When a fire comes up the side of the mountain and destroys our homes, we say: natural disaster. When lightning starts that fire, we say: natural disaster. When power lines start that fire, we still say: natural disaster. Deliberate debris burning, fireworks, and rogue campfires are among the most common causes of so-called wildfire in some parts of California. Still, when people consider wildfire—even wildfire caused by human tools—it seems to us as inescapable as lightning.
Three years after her house burned down, I asked my childhood neighbor Cassie whether she felt the fire that destroyed her house was inevitable. She lives in San Francisco now, where she prepares environmental impact reports for federal and state agencies. Her parents live in a house rebuilt atop the ashes of the old. “The smell of smoke made me nauseous,” Cassie told me, while Napa and Sonoma burned last fall. “I woke up in the middle of the night because I could smell it. It felt so close.”
Cassie did not consider the loss of her home unavoidable. When people treat fire as an inevitability, she said, its consequences become divorced from human behavior. What she saw on the local news after the Northern California fires were the stories of “people and families and homes,” over and over. It makes sense, because people’s lives are changed, she said. “But that’s always the focus, instead of the bigger issue ... instead of, this could have been prevented, and there’s a reason that it happened, and it’s connected to our infrastructure. But I just don’t think it’s something people want to talk about.” It sickened her, to feel fire’s heat, to smell its smoke, without facing its implications.
And those implications are complicated. “Many of the problems of fire management do not have technical fixes,” Pyne, the fire historian, wrote during the Northern California fires. “They depend on social choices hammered out in politics—appropriate land use, the purpose of public lands, competing economic interests, cultural values, and philosophies.”
It’s possible to update technology to dodge disaster, to a point. We can make advance warning systems for earthquakes, cloak first responders in NASA-developed fire suits, and mitigate rising sea levels with permeable pavement and rain gardens. We can also update technology to avoid having to change the assumptions that cause some of the problems in the first place. When locomotives burned forests, people changed the mechanics of trains—they didn’t reevaluate the long-term viability of rail. The need to move thousands of tons of lumber and coal and food and passengers at high speeds through forest and prairie and desert did not come into question. It’s easier to find a quick fix than it is to change culture.
Some biologists contend that our brains did not evolve to conceive of the long-term consequences of our choices; that we are not primed to master deep time but to put out small fires, if you will. Yet it appears we have also evolved to comprehend the far future, if only in flashes. We operate, Pyne writes, “not according to strict evolutionary selection but in the realm of culture, which is to say, of choice and confusion.”