They were sending backburns into the hills when I got to the reservoir. This was a mop-up after the calamity: orderly fires set with the wind and the lake at the crews’ backs, moving steadily uphill, as wildland fires burn best, to consume whatever fuels were left between the still-burning parts of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and the town of Shasta Lake, where 600 homes had already burned.
It was obvious even before I got close that the fires were man-made, but seeing them still gave a refreshing immediacy to the event: wildfires generally trundle along – or rage, depending on the wind and the fuel load and the moisture content of that fuel load – somewhere in the distance, threatening but invisible over the ridge. With luck, even on a huge fire the only people who actually see the red of flame are hotshot fire crews and the journalists who follow them. But this hadn’t been that kind of fire. On 23 July an elderly couple got a flat on a wheel of the camper they were towing through Redding, and didn’t notice until the bare rim began sending up sparks from the roadway. Roadside brush began burning, and this became the Carr Fire: 220,000 acres consumed, a thousand houses lost, children burned alive in their homes, whole sections of the largest city in California’s remote northern half flattened by a vortex of flame that jumped a half-mile-wide river and became at once a fire and a tornado, its winds tearing houses apart even as the flames reduced the flying wreckage to ash. Just 80 miles away, the Mendocino Complex Fire was burning its way through another 460,000 acres: the largest fire in Californian history. This was the first time that California had ever seen two 200,000-acre fires in the same calendar year, two of only eight such fires in the state’s entire history. All but one of these has happened in the last fifteen years.
2017 was the biggest and deadliest fire season in Californian history, that is until 2018 became the biggest and deadliest fire season in Californian history. It’s sometimes easy to get numb to facts like this, since we seem to hear them constantly now. But the scale and pace of California’s environmental unraveling seemed to have hit an inflection point last year, and I wanted to see it in as much detail as I could stomach. I began reporting on Californian fires only six years ago, when a 200,000-acre fire was almost unheard of. Back then we still spoke as though fire season was a phenomenon confined to the dry months of summer and fall. I headed out to see the fires in July, which had traditionally been the very beginning of the season, but already the two largest fires in Californian history were already burning – and at the same time.
I took out my binoculars and pulled close enough to watch the burning operation, but I didn’t want to bother the crews. Eventually I headed north towards the 14,000-foot high volcanic cone of Mt. Shasta, thinking that if I camped there I could escape the heat and the smoke trapped on the valley floor. The mountain was invisible in the haze. At a faded board-and-batten gas station in the one-business town of Pollard Flat, I mentioned to the ponytailed attendant that I was headed up the McCloud River.
‘Fire just started on the McCloud,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t head there.’ This was the Hirz Fire, which would to grow to 46,000 acres and which had broken out on the side of Shasta Lake, the largest of California’s massive water storage reservoirs, a desolate sprawl fed by the Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit rivers. Of course, in a normal year 46,000-acre fire is a pretty big fire. This year I hadn’t even heard about it.
I pulled up the incident maps that CalFire, California’s statewide fire department, maintains throughout the year. The Hirz Fire had sent up spot fires in a loose circle around the east side of the lake. Another fire had started just north of us in Mt. Shasta City Park, caused by a crash – a man towing a trailer behind his pickup had crossed the median on Interstate 5, killing himself and two campers in an RV. We were neatly surrounded by fires. I pointed this out to the attendant.
‘Yeah I guess camp wherever,’ he said, directing his forefinger towards my throat to indicate that I’d probably be breathing smoke. ‘Just be safe.’
A week later, another fire broke out just south of where we were standing. I checked on it when it was at 500 acres, and woke up the next morning to find that it had turned into another fire tornado and burned 22,000 acres, shutting down Interstate 5 and the mainline of the Union Pacific railway, which together form the West Coast’s great artery of traffic and commerce. Motorists abandoned their cars, dozens of which were burned, and fled on foot down the middle of the highway. The house behind the gas station burned – though the elderly owner managed to escape, carrying a rifle, an antique clock, and a Jack Russell Terrier named Ducky.
