, a retired Forest Service fire scientist who studies how buildings ignite. What actually happens, he says, is more commonly like what Clover described: firebrands igniting many small fires at once. Thrown off by vegetation or burning structures, these brands can travel for miles ahead of the main fire. Fire crews are ill-equipped to stop these scattered blazes, and many of the small fires have time to grow into big ones. Cal Fire’s Shew says that the majority of the homes destroyed in the October fires likely ignited this way.
Homeowners could be better prepared. The day after the fire nearly burned her house, Salcedo and her son tried to fireproof it. They cleared the shrubs growing along the walls, felled a small plum tree by the front door, and emptied the gutters. These kinds of steps, taken in advance, are often what separate burned houses from the unburned ones, Cohen says. Home ignitions depend mostly on the 100-foot radius around the house and especially on the five-foot-wide space immediately surrounding the building. It’s important to make sure those areas won’t carry fire to the house, he says, as they did at Clover’s house, and as they almost did at Salcedo’s. Similarly, roofs should be made of fire-resistant materials and vents should be covered to keep out brands.
But if a lack of homeowner preparedness was to blame in Clover’s neighborhood, the problem is bigger than it seems. In Google Street View images of the neighborhood taken before the fire, it looks just like Anywhere, California—you could swap it out for a similar neighborhood in Walnut Creek or San Diego or San Jose. The message of Glen Ellen, if there is one, is this: when conditions are ideal for fire, suppression fails, and places that hadn’t seemed vulnerable suddenly are. It is a hard thing to reconcile. “I don’t think anyone who lives in a place like this forgets about fire,” Salcedo says. “It’s more an idea that it just won’t happen to us.”
As multiple fire scientists told me, though, there is no “no-fire” option in California; over time, fire will always return. In suppressing fire, they say, we’ve really only made a trade, swapping more frequent, less dangerous fire for less frequent, more dangerous fire. For decades, scientists and environmentalists have been arguing that we ought to trade back, even if that means we have to light the fires ourselves.
Wearing borrowed green pants and a yellow jacket, I follow a crew of hotshots down a scrubby hillside as they light it on fire. They walk amid the brush, waving drip torches, thermos-shaped cans with curlicue spouts that drip a fuel mixture past a flaming igniter. This is the third prescribed burn in this roughly 100-acre section of Kings Canyon, says Tony Caprio, a U.S. Geological Survey fire ecologist who helped plan the burn; the last time was in the mid-1990s. The goal for today’s fire, he says, is to reduce the combined weight of living and dead vegetation in the area by 30 to 60 percent. Sometimes it is more practical to thin vegetation by hand or with machines, but here the comparative elegance of fire is clear: it leaves no mess of wood chips or sawdust, no torn ground. Though blackened, the forest looks open, the way it likely did when Europeans first arrived. The prescribed fire promotes favored species, including the giant sequoias, whose seedlings sprout only on bare ground, and reduces competition between older trees, making them more resilient in the face of drought.
The fire-fighting benefit of prescribed fire is evident when I visit the edge of the 2015 Rough Fire, which burned 151,000 acres and nearly reached the park’s Grant Grove, which contains the world’s second-largest tree. The fire made it within shouting distance of the tree, General Grant, but then hit an area where a prescribed fire had burned. The change in the wildfire’s intensity is still clearly visible nearly two years after the Rough Fire—on the untreated side, all the trees but the biggest giant sequoias are dead snags, while the uphill, prescribed burn side looks untouched. If no one were there to tell me, I wouldn’t have known there had been a fire on the uphill side.
The smoke from this prescribed fire is light gray and smells like a campfire, nothing like the acrid haze that enveloped the Bay Area during the October fires. Dar Mims, a meteorologist at the California Air Resources Board, says that just as there is no “no-fire” choice in California, there is no “no-smoke” choice. He often gets calls from people concerned about smoke from prescribed fires, he says, but the air board generally sees the small, brief releases of smoke from prescribed fire as preferable to a wildfire’s toxic gout, which might last for weeks and affect a quarter of the state. “The more we can do fuel reduction,” Mims says, “The better it is for air quality.”
I follow the hotshots down the hill along a trail. At times, there are hints of a wildfire’s danger. When I walk back up the hill, some of the flames have grown to 10 or 15 feet high, so hot that I have to shield my bare hands from the heat. The fire roars and laps high up the trunks of dead snags, and smoke billows across the trail. The biggest objection to prescribed fire is not the smoke, but the possibility that it will escape—as Shew says, “the fire doesn’t know it’s supposed to be a prescribed fire.” In 2012, a prescribed fire southeast of Denver, Colorado, escaped and burned 16 houses and killed three people; more than a decade earlier, an escaped fire entered the town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, destroying some 300 homes and buildings. There have been dozens of other escapes and near-escapes each year over the last few decades, occurring in roughly one percent of prescribed fires. The potential for unintended consequences can make the practice a hard sell to the public, says Scott Stephens, a UC Berkeley fire ecologist. “Any time you do something like that,” he says, “there’s risk.”
The risk of runaway fires is part of the logistical tightrope that the “burn bosses” I talk with say they must walk in lighting a prescribed fire, as they try to hit the meteorological conditions that will promote a fire that carries without growing too powerful, get approval from air quality districts, and secure both the money and personnel to carry out the work; the fire crews I meet, now lighting fires, had just come off weeks of fighting fires across the western U.S. Legal liability, too, is a constant worry.
