life after warming

California’s Last Fire Season Was a Historic Disaster. This One Might Be Worse.

The forecast calls for fire. Photo: Kyle Grillot/AFP via Getty Images

“I personally know probably a dozen people in California, maybe 20, who’ve had to personally outrun flames.”

It’s early June, and I am speaking to climate scientist Daniel Swain, who grew up in the state and has become, over the past several, record-setting fire seasons in California, perhaps its single most essential science communicator on weather, disaster, and fire risk. “Before the last six or seven years, I had literally never heard of that,” he says. “And then all of a sudden it’s like, Oh, you too? For a random person to know multiple people who are running from walls of flames in the middle of the night, several of them having to do it on two separate occasions in the last five years in different parts of the state…” He trails off. “I mean, that’s pretty striking.”

It can be hard to remember now, with images of orange sky and darkness at noon blurring into other surreal memories of the pandemic uncanny, but last year the state of California experienced, by acres burned, the worst year in the state’s modern fire history by far. The previous record had been set just two years before, in 2018, when the Camp Fire incinerated Paradise and almost 2 million acres burned in total throughout the state. The books that were written about that year are just being published now, and what seemed then like a horrible harbinger worth commemorating between hardcovers is already more like a keepsake, a dot on a trend line. The 2020 season more than doubled the damage of 2018, spawning a whole new term, gigafire, to describe a single blaze burning more than a million acres — a fire the size of Rhode Island. Ten percent of the world’s giant Sequoias died in the flames, though the species evolved to thrive in fire conditions — just not fire conditions as intense as these. In total last year, 4.4 million acres burned — about 4 percent of the state — producing so much smoke that there was more air pollution throughout the American West from the wild burning of forest than from all other human and industrial activity in the region combined.

Fire isn’t neatly predictable, since it depends both on underlying conditions (moisture on the ground and the amount of dead flora, often called “fuel”) and a considerable amount of randomness (wind events and “ignitions” both human and natural). But while there is always the possibility that ignitions could be anomalously quiet, and that the state could endure a year of off-the-charts conditions without having to fight and flee and breathe the smoke of a commensurate fire season, the outlook for 2021 isn’t just bad, it is quite a bit worse than that, even if you are modeling expectations off the record-setting recent past. Across the American West, “extreme” drought conditions are more widespread than they’ve been in at least 20 years. The next category worse, called “exceptional” drought, typically rare, is already this year blanketing most of the West and Southwest; it’s so widespread it would probably be better called “unprecedented drought,” at least in the age of modern record-keeping. This week arrives, throughout the region, what is expected to be a record-breaking heat wave, with temperature warnings issued for more than 50 million people: In Phoenix, it could reach 118, and in Death Valley 127.

Fire fighters attempt to fight the Shady Fire as it approaches homes in Santa Rosa, on September 28, 2020. Photo: Samuel Corum/AFP via Getty Images

Already this spring, more than twice as many acres in California have burned as had by this point last year, when the state was on its way to more than doubling its previous fire record. Rerun last year’s random ignitions on top of this year’s underlying conditions, and you won’t just have the worst season ever but, potentially, something considerably scarier still. Get relatively lucky, with fewer ignitions than is typical, and you’re still probably in for the sort of season that used to set state records and scar the memory of populations as recently as a decade or two ago. Real relief from fire anxiety almost certainly won’t arrive before late fall, with the rains that come later now each year. In the meantime, the chances that the fire season will be unusually mild appear very slim, with many Californians articulating instead a distressingly grim hope: that the fires, which they know are inevitable, will simply burn elsewhere in the state, ideally far from human settlement but, more realistically, just far from them.

“Most Californians — their experience with wildfire was seeing it on the evening news, watching the live helicopter shots of the Chaparral burning above Los Angeles,” Swain says. “Maybe seeing a smoke plume in the distance in the summer. For the vast majority of people in California, that was the experience. And then all of a sudden, in the last decade or so, there’s been this dramatic shift. The majority of people in California have had, you know, pretty acute experiences with fire. For almost everybody, this at a minimum involves these smoke storms, these public-health crises, these extreme air-pollution episodes. School is canceled. Work is canceled, unless you’re a farmworker and then they force you to work. The sky turns black. You can’t go outside. It’s scary. And that’s the best case scenario — that’s what essentially everybody has now experienced.”