I drove up the Central Valley, where along the whole length of I-5, the patrician-farmers had erected signs demanding water transfers to supplement the Valley’s rapidly-depleting groundwater supplies: stop the congress created dust bowl. It was 103 by noon in Coalinga, which meant that work would be shut down for the day – in recent years farm laborers in the valley have been dying on the job of heatstroke, and now the planters call off work when temperatures rise above 100. Soon the entire summer season may have to stop, but the valley farmers are old California types who remember a past and are ready for a future where lives and fortunes depend on bare-toothed competition for basic resources. They will persist as long as they can make that money grow, as the country idiom has it.
The former chief lobbyist for the valley’s water interests had just taken over as Donald Trump’s Deputy Secretary of the Interior when I was there, and he was making his presence felt. Shortly after the Carr Fire broke out the President tweeted that ‘wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!’
The bit about water flowing to the Pacific was a message about the Endangered Species Act – it’s the ESA that mandates that a minimum amount of freshwater flows from certain Californian rivers to the Pacific, in order to provide a habitat for endangered fish species. The administration was using the fires as a way to undermine the law. Sierra Pacific, one of America’s largest lumber companies, which happens to have its corporate headquarters in Anderson, California, just a few miles from the Incident Command Post for the Carr Fire, would have appreciated the messaging about thinning forests, which itself was a dig at the mandate of agencies like the Forest Service and, by extension, the Environmental Protection Agency, to issue regulations that might conflict with the aims of business. Somehow big resource interests and their allies in government have seen fit to blame the fires on an excess of trees, and not on the desiccation that comes with 110-degree days.
Trump perhaps didn’t understand that the fires were burning next to three of California’s largest lakes, all manmade and all built to store water that was once collected naturally as snow on the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades. Climate change has produced a strange effect here – we still seem to get a similar amount of rain and snowfall, but we get it less consistently. The state now has a cycle of wet years, when reservoirs are filled by massive runoff from the mountains, followed by years of catastrophic drought, when the reservoirs run down and trees, stressed by heat and lack of groundwater, die by the tens of millions, making the danger of fire acute and posing new risks, like desertification, which almost no one seems willing to contemplate. Over 100 million conifers died in the drought that lasted from 2012–2016, mostly in the southern Sierra Nevada, where there has been no major wildfire in recent years. When that fire comes it will be a disaster on a scale that will make even 2018 look tame.
Trump and his allies’ calls to thin trees in the area are a distraction: lumber companies have no interest in deadwood or the juvenile trees that now crowd California’s forests. Lumber companies advocate a sort of ‘thinning’ that involves harvesting the mature overstory trees that have adapted to survive wildfire. The only entity capable of actually managing the state’s wildfire risk is the United States Forest Service, which has been systematically starved of funds by anti-government ideologues and resource interests, of the type that Trump has made into allies. These people have long since decided that their plan for climate change is to make as much money as possible now and hope to die or escape to New Zealand before we see a true catastrophe. There was a very faint satisfaction, seeing the state bake, dry, and burn last summer, in the thought that the disaster might have already caught up to them.
In recent decades Republicans have consistently blocked conservation-minded laws in Congress, with the result that for the last forty years almost all environmental protections instituted in the US have been in the form of regulations, issued by Executive Branch agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, or the Department of Agriculture, which administers the US Forest Service. This means that they can be undone by executive order, without the approval of Congress. Soon after the Carr Fire, Trump began this process in earnest, issuing a major plan to loosen EPA restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants. The ‘bad laws’ Trump was referring to, like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and, especially, the Endangered Species Act1, are the only true check on his ability to rip America’s environmental regulatory structure out by its roots.
