A Deadly Tsunami of Fire

California’s Camp Fire is still not contained, and the number of dead is still rising.

An engulfed car dealership in Paradise, California, on November 9 (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

Seventy-six people are dead. At least 1,276 are missing. And more than 7 million have been confined to their homes, as a cloud of toxic, corrosive ash darkens their windows and creeps under their doors.

The Camp Fire—which is still burning across some 232 square miles of Northern California—now ranks among the worst natural disasters to hit the United States this century. Only a handful of hurricanes and a “super outbreak” of tornadoes in 2011 have killed more Americans. This fire has robbed more Californians of their lives than has any earthquake since 1933.

It came like an ocean of flame. At 6:33 a.m. on Thursday, November 8, someone called 911 about a fire in the woods on Camp Creek Road. (The road would lend the fire its bitterly ironic name.) When firefighters arrived 10 minutes later, they noted the parched conditions and the harsh, hot wind. “This has got the potential for a major incident,” one said over the radio.

For the next 24 hours, the Camp Fire devoured roughly a football field of forest every second. By 11 a.m., it grew to 1,000 acres. By noon, its ash cloud blocked out the sun. By 1 p.m., that plume was visible from space, a gray blot smearing across the green of California. That morning, the 26,000 residents of Paradise began to evacuate. But the fire moved too fast. It consumed homes before their occupants could flee and devoured cars while they sat on the road out of town. Later, authorities revealed that in the pandemonium, bulldozers cleared torched cars off the highway so that the cars behind them could escape.

Within hours, Paradise was gone. When Californians woke up on Friday, November 9, they learned that the Camp Fire had devoured 70,000 acres of land. Now, nine days later, it flickers across some 149,000 acres, and it is only 55 percent contained.

There is no disaster like a wildfire. Earthquakes can strike at any time, but they only last for a few moments. Hurricanes might rage for days, but they can be forecast ahead of time. Fire might most closely resemble a tsunami—it arrives like an ocean you can’t outrun—except that fires also choke every city downwind with poisonous billows of ash. Earlier this week, Park Williams, a professor at Columbia, recalled the first time he saw the 100-foot wall of flame that serves as a wildfire’s herald. “It looked like a skyline of buildings,” he told me. “The fire, to me—it’s like an ocean. It’s so strong that we don’t really stand a chance of doing much to it.”

It has come to resemble an ocean in its scale, too. The Camp Fire’s smoky air now envelops millions of people, from the state’s desert-like south to its evergreen-crowned north. The ash fills the state’s Central Valley like water in a bathtub—with the Golden Gate as the main plug where it can all rush out.

And perhaps the worst aspect here is: This will all happen again. The science on climate change and wildfires is clear—much, much clearer than on many other topics, including hurricanes. Scientists know that scorching-hot summers dry out the needles and twigs on the forest floor, turning them into a tinderbox. They know that climate change has doubled the area that forest fires have burned since 1984. They know that a century of putting out fires—in forests that are evolved to burn regularly—has crammed the timberlands full of burnable fuel.

And finally, scientists know that California’s tendency to lurch from a big dry year to a big wet year is intensifying, its “feast and famine” cycle getting more pronounced. They know this will make fires worse, Williams told me: It will allow more plant matter to grow during the wet years, which during the dry years will dry out and die and become fire fuel.

Seventy-six people, trapped in their homes, fleeing in their cars, now lost forever. And the science is clear, far more than on hurricanes, far more than on droughts: Humanity played a role in this. Through the negligence of spewing carbon into the air, and through the hubris of trying to suppress fires. We have toyed with fire, thinking it our tool. But the Camp Fire should remind us that we are its plaything.