Wil­liam Fin­negan

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Wil­liam Fin­negan

Wild­fire: On the Front Lines with Sta­tion 8 by Heather Hansen

Firestorm: How Wild­fire Will Shape Our Fu­ture by Ed­ward Struzik

Burn­ing Planet: The Story of Fire Through Time by Andrew C. Scott


On the Front Lines with Sta­tion 8 by Heather Hansen.

Moun­taineers Books, 302 pp., $24.95


How Wild­fire Will Shape Our Fu­ture by Ed­ward Struzik.

Is­land Press, 257 pp., $30.00

Burn­ing Planet:

The Story of Fire Through Time by Andrew C. Scott.

Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press,

231 pp., $27.95

On the north­west­ern edge of Los An­ge­les, where I grew up, the wild­fires came in late sum­mer. We lived in a new sub­di­vi­sion, and be­hind our house were the hills, golden and parched. We would hose down the wood-shin­gled roof as fire crews bivouacked in our street. Our neigh­bor­hood never burned, but others did. In the Bel Air fire of 1961, nearly five hun­dred homes burned, in­clud­ing those of Burt Lan­caster and Zsa Zsa Ga­bor. We were all liv­ing in the “wild­lan­dur­ban in­ter­face,” as it is now called. More sub­di­vi­sions were built, far­ther out, and for my fam­ily the wild­fire threat re­ceded. Tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans live in that fire­prone in­ter­face to­day—the num­ber keeps grow­ing— and the wild­fire threat has be­come, for a num­ber of po­lit­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal rea­sons, im­mensely more se­ri­ous. In LA, fire sea­son now stretches into De­cem­ber, as grimly demon­strated by the wild­fires that burned across South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in late 2017, in­clud­ing the Thomas Fire, in Santa Bar­bara County, the largest in the state’s modern his­tory. Na­tion­ally, fire sea­sons are on av­er­age sev­en­tyeight days longer than they were in 1970, ac­cord­ing to the US For­est Ser­vice. Wild­fires burn twice as many acres as they did thirty years ago. “Of the ten years with the largest amount of acreage burned in the United States,” Ed­ward Struzik notes in Firestorm: How Wild­fire Will Shape Our Fu­ture, nine have oc­curred since 2000. In­di­vid­ual fires, mean­while, are big­ger, hot­ter, faster, more ex­pen­sive and dif­fi­cult to fight, and more de­struc­tive than ever be­fore. We have en­tered the era of the megafire—de­fined as a wild­fire that burns more than 100,000 acres.

In early July 2018, there were twen­ty­nine large un­con­tained fires burn­ing across the United States. “We shouldn’t be see­ing this type of fire be­hav­ior this early in the year,” Chris An­thony, a divi­sion chief at the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, told The New York Times. It has been an un­usu­ally dry win­ter and spring in much of the West, how­ever, and by the end of June three times as much land had al­ready burned in Cal­i­for­nia as burned in the first half of 2017, which was the state’s worst fire year ever. On July 7, my child­hood sub­urb, Wood­land Hills, was 117 de­grees. On the UCLA cam­pus, it was 111 de­grees. Wild­fires broke out in San Diego and up near the Ore­gon bor­der, where a ma­jor blaze closed In­ter­state 5 and killed one civil­ian. The gov­er­nor, Jerry Brown, has de­clared yet an­other state of emer­gency in Santa Bar­bara County.

How did this hap­pen? One part of the story be­gins with a 1910 wild­fire, known as the Big Burn, that black­ened three mil­lion acres in Idaho, Mon­tana, and Wash­ing­ton and killed eighty­seven peo­ple, most of them firefighters. Hor­ror sto­ries from the Big Burn seized the na­tional imag­i­na­tion, and Theodore Roo­sevelt, wear­ing his con­ser­va­tion­ist’s hat, used the catas­tro­phe to pro­mote the For­est Ser­vice, which was then new and al­ready be­sieged by busi­ness in­ter­ests op­posed to pub­lic man­age­ment of valu­able wood­lands. The For­est Ser­vice was sud­denly, it seemed, a band of heroic firefighters. Its bud­get and mis­sion re­quired ex­pan­sion to pre­vent an­other in­ferno.

