Here the granite flanks are scarred with ancient fire… Fire is an old story.
Beautiful country burn again, Point Pinos down to I would like,
the Sur Rivers with a sense of helpful order,
Burn as before with bitter wonders… with respect for laws
- Robinson Jeffers, “Apology for Bad Dreams” of nature,
to help my land
with a burn. a hot clean
it would be more
when it belonged to the Indians
- Gary Snyder, “Control Burn”
§ In 1964 Carl Wilson, whose Forest Service career had spanned both research and practice and made him probably the most knowledgeable fire authority in California, announced the obvious: “It is hard to describe the problems in California without using superlatives.” Since the 1930s, he noted, everything relevant to California fire had bulked up by a factor of two to ten, and even as he wrote the state was at a tipping point. A year earlier the Leopold Report had been released and the Riverside Fire Lab had opened. In the Sierras field trials were underway to reintroduce fire to the Big Trees, while along the Transverse experiments continued into mass fire and conflagration control. The split between the Two Californias was widening, and the impact of California nationally was amplifying.[i]
Nothing in the past 50 years since Wilson wrote has lessened either trend. Of the three practices that emerged from the fire revolution of the Sixties to define the national fire scene – prescribed fire, natural fire, and fire suppression along the intermix – California defined the terms of the last two. That impact continues. That what happens in California will happen to the U.S. is not just metaphoric hyperbole: the state’s population and economy assure it will shape national policy, and beyond that heft, its capacity for media hype will leverage its behavior into the national consciousness.
There are plenty of examples of how this works. Water management is one, as California’s unilateral decisions regarding a state water plan captured federal agencies, which distorted regional and even national policy. Perhaps even more relevant is smog control. Its peculiarities – geographic and social – made smog worse in Los Angeles than elsewhere, which caused it to set special standards for abatement, which then migrated to the state level, which, because California’s standards were higher than those nationally and its market for automobiles commanding, affected national norms. That, in brief, is what has happened with fir
§ Its defining divides persist. The border between north and south remains distinctive. Each region has its characteristic fires, its charismatic fire species, its career fire pathways, even its chosen poets – the enlightening flames of a Gary Snyder, the apocalyptic fires of a Robinson Jeffers. The two parts rub along like the San Andreas, with most of the institutional tension absorbed invisibly, but occasionally broken by massive rupture.
That geographic border, however, masks a deeper divide that increasingly informs the state’s fire history. It is the pyric transition that moved anthropogenic fire from open flame to closed combustion, most spectacularly through the internal combustion engine (ICE). Like the nation generally, but with more intensity and visibility, California has transitioned from fire to ICE.
Two fatality fires nicely highlight that shift. Investigating the Loop fire disaster of 1966, Bud Moore wrote in his journal that Bill Derr drove him through a rainstorm past “four serious accidents on the freeway, each of the wrecks involved 3 to 4 cars. This shook Bill not at all…” The Loop fire, however, killed 11 members of the El Cariso Hotshots, and became the subject of a national inquiry and a gut-wrenching review of fireline safety. The Foothill freeway accidents may have killed as many, but could be overlooked, even by those obsessed with the Loop catastrophe. When flames took lives, it was an event beyond the quotidian world and commanded attention. When ICE killed, it was, however regrettably, the way the world worked, and could be safety quarantined from the imagination. In 2006 a Forest Service engine crew perished in the Esperanza fire while defending structures; the episode sent shockwaves through the California fire community, and the arsonist responsible for setting the blaze received the death penalty. Two years later, a Sikorsky S-61 ferrying fire crews on the Iron Complex in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, crashed, killing nine and injuring four others. They were mourned and honored as fallen firefighters, but there was no further action; the tragedy seemed to lie outside the purview of fire management. They were felled by ICE, not fire. More firefighters die now in machines than on firelines.
What makes the contrast doubly intriguing is that it crosses the grain of California’s north-south divide, or even its fractal borders between the wild and the urban. Southern California, famous for its car culture, had firefighters die in flaming chaparral; Northern California, in this case the Trinity Alps Wilderness, lost firefighters to engine failure. The two fires, open and closed, are inscribing their own geography and dynamic over the state. Unlike those other frontiers, however, this one has no science or policy behind it. Its effects are not considered the subjects of ecology. Its pyrogeography is not reckoned as informing. Yet this divide will continue to impose itself over the others, and the transition it depicts will likely determine the future of California fire, and through California’s capacity to exaggerate and export its obsessions, the evolution of fire management in America.
In a sense the transition offers a parallel geography to the Transverse. To the east, at San Gorgonio Pass, where the Big Kink begins its pivot westward, the wind quickens and concentrates, like a sluggish river suddenly forced through a narrow gorge. The outside portal is awash with wind turbines – the very emblem of sustainable energy and an important factor in California’s determination to wean itself off fossil fuels. To the west, just beyond the Santa Monica pivot where the Transverse Range turns northward, off-shore oil rigs dapple the Santa Barbara Channel, the epitome of California’s second great mineral rush and the motive combustion behind its industrialization. In 1969 oil spillage helped kindle a local environmental movement, which then fed into Earth Day. Between those two points stretch the mountains and the city, the wild and the urban, the free-burning and the fuel-injected. Between their fires lies the Big Kink of America’s future with fire.
California’s energy vision hopes to transcend those facing fires. But its material divides reflect more entrenched ones in California society. Its future may depend less on whether it can manage its fires than whether it can manage its politics.
