A Disaster of Our Own Making

California was always going to burn—but it should have happened differently.

A firefighter stands in the middle of a burnt forest
John Locher / AP

There was no horizon in Oakland on Saturday, and the air smells dirty. It’s not like fresh smoke. It’s a staleness. If you stay outside too long you get a little headache. The newest numbers say 71 people have died, more than a thousand missing, and 12,000 buildings burned in the Camp Fire. You’d have to drive well over three hours from here, if the roads were open, to get to anything that’s still on fire, but the smoke makes it feel like it’s happening a couple towns away. The smoke, made of forests and houses and people’s bodies, sinks in.

Neighbors and coworkers are passing around lists of who has respirators in stock, collaborative scratch pads with links to donation programs for the homeless encampments, posts about how refusing to wear a mask is internalized ableism, and instructions on taping a HEPA filter to a house fan. It’s hard to know what to call this. It’s not a disaster. It’s not your house burning down and your neighbors dying. But it’s not just another November, either. It’s schools closing, reminders to stay inside, and a lot of pulmonary and cardiovascular stress that will only be understood in retrospective statistics. It’s a crisis without a moment of crisis. It’s what it looks like: a slightly caustic, minimally dramatic haze over everything.

Friends complain about how this is covered in the national news media: thinly and haphazardly. And it’s true, many supposedly U.S.-wide news sources are really northeastern. They can seem fascinated by the minutiae of everyday life in the Boston-D.C. corridor but only interested in news from the West if there’s a terrifying (or glamorous) photo to go with it.

Even some Californians have internalized a suspicion that we shouldn’t live here. Three times during the 2012–18 drought, I heard other people living in the Bay Area say versions of “In a sense, it’s our fault for living in the desert.” But the Bay Area is by not by any standard a desert; it isn’t even semi-arid. If people don’t belong in this climate, they also don’t belong in the South of France. And yet, there’s a vague, half-internalized sense that we are somehow a place of disasters.

But which disasters count as disasters? About 15 years ago, there was an event that killed roughly a thousand times as many people as these fires have. It wasn’t a war, and it wasn’t in some part of the world that you’ve never heard about. It was a natural disaster that killed more than 70,000 people in one of the richest, safest, most connected places. It was the 2003 European heat wave. The heat wave was certainly reported on, but mainly framed as a huge inconvenience—like the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which interrupted air travel—and not as a prodigiously lethal disaster. But it was. It killed four or five times more people than the terrible 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and 10 times more than have died in all California’s recorded earthquakes and fires combined. Yet we don’t think of Europe as a borderline overambitious place for human lives to take root, a zone where nature rejects us, because it isn’t. It’s mostly very hospitable. Like California.

What we call a disaster is tied up in what we find dramatic. Many or most of the people who died in the 2003 heat wave were already medically fragile: the elderly, for example. The 70,000 deaths would have been almost entirely quiet and, in isolation, normal-looking. An older cousin with chronic circulatory trouble has a fatal heart attack after climbing her stairs with a heavy grocery bag—tragic, surprising, but surely not a disaster? There was no running from flames or waves or falling rocks. But there were deaths. And I don’t think any of us could accept the idea that a disaster is somehow less real if it mostly kills vulnerable people.

If you stretch out the idea of what’s a disaster, the risk is that you spread the idea so thin that it stops meaning anything specific. If it’s a disaster for people who are already near death to go a little sooner, isn’t a bad medical system a disaster as much as a heat wave is? If something as diffuse and unspecific as a stretch of weather can be a disaster, is there anything bad that wouldn’t count as a disaster?

Disasters are never natural in the ordinary sense because they always could have been avoided or mitigated by human choices. In this way of thinking, everything that we call a disaster started as a hazard, and hazards themselves are only risks, not harms. If and how hazards become disasters is shaped by governmental, infrastructural, and economic choices, conscious or unconscious.

If this sounds like I’m saying we should blame the government for disasters, like medieval peasants who believe that a flood means the king has lost the mandate of heaven and must lack virtue, I’m not. Nor am I saying that the government (or the economic system, or whatever) is strictly to blame for every bad thing. I’m saying that if we set up an institution to control floods, and rightly give it credit when it does well, it’s equally to blame when it does poorly. This isn’t subtle; it’s what we mean by responsibility. And there are historians now who read the old idea of the mandate of heaven and “moral meteorology” not only as a farmers’ superstition but also as an oblique way to say things like: The king didn’t use the massive hydrological infrastructure at his disposal to mitigate the effects of what could have been merely unusually heavy rain. He’s a bad administrator. Or, if you prefer, heaven finds him lacking in virtue.

California and the United States are, of course, strikingly well-governed in some ways and strikingly badly governed in others. Our disasters follow. The air quality in the Bay Area right now is a hazard; a society that can’t manage to distribute good air filters to everyone who needs to be outside, and allows everyone else to stay inside, is a disaster. The poorest suffer the most. This is so true that it’s almost redundant. Poverty in any useful sense isn’t net worth in dollars. It’s more like a high ratio of personal disasters to personal hazards. Will a toothache, a hazard, turn into an untreated infection, a disaster? Will being caught jaywalking, a hazard, turn into a felony record, a disaster? Will getting sick turn into losing your job? When we point out that homeless people suffer particularly badly from the smoke, it’s worth remembering that this isn’t some kind of sad coincidence—wow, homeless and at risk from the air!—it’s why we care about homelessness in the first place. A house is one of many machines for mitigating hazards.

The Black Saturday fires destroyed entire towns and killed 180 people near metropolitan Melbourne, Australia, not quite a decade ago. The comparisons are easy. Survivors talked about the speed of the fire there too—how you could be preparing to evacuate one minute and surrounded by flames the next. Many people in those hills died defending their houses, with garden hoses and buckets, against unsurvivable heat. I expect that happened here too. After the Black Saturday fires, a lot of experts were exasperated by survivors rebuilding what had been destroyed, most famously the little town of Marysville. Don’t people realize the fires will be back? The experts are right about the fires but wrong about the people. Everything we make is temporary, and some will choose to live under trees even knowing they’ll burn. The rest of us can roll our eyes, but we do it from places where we know there will be another hurricane, another earthquake, another heat wave, mass shooting, death in custody, cancer. Everyone spends a lifetime doing things that will end.

The closest thing we have to infinity is sustainability, a word secretly disliked by many people who use it most. Sustainability for Californian forests is a fairly clear concept, because it’s been tried for 10,000 years. Fire is hard to govern. A serious program of controlled wildland fires in California would surely collapse the first time one got out of control—and one would, because fire does—and burned down someone’s property. It asks a lot of anyone to see a house’s destruction in a fire set by someone wearing a uniform as really necessary.

We can’t switch over to some perfectly sustainable, traditional ecological knowledge–based fire-management regime tomorrow. We have already built houses among trees. The forest we know today is different from the forest that was sustained. It’s been changed by policies of fire suppression and intense logging. It will have to slowly become something sustainable, and only then could that future forest, which none of us has ever seen, be sustained.

And, of course, the climate is changing. Summer is hotter and drier now. What worked well for the entire Holocene epoch may not work at all in the Anthropocene. And the ideal forest strategy in 2018’s climate will not be ideal in 2068’s, at least the way we’re going. So it comes back to taking carbon out of the air. We all knew that already. I think this must be one reason California’s fires are especially fearsome to many Americans: because the idea of California is often subtly an idea of the future.

I hear people say with disgust that these smoky days are the new normal. But the forests burned every year, in vast areas, though in cooler, slower, individually smaller fires, up until the genocides of European settlements. The nearly smokeless summers that my parents’ generation can talk about weren’t the system at equilibrium; they were already an effect of unsustainable imbalance. The oldest Californians living can’t remember the kind of forest we’ll need for the future. If we don’t want the kind of fire we have today—the kind that kills whole families—and if we don’t want to cut down all the plants and be done with the unpredictability of nonhuman life, we’ll still be left with fires. Safer fires, but smoky fires.

So there will be some ash-tasting days in the happiest future I can imagine for California. The air will be chemically fairly similar to today’s, but it will smell different. For now, here in Oakland we’re breathing the consequences of the 20th century, and trying not to forget that this kind of air is ordinary for millions upon millions of people who live around coal power plants.