What Is Happening in the West? It Is On Fire.

Fire Comes Home

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I grew up on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy, at the foot of the Front Range in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As a kid, I knew those junior Rockies well from hiking their trails and fishing in their streams and ponds. When I was a teenager, we moved even closer to those mountains, which were filled with scrub oak, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine. Pikes Peak loomed above us, the one fourteener in range and view.

I never saw those mountains on fire. I never worried about wildfire, and I learned nothing about fire, except in school.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

After I moved to Southern California in my adulthood, Colorado wildfire became much more familiar to me. The fires that first caught my attention were far away from where I had grown up. In 1994, the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, near Glenwood Springs, killed 14 firefighters who lost the race trying to put out its flames. The tragedy is the subject of a terrific book, John N. Maclean’s Fire on the Mountain.

Fire then arrived in the terrain of my boyhood. This was a surprise to me, but it was something else altogether for my elderly parents, who still lived in the area. In June 2002, the Hayman Fire burned well over 100,000 acres in Pike National Forest northwest of Colorado Springs, very near the U.S. Air Force Academy. It was, at the time, the largest wildfire in Colorado history. (That distinction ended in the wake of subsequent fires.) The Hayman Fire burned for six weeks, smoke visible hundreds of miles away. Over 5,000 people had to evacuate, and my mom and dad had no trouble seeing huge smoke plumes from their home, a few dozen miles away. The fire burned up more than 100 homes.

Then came Waldo. In June 2012, the Front Range I knew so well caught fire. The Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed over 300 homes and killed two people. It was, at that time, the most destructive fire in Colorado history. My mom and dad had to evacuate their home and move in with friends from their church. I can hear the fear in my mother’s voice even now, nearly a decade later, as she describes how she and my dad did their hasty evacuation packing, how the sky turned colors she had never seen before, and how they wondered whether their home would be there when they returned. By then, I had become accustomed to worrying about my 80-year-old parents; the fact that I now had to worry about them and wildfire was new to me.

Things got worse. Only a year later, fire came back near the Hayman Fire scar. The Black Forest Fire of 2013 burned up 500 homes. Then came others, in other parts of the state, fires with names that sound like they came out of a Louis L’Amour novel: Cameron Peak, Pine Gulch, Grizzly Creek.

What is happening in the West? It is on fire. What has occurred in Colorado over the past half century is and has been happening all over the West: In New Mexico, in Arizona, in Nevada, in Utah, in Oregon. Especially in California, where I have lived for 35 years.

Each fire season—which now might as well be all year long, making the term all but meaningless—we are seeing bigger and more destructive fires. We are seeing and experiencing wildfire where we do not expect it. We are inventing new words like gigafire, to explain the burning of more than one million acres. We live in what fire historian Stephen J. Pyne calls the Pyrocene, the age of fire, a new epoch of human history, the successor to the Anthropocene.

All this fire, all these fires. Each has its own origin story: lightning, arson, accident, something else. Each is somehow related to, and affected by, climate change and drought. Some owe their existence to a century’s worth of aggressive fire suppression on the part of firefighting agencies like the U.S. Forest Service. Validated and valorized by Smokey Bear’s exhortation that “only you can prevent forest fires,” absolutist fire-suppression actions may have worked in the short term by catching and suppressing burns, but they failed in the longer term. Absence of fire—a natural and recurring feature of forest ecologies everywhere—meant thicker undergrowth. Add drought and temperature rise (both caused by climate change), and that understory between treetops and topsoil is primed to burn. Climate change’s pendulum swings between wet and dry make things all the worse. The wet years thicken the fuel load; the dry years make it burn like crazy.

We’d best know fire more deeply now. We’d best study it. We’d best listen to the Indigenous fire practitioners and fire thinkers more respectfully. We’d best think about fire all the time now. It is not going away. We are companions of fire in the West whether we like it or not.

I did not know much about fire as a kid. If we are going to reorient our relationship to fire going forward, lest the consequences and danger overtake us, we can no longer afford such blithe ignorance. Not for our kids, not for any of us.•

William Deverell is the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and a professor of history at USC.
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