On October 8, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to explore California, sighted smoke around San Pedro Bay. We’ve been sighting smoke in California and commenting on it ever since.
The outbreak of wildfires in Napa and Sonoma, Calif. 475 years later reminds us that we may need to keep commenting until we truly learn what those smokes are signaling. They tell us that California is intrinsically fire-prone and that people have to live there in ways that accommodate this reality.
Almost all of California is built to burn. Climate, vegetation, terrain, and wind—the possible combinations of these factors to support free-burning fire are many, but nowhere else in the country do the effects seem so volatile and relentless. The wet-dry rhythm of California’s climate allows stuff to grow and then burn annually. Much of its vegetation is grass and shrub, which can burn with lightning speed with the right winds, of which California has many. The interplay with mountains even promotes a special suite of dry, offshore winds that can bring a landscape almost instantly to detonation. Of America’s billion burnable acres, California’s stand nearly alone in their explosive character.
Over the past few days, these factors have come together with almost preternatural cunning. A winter heavy with rain grew dense grass and shrubs; a long, dry summer readied them for burning. Ignition—the source yet unidentified—kindled flames. The powerful, offshore winds known locally as Diablo, Mono, and North spilled across the region to create an avalanche of flame. A blizzard of sparks sought out niches of flammability. A complex of rural fires encountered houses and became an urban conflagration. At this point, the narrative moves from a natural event to a potential tragedy.
Of course fires have interacted with human settlements for millennia. In the post-World War II era, however, a long boom put towns and fires on a collision course. The response was to suppress the flames. California soon held part or all of the largest fire agencies in the country (and a quarter of the U.S. Forest Service’s fire budget).
Since then, all of the factors that favor monster fires have ramped up. Success at fire suppression quelled the post-settlement scene, but only allowed fuels to worsen with each passing decade. Land use in the form of lands left alone and lands recolonized by urban sprawl put more stuff to burn on the land and fire sources nearer to fire sinks. Climate change seems to be lengthening seasons and boosting their peaks. A revolution to restore good fire, begun in the 1960s, flourished in Florida and the Mogollon Mountains but sputtered in California outside remote Sierra summits.
Instead, every fire story in California seemed to end with a call for more suppression. Now, fires are burning into cities, not just exurbs, and what had been a California pathology has spread to places like Bastrop County, Texas and Gatlinburg, Tenn. Short of creating the fire equivalent of a police state, doing more of the same rounds of emergency suppression will only lead to more of the same outputs.
No single factor dominates: Fire has no single driver. Rather, it resembles a driverless car, barreling down the road integrating everything around it. For some fires, one factor may matter more than others, but they are all present. Still, two factors are particularly immediate and amenable, and they are the focus of a national cohesive strategy the American fire community has tried to promote.
The first is that rural communities and exurban enclaves are towns and should be treated by the same codes and zoning that had taken fire out of America’s long-combustible cities. We can harden houses. We can craft communities capable of withstanding the fires that will come. These are technical issues on which we know enough to act. Seeing fire in Santa Rosa is like watching a plague return because people decided to dispense with public hygiene and vaccines. These issues will cost money and social and political capital, but they can be fixed.
The second is trickier because it involves cultural values and the landscapes that have become the breeding ground for fire. These cannot be manufactured to code, nor should they be. Their naturalness, even as simple open space, is valued in itself and for the ecological goods and services they provide. Yet, as warm oceans power hurricanes, these landscapes power fires. Ultimately, you control fire by controlling the countryside. This needn’t mean bulldozers, chainsaws, and asphalt; there are gentler, bio-friendly ways to shift the pyric character of those landscapes and promote good fires over bad, and there will be many occasions for us to do the burning ourselves rather than leave it to lightning, accident, and arson.
We can thin dense forests that used to experience regular surface burns but now tend to burn through their crowns. We can break up plantation-like woody monocultures. We could introduce some local, prescribed grazing. We can try to contain—and in certain places eradicate—invasive grasses prone to burn fiercely and upset the checks and balances of the previous ecosystem. We can landscape strategically and treat those places that will most affect explosive fires. We can fashion greenbelts around communities. We can massage new landscapes out of the dappled scenes left by megafires. We can prescribe burn in places that need fire—substitute our fires for wildfires. We can manage wildfires—a term that seems paradoxical but has become, in much of the West, the preferred means to get more good fire on the ground.
Such treatments must be place-specific. Practices might be universal in principle, but they only work if appropriate to particular sites. The treatments on the north side of a hill will differ from those on the south, and those in higher elevations from lower elevations. Ponderosa pine require different prescriptions than lodgepole; pinyon and juniper suggest treatments different from longleaf. Typically, tallgrass prairie requires more fire, and cheatgrass less. These are fine-grained prescriptions.
The fires will come—many should come. We don’t need more research. We don’t need a new killer app. We don’t need new agencies. Endless studies have repeated the same message in the jargon of their day. They each say we need to live on the land in smarter ways, and we need to decide that we are willing to make the choices to have that happen, because 475 years from now, we will still see smoke over California.
Steve Pyne is a fire historian and professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.