§ During its postwar heyday, California furnished two two-term presidents. One left in political scandal and a ruined economy. The other skated over scandals but silently trashed the economy through structural deficits, or what OMB Director David Stockton prophesied as “red ink as far as the eye can see.” When it could no longer fail on the national scene, California turned inward. By the early 1990s, without the federal subsidies from the Cold War, California was imploding in almost every way, and a natural disorder matched the social. Mike Davis sardonically termed the era a “theme park of the Apocalypse.”
Earthquakes, floods, and fires; gangs, immigration, and the collapse of a middle class – all seemed insoluble. The state sank into insolvency. Money flowed from emergencies, or was siphoned into prisons and casinos. San Bernardino went from being ranked in 1976 as one of the most desirable cities in the U.S. to becoming one of its bottomfeeders twenty years later, as Money magazine downgraded its civic qualities to the status of junk bonds, the worst city in the nation in which to raise a family. Social cohesion, it seemed, had to appeal to security, and both the LAPD and the fire services turned to state-of-the-art machinery and the application of overwhelming force.
The economy foundered. It was built on sand and serfs – the sand that went to make concrete for construction, the sand smelted into silicon for the digital revolution, the de facto serfs who provided a mobile, quiescent workforce for farms, factories, and domestic service. Both sand economies rose on phony money and “irrational exuberance.” The dot.com bubble burst in 1999, and the subprime housing bubble in 2007. The workforce relied on an influx of immigrants, many illegal. Without easy money to cover overpromised IOUs, the partisan politics turned toxic: the state seemed politically paralyzed, able only to borrow or finesse around insolvency. During the gold rush California had helped finance the Union. Now, the nation floated California. By 2009 even national magazines like Time questioned how California could finance its traditional firefights, for fire could not stand apart from the rest of the state – how could it?[ii]
One of California’s native poets, Robert Haas, later poet laureate of U.S., once observed that the state’s history might be imagined in fact as a succession of fires (he thought four). The idea that fire could serve as an organizing conceit for the California experience came easily to the mind of any serious observer, since the state’s history is often a chronicle of social and natural cataclysms happening in parallel. In recent times, a wave of conflagrations accompanied the gubernatorial recall election that replaced Grey Davis with Arnold Schwarzennegger; another, in 2003, swept over the state as it struggled to rebuild after the dot-com bubble; and others, even larger, struck both south (in 2007) and north (2008) as the state imploded with the subprime mortgage crash and shuffled into political paralysis and fiscal insolvency. The only response was to mobilize ever greater forces paid with emergency money. The sand economy melted, or washed away in the postburn floods.[iii]
The rest of the country might snicker or savor a taste of schadenfreude at the spectacle of California’s serial meltdowns. But California’s fire failures would affect them as surely as its successes. California’s dysfunction was not the fire leadership the country at large needed. There were successes in the Sierras and along the backside of the Big Kink; but they were niche exceptions, not national exemplars. They said, if sotto voce, that California had not corrected the structural problems of land use, population growth, public financing, and infrastructure decay that had caused it to sag. So its fire scene mirrored its social order generally. Pressures drove fire management toward more suppression, more technology, more costs, and more public theater. The state, it seemed, faced a future of pyric riots and emergency lock downs. Fire protection was on its way to joining other agents of a constabulary committed to stabilizing an inconstant social order.
Yet California had promise, too. It had been sold short before; more than once it has returned from the near-dead. Despite its enormous population, much of its land is still open, and despite the modern incarnation of the governing class into a new plutocracy, so is its society; they will remain so. Even Southern California has ample room to continue what it has done for most of a century. In brief, there are plenty of fires and landscapes on which to manage them; there are abundant opportunities to experiment and reinvent; and the heft of its statewide fire establishment means that what one part needs another can usually furnish.
What California requires is a new matrix of relationships between local entities and the state, and between the state and the federal government. Locally, it needs a redefined fire commonwealth, one that will allow a diversity of purposes and practices within a shared institutional matrix, one that will not impose suppression as a default setting nor depend on a torrent of federal subsidies to keep engines pumping and air tankers flying. California as a state-nation has too quickly inflated to a higher governmental level what might better be handled at a lower one. The reason for this escalation of course is the state’s (and especially Southern California’s) proneness for conflagrations. But cataclysm is not universal, and it is not a sustainable formula for fire management. The old program of “conflagration control” might more aptly be redirected to the question of administering a polity subject to conflagrations rather than to fighting the fires themselves. Ultimately, it’s a question of politics more than policies. Disaster response makes for good TV but bad practice. Not least, its tremblor-prone fire economy makes California a poor anchor point for managing fire nationally.
California and America need to renegotiate their fire-mediated relationship. California needs to recognize that it exerts national leadership whether it deserves it or not, or even whether it wants it or not, and that national leadership brings costs, not merely perks. It cannot be both leach and leader, although it will shape the national agenda either way. Rather, it needs first to look to its own house, let fire find its own level rather than moving engines around the state as it does water, and accept the limits of what it can accomplish with the means it possesses and not pretend that other gold rushes (virtual or otherwise) will compensate. Equally, the country must reciprocate. California is too big to ignore, too volatile to quarantine, and too eccentric to allow it to establish national norms by default. The nation must find ways to preserve what the endless experiment that is California has churned up that is most valuable beyond its borders, and flense away the rest. