The World on Fire

This is October in Southern California. At the beach, the horizon is a murky bank of clouds, with just a hint of yellowish brown, like a can of ivory paint into which someone has accidentally dropped a little dried blood. On the television news, they repeat the graphic animation of the wind’s path twice a day, red arrows streaking down out of the mountains, the lines dividing into thirds and going every which way. At Leo Carrillo State Beach on Tuesday afternoon, the dew point was minus-2 Fahrenheit. That’s how low the temperature would have to be to pull what little moisture there is out of the air and onto our rose bushes. Instead, the air temperature is 89.

If you were to write down how many fires are raging in Southern California right now, you would be wrong, because every time you look, a new one springs up between the Mexican border and Ventura. You can’t even keep track of the names: Canyon, Harris, Witch, Buckweed, Magic, Ranch, Sedgewick, Santiago, Little Mountain, Soledad Canyon — the names get less inventive as the process drags on. (Not even Governor Schwarzenegger can keep track — on Monday, he had to count upward during a press conference.) But only the number is unusual: The astonishing thing about Southern California is not that it continues to burn, but that people appear perennially shocked that it does. And that well into the 21st century, nothing — no high-tech helicopter, no flame-retardant-spewing fixed-wing aircraft, no high-powered hose or even responsible brush clearance — seems able to stop it. The governor, who owns property in star-studded and frequently fire-ravaged Malibu, summed it up best: “What we need is the weather to change.”

Exactly. And not just here, and in this month, but in the rest of the world. As a matter of fact, we’ve needed the weather to change all year long. From the Great Basin across the Midwestern United States, from Canada to the Amazon, from Greece to the Canary Islands off the African Coast, 2007 has been as wicked a wildfire season as any in recorded history (the only possible contender for a worse year was 2006). In the U.S., by October 1, 8,227,255 acres had burned in wildfires, 800,000 less than went up in 2006 (but that’s without this week’s fires), yet nearly a third more than the 10-year average. In North Carolina, where “exceptional” drought has left some communities with only a three-month supply of water, nearly 6,000 wildfires burned more than 33,000 acres — 2,000 more fires and twice as much burned area as usual. The Murphy Complex Fire on the Nevada-Idaho border leveled an area the size of Rhode Island. Wildfires tore through parts of Africa, Southern Europe, Australia: As Southern California burns, the grassland of Australia’s Northern Territory still smolders from a fire like none other before it.

Not all of these places are as accustomed to fire as Southern California, where we confidently rebuild in old fire-prone areas and put up rows of McMansions in new ones. Some of the places in the world that burned this year hadn’t seen such destructive fire in centuries. In July, 600 separate fires raged across Croatia in 20 days, destroying homes that had endured world and civil wars. In August, flames chewed up forests on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula, threatening ancient relics and requiring the firefighting help of 24 countries (including Canada, but not the U.S.). Greece endured the worst fire season, said BBC correspondent Malcolm Brabant, “in living memory.”

A few months ago, I looked through reports on a fire-tracking Web site called Inciweb.org, and realized that nearly every place I’d hiked or camped in the last decade had been altered by fire. The Zaca Fire in the Los Padres National Forest this summer burned for a month and cleared out swaths of the San Rafael Wilderness, including the lush woodland where I teetered, terrified, on exposed trails along the gorgeous Manzana Creek one spring two years ago. The Inyo Complex Fire in the Eastern Sierras this July nearly took out the campground at Onion Valley, where on June 28, 1996, I had ventured into the backcountry during a snowstorm. In Minnesota, a 40,000-acre blaze known as the Ham Lake Fire reduced much of the forest along Lake Saganaga (a.k.a. “Big Sag” — or, on blustery days, “Big Drag”), a windy body of water whose mind-bending clusters of islands I know well enough to navigate by canoe without a map. You need trees for that kind of stunt, though; I haven’t seen the lake lately, and I’m not sure I could do it now. And then there’s familiar Catalina, Griffith Park and Malibu, plus all the places I was planning to visit. Now I will have to wait. Land recovers slowly from fires like these.

I’ve always had a healthy attitude about the necessity of wildfires, inculcated in me as a child with a camping family in a forest-rich state, where certain species of pine can’t germinate unless their pinecones explode. I don’t want to say that fire destroyed and laid waste and devastated;I want to say it renewed and cleaned out and restored.But it’s not that simple anymore. These fires are too big and too hot and too fast, fueled by alien grasses like Bromus tectorum, an Asian species of cheatgrass that cattle don’t like to eat but fire loves to burn. Decades of beating back these fires to save the homes we’ve put in their path have made the new fires more vicious; humans, not lightning, have ignited them. And a changing climate has made them last.

The fire season starts early now. Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla compared current fire patterns with the past and found that the modern season lasts two and a half months longer than it used to 20 or 30 years ago. Thomas W. Swetnam, director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson, called that “one of the first big indicators of climate-change impacts in the continental United States.” It will only get worse.

What will we do about it?

As I write, the Magic Fire has burned 1,200 acres in Stevenson Ranch, the housing development in northern Los Angeles County where activist John Quigley once sat in an oak tree to save it from the bulldozers. The fire is 20 percent contained. The houses there, with their fire-retardant roofing materials, dual-glazed windows and sealed eaves, have been hailed as the kind “you couldn’t burn down with a blowtorch” by a guy named Dave Doughty, a volunteer firefighter who was assigned to a Stevenson Ranch road in a past fire. I guess we’ll see about that. Fire engines still line up in the streets there, and planes buzz overhead, dropping precious water mixed with toxic chemicals, just as they do in San Diego, Malibu, Soledad Canyon and the Angeles National Forest, where a fire is now on track to merge with two more into an 80,000-acre inferno. We spend millions fighting fires, billions rebuilding after they burn — the 2003 Cedar Fire destroyed 2,200 buildings and cost $1.06 billion in losses — and yet complain that reducing our carbon dioxide emissions and removing invasive plants would cost too much money.

We could work with nature and win, or fight it and lose. But time and again, around the world, we choose to stand and fight. One day soon, though, even our governors will have to give up. We need the weather to change.