“The fire, to me—it’s like an ocean,” he said. “It’s so strong that we don’t really stand a chance of doing much to it. When it’s that big, and there are helicopters dropping water and retardant on it, they’re doing nothing. When you see firefighters spraying hoses at it, [the fire] is so hot that they can’t even be close enough to be within hose-shot.”
California is struggling with some of the worst blazes in its history. On Monday, authorities announced that the so-called Camp Fire in Northern California had killed 42 people, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history. It broke a record set in 1933, when a brush fire in Los Angeles killed 29 people. The Camp Fire’s death toll is expected to rise.
Read: The worst is yet to come for California’s wildfires.
The Camp Fire has burned 125,000 acres and it is 25 percent contained. Most of its growth came on its first day, when it devoured more than 70,000 acres (or 109 square miles) in 24 hours. At that rate, the fire consumed a football field of forest every second. “The numbers these fires are capable of posting are mind-boggling,” Williams said.
Fires in the United States are getting larger, and the country is rapidly losing the ability to deal with them. During President Ronald Reagan’s first term, the federal government spent a couple hundred thousand dollars a year fighting fires, according to Williams. This year, it plans to spend $2.25 billion just battling fires; its full budget for managing them can exceed $5 billion. Yet forest-fire damage has ballooned nonetheless. Since the early 1980s, the land area burned by wildfires every year has increased by 1,000 percent.
“Fires are outrunning us. We’re trying harder than ever to put them out, and they’re continuing to win, more and more, every year,” Williams said. “And it really isn’t for lack of effort. Even when we know it’s been stupid policy to fight every single fire, we’re still trying as hard as we can to do that.”
It’s a message he wishes he could drill into the head of every American. As the California fires have dominated the news, Williams has been asked by friends and journalists why we can’t just fix wildfires, why we can’t just put them out. We have solved all sorts of complex environmental-engineering problems. Why not wildfire?
The question illustrates “the root problem that got us into this mess,” Williams told me. “We think that we as humans should be able to dominate this phenomenon of wildfire. And in reality, we can’t. Even though we can put a person on the moon, and even though we can create this global computer network, we can’t. This is a natural phenomenon that is similar to the ocean in that it is really big, that it is much larger than us when it really gets going.”
In some ways, he said, a wildfire is similar to a combustion-powered hurricane. Fires put out tons of hot air at their center, which tries violently to rise. This rising air creates a vacuum at the core of fires, creating a fast-moving conveyor belt of cooler air flowing into the fire from all directions. A large fire can pull in so much air at such high speeds that its ability to do so is hindered by Earth’s rotation. In the Northern Hemisphere, a large wildfire’s smoke column will begin to spin counterclockwise, just as happens to hurricanes.