The For­est Ser­vice, no longer just a land stew­ard, be­came the fed­eral fire depart­ment for the na­tion’s wild­lands. Its pol­icy was to­tal sup­pres­sion of fires—what be­came known as the 10 AM rule. Any re­ported fire would be put out by 10 AM the next day, if pos­si­ble. Some ex­pe­ri­enced foresters saw prob­lems with this pol­icy. It spoke sooth­ingly to pub­lic fears, but pe­ri­odic light­ning-strike fires are an im­por­tant fea­ture of many ecosys­tems, par­tic­u­larly in the Amer­i­can West. Some “light burn­ing,” they sug­gested, would at least be needed to pre­vent ma­jor fires. Wil­liam Gree­ley, the chief of the For­est Ser­vice in the 1920s, dis­missed this idea as “Paiute forestry.”

But Na­tive Amer­i­cans had used sea­sonal burn­ing for many pur­poses, in­clud­ing hunt­ing, clear­ing trails, man­ag­ing crops, stim­u­lat­ing new plant growth, and fire­proof­ing ar­eas around their set­tle­ments. The North Amer­i­can “wilder­ness” en­coun­tered by white ex­plor­ers and early set­tlers was in many cases al­ready a heav­ily man­aged, de­lib­er­ately diver­si­fied land­scape. The to­tal sup­pres­sion pol­icy of the For­est Ser­vice and its al­lies (the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, for in­stance) was ex­cep­tion­ally suc­cess­ful, re­duc­ing burned acreage by 90 per­cent, and thus re­mak­ing the land­scape again—cre­at­ing what Paul Hess­burg, a re­search ecol­o­gist at the For­est Ser­vice, calls an “epi­demic of trees.” Pre­serv­ing trees was not, how­ever, the goal of the For­est Ser­vice, which worked closely with tim­ber com­pa­nies to clear-cut enor­mous swaths of old-growth for­est. (Gree­ley, when he left pub­lic ser­vice, joined the tim­ber barons.) The idea was to har­vest the old trees and re­place them with more ef­fi­ciently man­aged and prof­itable forests. This cre­ated a dra­mat­i­cally more flammable land­scape. Brush and wood­land un­der­story were no longer be­ing cleared by pe­ri­odic wild­fires, and the trees in sec­ond-growth for­est lacked the thick, fire-adapted bark of their old-growth pre­de­ces­sors. As Stephen Pyne, the fore­most Amer­i­can fire his­to­rian, puts it, fire could “no longer do the eco­log­i­cal work re­quired.” Fire needs fuel, and fire sup­pres­sion was pro­duc­ing an un­prece­dented amount of wild­fire fuel.

Cli­mate change, mean­while, has brought longer, hot­ter sum­mers and a se­ries of dev­as­tat­ing droughts, prim­ing land­scapes to burn. Tree-killing in­sects such as the moun­tain pine bee­tle thrive in droughts and closely packed forests. The most re­cent out­break of bark-bee­tle in­fes­ta­tion, the largest ever recorded, has de­stroyed bil­lions of trees in four­teen western states and much of western Canada. Dead trees make fine kin­dling for a megafire.

In­va­sive species also con­trib­ute. The sage­brush plains of the Great Basin, which spreads across six states in the In­ter­moun­tain West, are be­ing trans­formed by cheat­grass (Bro­mus tec­to­rum), a weed that ar­rived in con­tam­i­nated grain seed from Eura­sia in the nine­teenth cen­tury. Cheat­grass is highly flammable, grows rapidly, and is nearly in­de­struc­tible. It has a fire return in­ter­val—the typ­i­cal time be­tween nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring fires—of less than five years. Sage­brush, which is slow to reestab­lish it­self af­ter a fire, is un­able to com­pete. Cheat­grass, with its fe­ro­cious fire cy­cle of burn­ing and quick re­gen­er­a­tion, now in­fests fifty mil­lion acres of the sage­brush steppe. Far­ther south, cheat­grass and other in­va­sive weeds are threat­en­ing the tow­er­ing saguaro cac­tus and, in Cal­i­for­nia, the Joshua tree.