A corollary to this is that the new Democratic majority in Congress has almost no power to effect change on environmental policy: on 26 February, the House passed one of the first bipartisan conservation bills in recent memory, one that had already been passed by the Republican-held senate and that was signed into law on 12 March. But the bill is a feel-good distraction, designating some public lands areas as wilderness, and codifying a method of funding public lands conservation via royalties from – of course – offshore oil drilling. The bill has already been used by Republicans as a way to attack the idea of a Green New Deal, on the theory that any switch away from carbon fuels would jeopardize the public lands conservation funding. But it is true that leftism and environmentalism have become invigorated and suddenly intertwined in this country more fully than ever before – the Green New Deal being mostly an articulation of the fact that there’s suddenly a coalition of people who view environmental collapse and our ever-entrenching economic oligarchy as crises that call for desperate action. The problem is that most Democrats – unlike the Green New Deal’s chief popularizer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – have no special allegiance to these forces, and owe their seats and their positions within the party to the usual collection of lobbyists and dissimulators. As long as the Democrats are out of power they are free to claim to support major action on climate, without committing to the radical action that is the only hope left.
I had driven up partly to see the fires, and partly to find a McCloud Redband Trout, an inexpressibly gorgeous little fish that lives only in a few thin creeks of the McCloud drainage above where the Hirz Fire was burning. It’s one of a dozen salmonid species that are expected to go extinct as California heats and dries up over the next decades, and I wanted to catch one before I missed my chance. It occurred to me that it would only take one big fire tearing all the way up the McCloud to wipe the fish out forever.
I left the highway and drove thirty miles under smoke through timberland owned by Sierra Pacific. I caught, photographed, and released a few of the little ruby-sided trout, and then drove back down to the main stem of the river to camp. I made a fire, cooked my dinner, and was just opening a beer when a big boxy CalFire engine showed up. The captain stepped out.
The only other people with me at the campsite were a couple who lived full-time out of their RV, now that they’d been priced out of San Francisco, and a greybearded forester from Oklahoma, and they wandered over to see what the fuss was about.
‘We got a 911 call,’ the captain said. He seemed very tired. ‘You know everyone’s on edge here,’ he said.
I said I understood.
‘What the fuck are you thinking making a groundfire?’ he asked, without actual rancor.
I told him that we’d all got explicit permission from the Forest Service, that this was a designated firesafe area.
He called it in on the engine’s radio. ‘Well, look at that. Sorry to bother you folks,’ he said. ‘I don’t even know why they had to call us here, honestly. It’s stupid just trying to stomp out every spark.’
I asked him when he was heading home.
‘I’ve stopped thinking about it,’ he said. ‘Every big fire year is hard, but this one is different. It’s horror. So many deaths, and the tornados. And they just keep coming.’ We offered the crew some juice, in lieu of the whiskey we were drinking. They declined, as we’d expected, and drove off into the dark woods.
I drove up to hunt another species of redband out on the remote Modoc plateau, where black chunks of glassy obsidian mix with the duff of pine needles on the slopes of the Warner mountains. All of California is unique – it has more botanical diversity than any other state. The northeast, where these fires were burning, has plants from almost all the state’s regions mingling in a landscape of giant volcanos and little cinder cones, black lava flows and purple basalts. It’s a place where the black bare earth after a bad burn can look very much of a piece with the rest of the landscape.
I lost cell service and was surprised, as I dropped towards the cowboy town of Alturas, to find another fire burning only a few hundred yards from the road. I pulled off. I didn’t have Tyvek gear, but the fire was moving uphill with the wind away from me. I could see a water truck and three foam-green Forest Service engines, and so I hiked over grass and manzanita toward the crews, indicating with my notebook what I was doing there. Suddenly the wind shifted, so fast I thought it was just a gust. I was now in an open field. I saw the driver of the water truck load up and pull out. The Forest Service crews waited until the grass in front of them began to catch, and then they motioned for me to turn back and they, too, took off.
I turned around, checking over my shoulder as the fire burned placidly towards me. I started my rig, and discovered that for an apparently-electrical reason the transmission had locked, and that I couldn’t get the thing into gear. The fire kept coming closer. I assumed that in the worst case I’d be able to flag a passing motorist, but no one was coming, and it was with some alarm that I decided to try disconnecting and reconnecting the battery. This worked, and I managed to get away before the fire cut the road.
