Don Rogers: Ever a ‘normal’?
The 1980 fire season, my first on the hotshot crew, it never rained. Our funding finally dried up at the end of January the next year.
1981 was more typical, rains and layoffs arriving in Southern California around mid-November. ’82 was a short season quickly followed with a big El Nino winter. ’83 was hardly a season at all. Summer thunderstorms drowned the thing by August, and that was that, though we stayed on into October.
Climatologists intoned around then that the state was in for a wet, cool cycle for at least the next 20 years. The new normal. If so, it was short-lived. ’84 was hot and busy.
We humans have short memories and a bad habit of drawing on scant, often questionable data to draw sweeping conclusions. Must be that our craving to make sense of the world has us reaching for tales we recognize only later as tall.
We might be doing it again with fresh declarations about “new normal” fire seasons henceforth never ending as the average global temperature marches upward each year of this new millennium.
California ticks naturally between long dry spells and then the months at least open to rain and snow, which have never been givens. Tahoe is infamous for too much one winter and too little the next. That’s hardly new.
I fought fire in the ’80s in the same hills freshly scorched today between Thousand Oaks and Malibu. Calabasas, well, you could practically pencil in the calendar every year we’d go there — the Santa Anas blowtorching flames horizontally across the scrub, cocky cops speeding in and backing out just as fast from corners we knew to wait and watch from some distance, planes buffeted all over the sky as they came in for drops before their ops shut down.
The chaparral regions were built to burn regularly and hot long before humans came along.
The brush grows overhead and half-dead in a dozen years, laden with flammable oils over many millennia of adaptation to the seasonal and deeper cycles of drought.
California’s katabatic winds, including the infamous Santa Anas in the LA basin, blow most autumns. The terrifying El Diablo is rarer up here. Santa Barbara has its local Sundowner, often in July or August.
All that’s missing is ignition. But that’s just a matter of time.
Nothing different in any of this.
So what has changed?
Well, the state’s population has doubled to 40 million people since 1970. More of us live where fire burns.
We’ve only fought fires in an organized way for a little over a century. It’s no coincidence the forests have grown dense since we began putting out wildfires as quickly as we could. Logging hasn’t helped much, either, taking big trees less vulnerable to ground fire and allowing more flammable understory and saplings to flourish.
Basically, we couldn’t have set the stage for big, nasty wildfires any better over the past century if we’d tried. Of California’s top 20 largest since 1932, 17 have burned since 2000.
Now the Camp Fire, currently 16th largest at 153,000 acres, and tragedy in Paradise. No wildfire in California has killed so many people, destroyed so many homes, left a whole community in ruins quite like this.
We have to go back to the Great Fire of 1910, which burned 3 million acres in Idaho, western Montana and eastern Washington, to find something comparable in the United States. That blaze killed 87 people, including 78 firefighters, and overran small towns in sparsely populated forestland.
For civilian deaths, we have to go back to 1871 and the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin, which burned 1.2 million acres and killed between 1,500 and 2,500 people.
These killer fires all had drought and wind in common. Can’t say how many experts afterward declared their eras the “new normal.” Some, no doubt. This is what humans do, after all, make declarations like this.
Speaking of which, the president was mocked for a comment during his visit to Paradise about the Finns taking rakes to their forests, which would be quite a feat indeed.
But he wasn’t entirely wrong. John Muir was not alone in describing the Sierra’s cathedral forests, a result of constant summer fire raking out the understory. Our neighbor Gary Snyder has had a thing or two to say on the subject, as well.
In any case, the path forward includes no small amount of smoke. The fires will burn, but we do have some choice about when. Our best firefighting, perhaps paradoxically, includes setting the forest alight. Basically burn now, when the weather’s right, before we burn up later.
That should be the new normal.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.