Non­na­tive species can also be a fire risk when they are de­lib­er­ately in­tro­duced. Por­tu­gal has been tor­mented by wild­fires, in­clud­ing an in­ferno last sum­mer that killed more than sixty peo­ple, partly be­cause of the flamma­bil­ity of eu­ca­lyp­tus, which is na­tive to Aus­tralia and has be­come the main­stay of the na­tional wood in­dus­try, trans­form­ing the Por­tuguese coun­try­side, ac­cord­ing to an en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer who spoke to The New York Times, “from a pretty di­verse for­est into a big eu­ca­lyp­tus mono­cul­ture.”

In the United States, ex­ur­ban and ru­ral prop­erty de­vel­op­ment in the wild­land-ur­ban in­ter­face has been, per­haps, the fi­nal straw—or at least an­other lighted match tossed on the pile. Most wild­fires that threaten or dam­age com­mu­ni­ties are caused by hu­mans. Camp­fires, bar­be­cues, sparks from chain­saws, lawn­mow­ers, power lines, cars, mo­tor­cy­cles, cig­a­rettes— the modes of in­ad­ver­tent ig­ni­tion in a bone-dry land­scape are ef­fec­tively lim­it­less. Let’s say noth­ing of ar­son. Houses and other struc­tures be­come wild­fire fuel, and vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties hugely com­pli­cate for­est man­age­ment and dis­as­ter plan­ning. In his panoramic 2017 book Megafire, the jour­nal­ist (and for­mer fire­fighter) Michael Ko­das ob­serves pithily that “dur­ing the cen­tury in which the na­tion at­tempted to ex­clude fire from forests, they filled with homes.”1

Start­ing around the 1960s, the For­est Ser­vice and its sis­ter agen­cies, in­clud­ing the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, did even­tu­ally come to see some of the deep flaws in the pol­icy of to­tal fire sup­pres­sion. The virtues of “pre­scribed burn­ing”—de­lib­er­ately set, care­fully

1Me­gafire: The Race to Ex­tin­guish a Deadly Epi­demic of Flame (Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 2017), p. 65.

planned fires, usu­ally in the late fall or early spring, meant to re­duce the amount of fuel and the risk of wild­fires—had be­come blind­ingly ob­vi­ous. Still, pre­scribed burns were, and are, a hard sell. Peo­ple don’t like to see for­est fires or grass fires, par­tic­u­larly not any­where near their homes. Down­wind com­mu­ni­ties hate the smoke, quite un­der­stand­ably. Politi­cians lose their nerve.

On rare oc­ca­sions, a pre­scribed burn es­capes the con­trol of firefighters, and those disas­ters tend to be re­mem­bered. The 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, in New Mexico, started out as a pre­scribed burn. It es­caped, de­stroyed four hun­dred homes, and nearly burned down the Los Alamos nu­clear re­search fa­cil­ity. Po­lit­i­cal sup­port for pre­scribed burn­ing took a heavy hit. Bruce Bab­bitt, then sec­re­tary of the in­te­rior, sus­pended all fed­eral pre­scribed burn­ing west of the 100th merid­ian, which ba­si­cally meant the en­tire West.

For back­coun­try fires, the wis­dom of “let it burn” also slowly be­came clear to for­est man­agers. Na­tional parks started call­ing wild­fires that didn’t threaten lives or struc­tures “pre­scribed nat­u­ral fires.” Firefighters might herd a blaze in the di­rec­tion they wanted it to go, but would oth­er­wise let it run its course. This en­light­ened pol­icy hasn’t al­ways sur­vived po­lit­i­cal pres­sure ei­ther. In 1988, a drought year in the West, hundreds of wild­fires erupted in Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park. Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan de­nounced the wait-and­see re­sponse of firefighters as “cocka­mamie.” His in­te­rior sec­re­tary, Donald Hodel, or­dered the park’s of­fi­cials to fight the fires.