‘This is the new normal,’ the cliché goes. Outgoing governor Jerry Brown repeated it ad nauseam as he said California needed to allocate more money for fire suppression, as he talked about the mounting billions that fire damage costs the state every year. But this cannot be normal. To say this is normal is to forgive the people who continue to profit, even as they make it feel impossible to do anything about the conditions that cause these fires. Almost a million acres burned by July cannot be normal. I kept repeating this to myself as I drove, passing a little white church that had just narrowly avoided being burned, where the pastor would only have to point out the window to give the congregants a credible image of the horrors of hell.
Up the road in Fall River there had been yet another fire. ‘I just stood in my lawn watching the trees go up,’ a man named Matt Nichols told me. ‘Boom, boom, boom. And then it was my neighbors’ houses. And I stood there with all the sprinklers on, so I’d have half a chance. And right when it was going to get us, the choppers came up over the ridge, and buddy they were so close I could see the whites of that pilot’s eyes. And thank god they stopped it there.’
Every year the fires get worse, and every year there is a flabbergasting level of noise, all of it obscuring why they’re getting worse. Not long ago, the papers and Federal prosecutors used to obsess about arsonists. Fires were always someone’s fault. And so they arrested homeless kids who made campfires to keep warm, sent a man to prison for kicking up sparks when he struck a rock while mowing his lawn. Now we know that the fires are coming, that they can’t really be prevented. The couple whose trailer started the Carr Fire received hundreds of sympathetic cards and messages. ‘We all know it was an accident and could have happened to any of us,’ one went. ‘The conditions were there and it was not your fault. God bless you and your family during such a troubling time.’
In 2017, during the horrific Wine Country Fires which killed forty-four people, it became fashionable to criticize the Californian love for living in what’s called the Wildland-Urban Interface, pronounced locally as an acronym – ‘woo-ee’ – where the woods and suburbs meet. In 2018 the scapegoat was the weather. The weather was so very windy. Things got out of hand. A new angle surfaced as the months went by: Pacific Gas and Electric, the publicly-traded and privately-owned utility that has been gifted monopoly control over power delivery to two-thirds of California, was accused of starting myriad fires, via sparks from malfunctioning switchboxes or from downed power lines. ‘There was very much a focus on the bottom line over everything,’ a California utilities commissioner told the New York Times in March. ‘And things really got squeezed on the maintenance side.’ In January PGE told investors that it was considering filing for bankruptcy to avoid paying billions of dollars in projected liabilities.
But it’s not the number of people moving to the WUI that makes these fires grow beyond 200,000 acres. The winds come every year. And even PGE’s century-old electrical towers and switchboxes are hard to fully blame. The critical difference is that the state is hotter and drier. Even PGE, one of the broad host of private corporations to whom Americans have handed over the task of energy delivery, allowing them to maximize shareholder profit at the expense of our safety and our environmental future, sees that something has radically changed: ‘Equipment failures that would have caused little or no damage a few years ago,’ the company carped to the Times, ‘now set off fires that burn thousands of acres because California forests have become much more combustible.’ Ironic to hear one of the corporations that caused this situation now complaining that they cannot control its fallout.
In July, I watched the temperature climb to 118, and on the south-facing slopes supposedly drought-tolerant plants desiccated and died in a matter of hours. It would take only one lightning strike to turn the parched Angeles Crest, only a few miles from my home in Pasadena, into a hellscape, even though it has only been a few years since the last devastating fire. One of the odd things about living in California is the assumption you share with your neighbors that social breakdown and environmental calamity lie somewhere just around the corner – this is still very much the land of Manson, Altamont, and the San Andreas fault. We’ve always been ready for a sudden disaster. But last summer it felt like the apocalypse had arrived in stealth, a malice-minded guest who couldn’t be forced out once it had made it through the door.
I went back to Redding, where the heat was almost unbearable. I stopped in at the command center on the fairgrounds in Anderson, still full of tents for firefighters and the hundreds of prisoners that California uses as hand crews to cut containment lines of bare ground, which was the program that first drew me to write about California’s fires. Driving through the woods, amid mile after numbing mile of burned homes and trees, it was possible to note the places where the fire had jumped even the 30-foot-wide containment lines cut by bulldozers. I paused to imagine the frustration and disappointment the fire crews must have felt after a day in the heat, sweating under 35-pound packs and Tyvek gear to cut line in 115-degree weather, only to see the fire burn right by them the next day, heading towards neighborhoods where they knew traffic jams blocked the escape routes. It had been literally unstoppable.
