Human technology is responsible for more loss from fire than any other cause. But reducing fire’s impact will require changes to how people live, not just to the infrastructure that lets them do so.
In October 2017, 250 square miles burned in Northern California, destroying 6,000 homes and businesses and killing 44 people. For now, the cause of these fires has not been determined. The private utility company Pacific Gas and Electric, known to Californians as PG&E, is under investigation. Total damage for the Northern California wildfires comes to $9 billion. PG&E has started stockpiling cash.
In California, this is a familiar story. Three years ago, in February of 2015, one-third of the houses in my remote neighborhood in Eastern California burned down. Here, before the fire, 100 houses lay scattered across the leeward flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The people who live here spend their time walking steep roads, listening to crickets, chasing mule deer out of the garden, and looking over a desert valley below. Days after the fire, my neighbor, Cassie, wasn’t doing any of these things. Instead, she stood inside her smoking foundation. Tall and easygoing with freckles on her nose, Cassie had come home from college that winter to sift rubble with her mom and dad. Under different circumstances, we might have hiked together or skated frozen ponds. I used to carpool with her family to school, and I remember her house, wooden and gorgeous and overlooking a ravine from which flames later rose.