Despite these hurdles, prescribed burning seems to be gaining support in California. In 2015, as part of a settlement of a long legal dispute between Sierra Forest Legacy, a conservation nonprofit, and the Forest Service, the two parties signed a memorandum of understanding in which they agreed to, in part, “increase public education and awareness in support of ecologically sensitive and economically efficient vegetation management activities, including prescribed fire, forest thinning and other fuel treatment projects.” Twenty-two other parties joined the memorandum or have since joined, including Cal Fire, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Sierra Club, and several of the state regional air quality management boards. Craig Thomas, the conservation director at Sierra Forest Legacy, says the broad group of signatures reflects a “growing, mutual recognition that fire exclusion has been a bad idea.” In a March 2017 State Assembly hearing, Ken Pimlott, the director of Cal Fire, told members of the Assembly that prescribed fire is the best way to reduce the intensity of wildfires. “From Cal Fire’s perspective,” he said, “certainly prescribed fire fuels treatment is a priority.”
Berleman spent October 9th at the preserve, trying to save what she could. The area had been washed with firebrands thrown by the knobcone pines two ridges over, and by the time she’d arrived that morning many of the buildings were already on fire. With the help of a retired Cal Fire chief, she managed to save the historic house of David Bouverie, who founded the preserve, but most of the buildings were lost. We walk past her boss’s house, burned to its foundation. Chickens meander around the wreckage. Kids’ toys lie scattered in the yard. She’d been planning a prescribed burn in the dense oak woodlands adjacent to the compound. The historic buildings weren’t designed with wildfire in mind, but still, she says, “I just keep thinking if I’d had one more year to get those fuel treatments done, there’s a good chance those buildings would’ve survived.”
We walk up a path east into the hills above the buildings. On the north side of the path is an oak and bay woodland. The trees’ leaves stick out all in the same direction, as though someone has dragged the boughs with a pomaded comb. The fire came through here so fast that the hot wind sucked all the moisture from the leaves without catching them on fire, Berleman says. The ground beneath the trees is charred deep black. On the south side of the path, just a few feet away, the ground is still brown, the grass unburnt. This is one of the areas where she’d lit a prescribed fire last May.
Illustrated this way, with the aftermath of prescribed fire on one side and fire suppression on the other, it seems like an easy choice. If not an outright panacea, prescribed fire at least seems capable of righting many of the wrongs of fire suppression. Look around, and you’ll find plenty examples of people lighting prescribed fires—in the North Bay alone, land managers at Point Reyes National Seashore, state and county parks, and land trusts have all employed fire to manage fuel loads and encourage native flora and fauna. Some 18,407 acres have been burned in the Bay Area over the last decade, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The problem is scale. The current enthusiasm for prescribed burning is digging out of a deep hole. This fiscal year, Cal Fire aims to treat 20,000 of the 31 million acres in its purview with prescribed fire, and even more in the future. This is a drastic improvement over years of burning only 2,000 or 3,000 acres, but it regularly burned 60,000-plus acres as recently as the 1980s. As Pimlott says, the new numbers may “not sound like a lot, when we talk about needing to burn three or four million acres across the state.”
During the March hearing, Pimlott also noted that although the number of wildfires had grown substantially between 2015 and 2016, the agency had still achieved its goal of keeping 95 percent of non-prescribed fires on the lands it manages to less than 10 acres. As David Shew told me, that goal “kind of flies in the face of the natural ecology of the landscape”—a fact that Cal Fire is well aware of. Although the Forest Service and other federal land managers have been able to walk back somewhat from all-out suppression, sometimes leaving fires burning under preferable conditions, Cal Fire is more constrained, says Daniel Berlant, the department’s assistant deputy director. “The majority of the land we protect is privately owned,” he says, “inhabited by homes, structures, and infrastructure.” In the North Bay, 81 percent of the fires were on private property. Choosing to let those fires burn wasn’t an option. As the wildfire season stretches, he says, the amount of time that Cal Fire’s seasonally employed fire crews have for prescribed fire and other vegetation management, as well as defensible space inspections, shrinks. The state’s leading firefighting body is trapped in a cycle of fire suppression.
The North Bay Fires – Photos by McNair Evans
Relief will likely have to come at least partly through the efforts of private landowners. Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, says that before the October fires, the district wasn’t actively working on fire prevention with landowners on the conservation easements it manages. Going forward, though, he says, fire will be part of the conversation, which might mean allowing activities on easements that wouldn’t have been allowed in the past—including prescribed fire. As the use of prescribed fire by Cal Fire declined in recent decades, its use also declined with private landholders, says Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, who leads prescribed burning workshops across the state. Scott Stephens, the UC Berkeley professor, concurs. Decades of suppression left the western U.S. with relatively few people trained to carry out the work: “We just don’t have that experience to pass on.” But it’s important not to let the current enthusiasm pass, he says—as climate change continues to push conditions toward extremes, as wildfires consume more and more of fire agency budgets, and as the wildland-urban interface expands, it will only become more difficult to bring fire back. During the May prescribed fire at Bouverie, Berleman (who studied in Stephens’ lab) was joined by 12 different fire departments, including members of the National Park Service, the Graton Rancheria, and Cal Fire. There were 75 firefighters there, Berleman says, far more than needed for the 20-acre burn, but the fire was also meant as a training day, an opportunity for firefighters to experience fire in its more benevolent form.
Berleman and I continue up the hill. Earlier, down in front of what had been the preserve’s main building, she pointed out a statue of an egret, now surrounded by ashes. People had been comparing the long-necked bird to a phoenix, she says, but she thinks they may be looking too far afield. “I keep telling them they don’t have to turn to mythical creatures for examples of rebirth from fire.” Now, as we climb, we pass turkeys, and a deer, and a flock of roosted doves. The ground is blackened, speckled with golden oak leaves.
Zach St. George is a freelance reporter living in Oakland who writes about science and the environment.
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The damage from California's record-setting 2017 fires didn't stop when the flames were finally extinguished.