Last year marked an additional shift. As nearly every fire ecologist would tell you — making the case for forest management that includes “controlled” burns to “thin” an overabundant supply of “fuel” — the number of acres burned isn’t itself a measure of the human brutality of a fire. The Camp Fire burned 150,000 acres, destroyed 18,000 structures, and killed 85, for instance; last year’s August Complex burned more than a million acres, destroyed 90 structures, and only killed one person. But while the forests are ripe for burning in large part because a century of misguided, aggressive fire-suppression policies allowed an enormous amount of fuel to build up — requiring now perhaps 20 million acres to burn to restore a fire equilibrium in the state — the number of acres does still clearly tell the story of the climate’s trajectory, which governs the life of California’s forests and promises at least a doubling of acreage burned by 2050. Probably something more like a sixfold increase. (In fact, there are estimates extending well above that.) And while, in theory, better state policy — housing, forest management, controlled burns — could make even large fires less destructive, the fires aren’t just larger, they are also more intense, producing their own lightning storms, their own fire tornadoes. Wildfires used to burn at a maximum of 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, Cal Fire’s Angie Lottes told me they now burn at 2,100 degrees — hot enough to turn the silica in the soil into glass and burning all through the root system of forests along the way.

Swain no longer lives in California but in Boulder, Colorado, and while the West Coast dominates America’s wildfire nightmares, the country’s fire region is mind-bendingly vast. “Colorado hadn’t had the awakening California had until last year, really,” he says. “And then last year just blew every previous year completely out of the water.” In some ways, he says, Colorado’s 2020 was even more remarkable than California’s for fire. “There weren’t as many homes burned or lives lost, but in terms of the size and the intensity and the extreme behavior of the fires, it was an even greater outlier. I mean, there was one day where I saw a smoke plume in the distance, and I went to take a look, and I ended up watching this massive fire vortex just roll down the eastern slopes of the Front Range foothills just north of Boulder, taking out a couple of subdivisions.”

Swain describes this as the Californication of Colorado. “Like, Holy hell, what’s going on? I mean, one of the fires jumped the Continental Divide. In some places on the Divide, there’s two miles of just bare granite. Usually it’s considered the second-best firebreak in the West, the best one being the Pacific Ocean. And the fire jumped it. That was shocking.” In California, more than half of all new residential development since 1990 has been built in high risk zones. A recent survey asked Coloradans to guess what category their wildfire-risk zone was. Seventy percent guessed “low” or “moderate.” In fact, 80 percent of respondents lived in “high,” “very high,” or “extreme” risk zones. An economist I know who specializes in climate impacts fled the Bay Area last year during the fires to relocate to Colorado for the benefit of a child with asthma. When I pointed out that Colorado wasn’t immune to fire or the smoke it produced, he laughed. “I know — it was just that it wasn’t burning then. How perverse is that?”

“Some of these fires burn ten or 15 miles in a night,” Swain says, “as has happened in California in recent years. There were fire resources in Colorado who were like, ‘Well, we can deal with this tomorrow — if we need to evacuate that town, we don’t need to do it in the middle of the night. We have time.’ They didn’t have time, it turned out. It was there six hours later at one o’clock in the morning.”

How many times can you tell a story about fire, relate the same horrors, raise the same alarms? The literature of California fire stretches back through the twentieth century, documenting what were much smaller fires, by and large, that nevertheless loomed as large or larger in the state’s memory and self-conception. More recently, a whole genre of literary reportage has sprung up in magazine journalism, each installment drawing on a familiar set of intimate anecdote, poetic horror, and dire predictions for climate change. This is how journalism tries to raise alarms and erect memorials, the only way it really knows how. But documenting serial disasters can be as numbing as living through them, the narrative concealing the line one might usefully trace between stories, between larger and larger fires that play not as truly new phenomena but old ones or reboots, flattening the terrible new amplitude of fire disaster into something that seems almost like an eternal feature of the landscape. And therefore normal, which it both is and isn’t.

In 2019, I visited California to report a story, “Living with Fire,” that tried to reckon with both the future of fire and that impulse towards accommodating and normalizing it. I spoke with countless homeowners who told me that California had always had fire, who acknowledged that the damage was getting worse but seemed unable to see clearly what those curves portended for their own future. I spoke with some who admitted to feeling a little flicker of excitement at the apocalyptic color that natural disaster gave their lives and their skies. I spoke to some who believed the changes could be corralled by clearing a bit more brush off their own property, through better housing policy and better forest management — which, to some degree, they can. But I also spoke with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, now 50 years old. In the year he was born, wildfires burned 61,000 acres in California. In 2013, when he was first elected mayor, it was 602,000 acres. In 2017, the year he was reelected, the total was around 1.2 million. In 2018, it was 1.89 million. “There’s no number of helicopters or trucks that we can buy, no number of firefighters that we can have, no amount of brush that we can clear that will stop this,” Garcetti told me in 2019. “The only thing that will stop this is when the Earth, probably long after we’re gone, relaxes into a more predictable weather state.”

