The Simple Reason That Humans Can’t Control Wildfires

“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.”

Firefighters battle the Camp Fire near Paradise, California. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

Seven years ago, Park Williams took an hour-long drive with a couple of friends to see a wildfire. He remembers it now as a revelation.

At the time, Williams was researching the scraggly pine forests that dot the southwestern United States. He worked at a national laboratory that overlooks more than 1 million acres of protected desert forest. On June 26, 2011, the wind knocked down an aspen somewhere in that national forest, toppling it into a power line and igniting a small flame. The landscape was parched, the winds were unruly, and soon that flame had become the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history.

Williams couldn’t go to work—his lab had been evacuated—so he and his friends drove around town, hoping to catch a glimpse of the blaze. Eventually they came to a spot just below the mountains. He remembers the air outside the car reeking like an ancient brick fireplace. The fire stood a mile off. “It looked like a skyline of buildings,” he told me. “You could see it in the mountains above you.”

It was not like a bonfire or even a house fire. It was a wall of flame, probably 100 feet high.

The vision made him realize it is impossible to fight wildfires. It also changed his life. Williams had never seriously studied wildfires before he saw the Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico. He is now a professor at Columbia University, and one of the world’s leading experts on how climate change has intensified the problem of wildfire.

“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.

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.

Sometimes, that channel of upward-flowing air can collapse in one small spot. Then the hot air in the atmosphere plummets through the weak point. “You get a very fast wind moving down toward the ground, and when it hits the ground, it spreads like jelly slopping across the floor,” Williams said. “It can also send white-hot air out in front of the flame, incinerating the landscape before the actual flame has arrived. It can cause forests to spontaneously combust without coming into contact with a flame.”

When this upward-moving air pattern stays strong, it creates other kinds of problems. It can loft burning wood high into the atmosphere, carrying it many miles away from the center of the fire. When this debris finally lands, it can start new fires. In 2011, Williams lived dozens of miles from the edge of the blaze, yet he remembers semi-burned sticks falling like drizzle in his backyard. “These were twigs that you hold in your hand and say, ‘Wow, this actually weighs something. This made it 35 miles in the air,’” he said.

“When the fires are really moving like that, it’s because the meteorological conditions are allowing that to happen,” he said. He estimated that the California fires would not be fully contained until the winter rains arrive.

So how should Americans react to the power of forest fires? By respecting them, Williams said—and by understanding that we are in a new era of great fires. “The continuing increase in fire is an inevitability in the western United States. It is an inevitability that this trend is going to continue,” he told me. “If the public understood that, then they would become more tolerant of managerial tactics that are currently seen as too risky or heartless.”

Many forest managers know that a certain tract of woodland is due for a catastrophic wildfire in the next decade, but feel they have no political ability to do a controlled burn there—lest it get out of control. If the public understood that huge swaths of western forest will soon burn, they may be more willing to allow controlled burns when the meteorological conditions are right.

“Today it’s completely impossible to say that we need to have a 100,000-acre fire in that forest. Any politician or fire manager who brought that up? It would be a death wish for their career,” Williams said.