“Pre­scribed nat­u­ral fires” were aban­doned, and as many as nine thousand firefighters fought the Yel­low­stone megafire, which burned for four months. John Melcher, a Mon­tana sen­a­tor, told The New York Times, “They’ll never go back to this pol­icy. From now on the pol­icy will be putting the fire out when they see the flames.” The Yel­low­stone ef­fort cost $120 mil­lion ($250 mil­lion in 2018 dol­lars). Cool weather and au­tumn snow ul­ti­mately put out the fires. Sur­pris­ingly few an­i­mals per­ished, and the land soon be­gan to re­gen­er­ate. The “let burn” pol­icy took some­what longer to re­cover.

This al­ter­na­tion be­tween fire­fight­ing and wild­fire risk re­duc­tion con­tin­ues. But since wild­fires are get­ting steadily worse, stop-it-now fire­fight­ing al­ways gets more fund­ing. The For­est Ser­vice spent 16 per­cent of its bud­get on fire sup­pres­sion in 1995. In 2015, it spent $2.6 bil­lion—more than half of its bud­get. In Stephen Pyne’s for­mu­la­tion, we’re get­ting more bad fires and fewer good fires. As re­sources are drained from the for­est man­age­ment side, the buildup of dan­ger­ous, un­healthy forests con­tin­ues, fu­el­ing more ter­ri­ble fires, many of which will need to be fought. Into this breach, a small army of pri­vate con­trac­tors has streamed,2 ready to feed firefighters, wash their clothes, and rent them, at prices sure to make a tax­payer’s eyes wa­ter, any­thing from he­li­copters to bull­doz­ers to twelve-stall shower trail­ers. Politi­cians, never ea­ger to tramp along on a smoky pre­scribed burn or wade into the woods with crews do­ing me­chan­i­cal brush-thin­ning, are gen­er­ally hap­pier to be seen call­ing for mil­i­tary air­craft, say, to drop re­tar­dant on a rag­ing blaze. Firefighters call these “air shows.” Avi­a­tion has an im­por­tant part to play in cer­tain types of fire sup­pres­sion, usu­ally early in the course of a wild­fire, but com­man­ders on the ground have learned that it can also be nec­es­sary to let the gov­er­nor or con­gressper­son ap­pear to be rid­ing to the res­cue of his con­stituents with a fleet of C-130s, no mat­ter how ex­pen­sive and un­help­ful they may be. In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Dun­can Hunter, whose dis­trict is near San Diego, is known as the re­gion’s lead­ing wild­fire showboat.


Wild­fire, the jour­nal­ist Heather Hansen em­beds her­self in an elite crew of wild­land firefighters based in Boul­der, Colorado. The crew, known as Sta­tion 8, pri­mar­ily works in the wild­land-ur­ban in­ter­face of Boul­der and the sur­round­ing Rocky Moun­tain Front Range, but its mem­bers also travel to ev­ery cor­ner of the coun­try to help fight wild­fires. It’s a re­cip­ro­cal ar­range­ment—when they need help on a fire at home, hot­shots from those far-flung places will show up. Hansen learns and shares some fire sci­ence and fire his­tory, fill­ing in the back­ground of the cur­rent cri­sis. She de­scribes the crew’s pun­ish­ing train­ing and their pow­er­ful ca­ma­raderie, and re­counts their sto­ries of fires fought, disas­ters sur­vived, lessons learned.

Then she goes out on a pre­scribed burn near the edge of Boul­der. It’s an

2See Bet­tina Box­all and Julie Cart, “As Wild­fires Get Wilder, The Costs of Fight­ing Them are Un­tamed,” Los An­ge­les Times, July 27, 2008, and “Air Tanker Drops in Wild­fires are Of­ten Just For Show,” Los An­ge­les Times, July 29, 2008. eighty-five-acre open ridge on city­owned prop­erty, a small project, but not far from thou­sands of homes. The crew’s prepa­ra­tion has been long and metic­u­lous, in­clud­ing out­reach to the neigh­bor­hood. “You’re a hero when you put out fire but not when you start one, es­pe­cially if some­thing goes wrong,” the fire op­er­a­tions man­ager, Brian Oliver, tells her:

Boul­der is a very smart com­mu­nity, a lot of PhDs, and they un­der­stand what we’re try­ing to do with the fu­els re­duc­tion and the thin­ning . . . . In the­ory they are very sup­port­ive and re­cep­tive, but then, “Wait, you’re go­ing to light fire on pur­pose? That’s weird. We don’t want you to do that.” Or it’s, “We want you to do it but we don’t want to be im­pacted.” As soon as the smell of smoke gets in their win­dow it’s, “What are you guys do­ing? I can’t be­lieve this, you’re ter­ri­ble. My cur­tains smell like smoke; who’s go­ing to pay for my dry-clean­ing?” Or “Yeah I sup­port pre­scribed burns but this is the trail I run on ev­ery day. You’re ru­in­ing my work­out.”

The pre­scribed burn on the ridge is tense, un­ex­pect­edly dra­matic. Dozens of firefighters from sur­round­ing sta­tions show up to help. Sta­tion 8 has made a close study of the di­ur­nal wind pat­terns on the ridge and kept its own weather sta­tion up on the site for two months, but the wind this morn­ing is fluky. They do a test burn, then quickly shut it down when an un­ex­pected scrap of south wind puffs. They try again, and the wind whips harder. Oliver or­ders it shut down again, and this time it takes sev­eral min­utes of fu­ri­ous wa­ter-spray­ing and hack­ing at burn­ing stumps to put out the small test fire. That’s it. The burn is a no-go. Maybe they’ll get this ridge next year. Fire crews in to­day’s drought-plagued West have to work with “laugh­ably small burn win­dows,” Hansen says, re­fer­ring to the pe­ri­ods in which pre­scribed burns can be safely at­tempted. The burn win­dows in Boul­der amount to eleven days a year. Hansen goes on an­other pre­scribed burn, in an­other sea­son, that’s more suc­cess­ful but equally tense. It takes place on a ranch in North Boul­der, and the burn is shut down by a sud­den snow­storm, with only half of the in­tended acreage burned, and yet it feels, in the read­ing, like a great tri­umph. Fire risk mit­i­ga­tion is not for the im­pa­tient.

The cli­max of Hansen’s nar­ra­tive is, as one might ex­pect, a wild­fire: a six­day fight near a small moun­tain town at the top of Boul­der Canyon. Sta­tion 8 is even­tu­ally joined by hundreds of other firefighters. Eighty-six air mis­sions are flown, drop­ping wa­ter and fire re­tar­dant. Slightly more than five hun­dred acres burn. Eight homes and many out­build­ings are de­stroyed, but there are no se­ri­ous in­juries and no lives lost. Three il­le­gal cam­pers are ar­rested for start­ing the blaze with a poorly tended camp­fire on pri­vate land. The sup­pres­sion ef­fort is con­sid­ered a “good catch,” and the com­mu­nity is both grate­ful and queru­lous. Sta­tion 8 goes back to plan­ning pre­scribed burns and other forms of fuel re­duc­tion. But the scale of their risk-mit­i­ga­tion work is com­pletely in­ad­e­quate to the rate of veg­e­ta­tion growth and the lethal new cli­mate. Brian Oliver de­scribes it as “painting the Golden Gate Bridge”—as soon as you’re done, you have to start all over again.


Firestorm takes the story north. He is a Cana­dian sci­ence writer, and he con­cen­trates on wild­fires in the bo­real, moun­tain­ous, and sub­alpine forests of North Amer­ica and in the Arc­tic tundra. “Wild­fire is no longer a Cal­i­for­nia spec­ta­cle,” he writes. His tone is re­por­to­rial, not apoc­a­lyp­tic. But the pic­ture he paints is dire. The Arc­tic is heat­ing up twice as fast as the rest of the globe. We’ve be­come ac­cus­tomed to see­ing that tragedy dra­ma­tized by starv­ing po­lar bears, the ac­cel­er­at­ing re­treat of glaciers and sea ice, and the thaw­ing of per­mafrost. Wild­fires driv­ing po­lar bears from their dens is some­thing new, though, at least to me. But the size, fre­quency, range, and in­ten­sity of wild­fires in Alaska and north­ern Canada have in­creased far more rapidly than in lower, more pop­u­lated lat­i­tudes. Me­gafires have be­come ev­ery-year events up north. Soot and ash from these north­ern fires is black­en­ing glaciers and the Green­land ice cap, caus­ing them to melt at an even faster rate.

Bo­real forests store enor­mous amounts of car­bon that me­gafires re­lease, to the detri­ment of the global en­vi­ron­ment. High-lat­i­tude peat­lands store car­bon that is re­leased by tundra fires. Peat also stores vast amounts of mer­cury, which fire re­leases into the at­mos­phere. The lower edge of the strato­sphere is sig­nif­i­cantly lower at high lat­i­tudes, and the fire clouds cre­ated by north­ern me­gafires—known as py­rocu­mu­lus, me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal freaks that cre­ate their own weather, pour­ing light­ning and em­bers back down

on the ground—can also pro­pel smoke up­ward, di­rectly into the strato­sphere, “where it be­comes a global prob­lem,” Struzik writes. The smoke from Cana­dian fires has been found to travel around the en­tire globe more than once. The rate of hos­pi­tal­iza­tion of el­derly Amer­i­cans on the Eastern Se­aboard has spiked, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers at Johns Hop­kins, as a di­rect re­sult of smoke from Cana­dian wild­fires in 2002 that “con­tained a sig­nif­i­cant amount of mer­cury.” Air qual­ity in New York and Chicago has been mea­sur­ably de­graded by Cana­dian wild­fires. An Aus­tralian-Cana­dian re­search team, look­ing at global wild­fires, es­ti­mated that be­tween 260,000 and 600,000 deaths may be at­trib­ut­able to wild­fire smoke each year.

For­est fires in­crease the level of mer­cury in wet­lands. They also sweep across aban­doned mine sites, some­times re­leas­ing tox­ins. In Libby, Mon­tana, a town that sits in a wild­fire cor­ri­dor, where an old mine has left asbestos fibers em­bed­ded in the bark of trees, peo­ple live in fear of a fire that “will spew out nee­dle-like, can­cer­caus­ing asbestos fibers.” The wa­ter qual­ity of Fort McMur­ray, Al­berta, where 88,000 peo­ple were evac­u­ated in 2016 dur­ing a megafire, has been com­pro­mised by the soot and chem­i­cals that now blan­ket the wa­ter­shed. In Colorado, drink­ing wa­ter qual­ity suf­fered for years af­ter a megafire in 2002. Some ma­jor fires burn so hot that the soil is ster­il­ized, and forests can­not even be­gin to re­gen­er­ate.

Then there’s Rus­sia, which has the world’s largest bo­real for­est and is al­ready suf­fer­ing more tree loss from fire than any other coun­try. The planet’s big­gest car­bon stores threaten to be­come car­bon sources, su­per­charg­ing global warm­ing. The de­lib­er­ate il­le­gal burn­ing of enor­mous tracts of Ama­zon rain­for­est—more than 100,000 fires were de­tected by satel­lites in Brazil in Septem­ber 2017—is the great­est ex­am­ple of this threat. In­done­sian peat fires, also il­le­gal and done for agri­cul­tural land clear­ing, cover much of South­east Asia in toxic haze for sev­eral months a year and triple In­done­sia’s an­nual green­house gas emis­sions. Now we can add bo­real for­est me­gafires and in­creas­ingly flammable tundra to the list of not-quite-nat­u­ral disas­ters dark­en­ing our plan­e­tary fu­ture.