Then came 2020, and with it, to my surprise, something of a new consciousness in the state — produced less by the scale of fire devastation than by the inescapable smoke disaster it created. First, in the age of fire suppression, Californians were scared most of earthquakes; then, for a decade or two of climate-fueled wildfire, of out-of-control flames. The fires of the past five years have killed more people in the state than any earthquake since 1906, but the total number of casualties and destroyed structures still appeared quite small in a state of 40 million — an inevitable if morally complicated calculus with such a large denominator of survivors. Instead, as scary as the new generation of dashcam footage and drone photography of fire has proven, it was the enveloping and inescapable air horror, in both its aesthetic and respiratory shocks, that seems to have really discolored Californian’s understanding of their own future. Watching Malibu burn is one thing; breathing its ashes is another. Reading about vineyards on fire in wine country is one thing; seeing the smoke blanket a city that believes itself to be designing the human future so fully that no sunlight can penetrate — that is another. Will that new consciousness actually endure, perhaps even transform some aspects of life in the state, possibly including the overwhelming NIMBY resistance to a sensibly expansive housing policy? About the shift one is tempted both to say “finally” and to caution “maybe only temporarily.” But the toll of bad air is genuinely horrifying, at a scale that should be sufficient to move anyone dramatically. Nationally, according to one terrifying estimate, 350,000 Americans die annually from the impacts of air pollution — an annual death toll equal to that of the coronavirus last year.

“I do think there’s this cultural shift that’s going on right now,” Swain says.

How so, I ask.

“I mean, you talk to firefighters and wildland firefighters who’ve been at this for 20, 30 years, or even families of people who’ve been firefighters for multiple generations, going back farther than 30 years. And they’re like, ‘Yeah, every fire we’re on now would have been the career-defining fire a generation ago.’ That’s not just climate change — obviously there are other reasons why this has happened, part of which is this total fire-suppression policy in the forest. But, on the other hand, a big part of it is climate change — and it’s happened precisely during the period over which climate change has accelerated. It’s not coincidental. And people can see that. Which is why the kinds of phone calls that I’ve been getting about fire have changed a lot in the last two years.”

Five years ago, Swain says, he’d field calls from scientists and journalists, fire ecologists and firefighters — those deep in the weeds, so to speak, of climate and wildfire, interested in a relatively arcane way in his specialized knowledge. “Now I’m getting phone calls from people literally involved in litigation, people involved in policy, people involved in private and public rulemaking, people who are worried about their own personal homes. ‘What can I do fireproof my property? Do I need to leave California?’ It’s all changing.”

I mention to Swain that as recently as my reporting in 2019, many of those I spoke to mentioned that their fire-insurance premiums hadn’t even gone up. That has changed, too. A friend of mine living far from the wildland-urban interface on a modest plot in suburban Santa Barbara recently told me he can’t even get private insurance anymore.

“Places are just starting to recognize it,” Swain says. “I think California is slightly ahead of the curve, in the sense that, as a region, it’s coming to terms with the physical reality. It hasn’t addressed any of the real issues yet, but it’s acknowledging that these issues are real and are going to get worse. Other places haven’t even gotten to that point yet. So I think we’re in this transition zone, and it’s going to be rocky. It’s going to be a rocky path. As you know, these transitions are not easy. They’re not linear.”

A few weeks ago, my friend in Santa Barbara was told by his local fire chief casually, to expect to evacuate at least once or twice this year, an echo of 2018. Last week, the well-to-do city, situated right on the coast, advised its residents to prepare for fire season by setting up a “clean air room” in their homes, including by building their own air purifiers using duct tape and a fan. When I got off the phone with Swain, I texted my friend in Santa Barbara about the coming heat wave. This weekend, he told me, ahead of the 60 mph winds expected this week, he was warned the power would be cut Monday or Tuesday. He was already planning an evacuation trip, he said — to Las Vegas, where the temperature was forecast to hit 115.

Why 2021 Could Be California’s Worst Fire Season Ever