I sat down with an engineer named Anthony Romero, who had been fighting fires for nineteen years. ‘We used to have the seasons where we knew when summer fell,’ he said, ‘but now it’s 365 days a year. There’s not a lot of moisture. And you have dead trees where the bark beetles come in, and without any type of snowpack or winter those beetles increase in population. Mother nature has a way of defeating certain things, but now . . . it’s kind of a cycle.’
‘It doesn’t seem like we’re catching up,’ he said. ‘we’re all tired. And then it’s like another one and another one, and then it’s December and another one.’ I asked about the later, traditional, fire season, which was still approaching. ‘It’s scary,’ he said. ‘here we are in July and seeing the power and intensity of these fires, I don’t know what we can do.’
I drove over towards the subdivisions in Redding where the fire had done the most damage. The fire had started ten miles west of town, in the hills, burned down Highway 299, close to Redding but still safely on the far side of the Sacramento river. A seventy-six-year-old man named Ed Bledsoe headed out into the, leaving his three-year-old great-granddaughter and five-year-old great-grandson in the care of his wife. The children had begged to come, but he’d been worried about them being out in the 113-degree heat. This is when the fire erupted into a tornado, jumping the half-mile-wide river as easily as it had jumped the dozer lines.
Bledsoe got a call as he drove. ‘Come get us grandpa,’ the boy said, ‘there’s starting to be a lot of fire here.’ His path was blocked by fleeing cars heading the other direction. He later told reporters that he’d heard the angels leaving the bodies of the children as the fire burned into the house. They died in the arms of his wife.
I drove to what was left of the Bledsoe place, a makeshift memorial lying at the base of an oak tree, with a lonely flagpole and a twisted swing-set. It was almost too easy to note that around the property singed oaks had already begun throwing out new, lime-green growth. I did not find the counterpoint comforting. The trees may have survived the fire, but at this rate who can say how long it will be before they die, like so many other California oaks, from the heat and drought that made the fire possible.
Four months later, one of my best friends was staying at a hotel in downtown LA, because a 95,000-acre fire had forced him out of his house in Malibu, and meanwhile I was watching a small fire burn towards a grove of giant Sequoia trees in the southern Sierra Nevada, looking out over a hillside where every single incense cedar I could see had died during the last drought. ‘The bigtree lives long because fire and parasites seldom succeed in storming its well-defended citadel,’ Donald Culross Peattie once wrote – but warming has made fire and parasites much more powerful forces in the Sequoia’s homeland, and with each year the fear grows that we could begin seeing a die-off of the old trees.
I got a call from Amy, who I’d met while camping up on the McCloud River ‘I just wanted to tell you that I was up here in Paradise,’ she said, naming a town the Camp Fire had raged through just a few days before, killing scores of people within minutes.
‘We’re alive, but my daughter’s house is gone, and my camper is gone, and I just wanted to see if you could come up and see that we don’t get totally forgotten up here.’
The fires erased what amounts to 85 per cent of the new homes built in the last decade in the six counties where the Camp Fire burned. We were already a state where almost every overpass and patch of undeveloped land in every major city housed at least a small tent village or homeless camp. 2018 produced an untold number of new climate refugees, a term which not so long ago seemed to be a hypothetical, meant to apply to the faceless impoverished in the Sahel or Central Asia. But it turns out that the crisis is descending in the US as fast as anywhere else. It’s an old cliché that Americans look to California to point the way to the future. It is pointing now, even if many are afraid to look. They should be.
1 ESA, in particular, has become one of the most powerful regulatory tools in American life, largely because it makes it easy for environmental groups to file suits with implications that go far beyond the impact on an individual species. This has made it a particular target for corporate animus.
Cover photograph © US Department of Agriculture
Photographs © USFS Pacific Southwest Region 5 / Jones / Gaule, Tony Salas, Erick Pleitez, and courtesy of James Pogue