For a longer view of fire on earth, there is Burn­ing Planet, by Andrew C. Scott, a pro­fes­sor of ge­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don. Scott’s story be­gins over 400 mil­lion years ago, in the Sil­urian Pe­riod, when the first vas­cu­lar land plants make their ap­pear­ance in the fos­sil record, and the chem­i­cal re­ac­tion we call fire might have first found some­thing to burn. Ev­i­dence for ex­ten­sive wild­fires first ap­pears in the late Devo­nian, 350 mil­lion years ago. Us­ing fos­silized char­coal found in coal to in­fer fluc­tu­a­tions in at­mo­spheric oxy­gen over ge­o­logic time, Scott dis­tin­guishes be­tween high-fire worlds (more oxy­gen) and low-fire worlds (less). The planet has been a low-fire world, de­spite ap­pear­ances, for the last 45 mil­lion years. Scott con­sid­ers the the­ory that a global wild­fire raged at the Cre­ta­ceous/ Pa­le­o­gene boundary, 66 mil­lion years ago, af­ter an as­ter­oid struck the Yu­catan penin­sula and helped set off (or caused) the ex­tinc­tion of the di­nosaurs. Ul­ti­mately, as a fos­sil char­coal spe­cial­ist, he is un­con­vinced. But his book is full of vivid an­cient news. The cli­mate has been get­ting drier for thirty mil­lion years, it seems. Did you know that Antarctica had veg­e­ta­tion as re­cently as two mil­lion years ago? Homo erec­tus may have been the first ho­minid to con­trol and use fire, roughly two mil­lion years ago. Ne­an­derthals def­i­nitely used fire, about 400,000 years ago. Cook­ing was a huge step. Fire pro­vided warmth, pro­tec­tion from large preda­tors, and a fo­cus for so­cial life. It was good for mak­ing tools. With the de­vel­op­ment of agri­cul­ture, it was used to clear land. Recorded his­tory be­gan.

With in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, ac­cord­ing to Stephen Pyne, the fire his­to­rian, came the “pyric tran­si­tion.” Open flame was re­placed by fos­sil fu­els: coal, oil, and gas. This tran­si­tion, Pyne writes, “left Earth with too much generic com­bus­tion, and too much of its ef­flu­ent lodged in the at­mos­phere, but the in­dus­tri­alised world also left too lit­tle of the right kind of fire where it’s needed.” Thus do we en­ter the An­thro­pocene, hav­ing trans­formed the planet, for bet­ter and worse, and hav­ing given the cli­mate a fate­ful shove. Scott quotes Frost:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of de­sire I hold with those who fa­vor fire.

The world is not end­ing, need­less to say—there are more ge­o­log­i­cal pe­ri­ods to come—but it is, once again, get­ting hot­ter and more flammable. Po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions have put us on this track. Dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions might slow our mo­men­tum to­ward cat­a­strophic over­heat­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion shows lit­tle aware­ness of what’s at stake. Its de­ci­sions to with­draw from the Paris cli­mate agree­ment and re­peal the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Clean Power Plan, which placed strict lim­its on car­bon emis­sions from power plants, are only the best-known ac­tions taken among more than seventy en­vi­ron­men­tal rules and agree­ments that it has moved to over­turn in its first eigh­teen months. Ryan Zinke, the sec­re­tary of the in­te­rior and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s point man on fire pol­icy, sent his land man­age­ment staff a lengthy memo in Septem­ber call­ing for “new and ag­gres­sive” think­ing about fire. And yet his own think­ing fails to in­clude the big­gest sin­gle fac­tor in the wild­fire on­slaught—our rapidly chang­ing cli­mate. His plans to re­duce fu­els to pre­vent wild­fires amount to in­creas­ing log­ging, which does not pre­vent wild­fires.

Zinke has the pres­i­dent’s ear, as shown by Trump’s de­ci­sion last year to dras­ti­cally re­duce, on Zinke’s rec­om­men­da­tion, the size of two na­tional mon­u­ments in south­ern Utah. The wild­land for­merly pro­tected as part of the Bear Ears and Es­calante Grand Stair­case mon­u­ments will be opened to min­ing, log­ging, and oil drilling. Char Miller, a pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal anal­y­sis at Pomona Col­lege, wrote in an Oc­to­ber opin­ion piece for the Los An­ge­les Times that the goal of this de­ci­sion was “to priv­i­lege re­source ex­trac­tion over recre­ation, wildlife pro­tec­tion and cli­mate-change mit­i­ga­tion, which may well re­sult in less re­silient forests and, of all things, more fire.”

A fire­fighter tak­ing a break from bat­tling the King Fire, Fresh Pond, Cal­i­for­nia, Septem­ber 2014

A house de­stroyed by the Thomas Fire in Ven­tura, Cal­i­for­nia, the largest fire in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory, De­cem­ber 2017

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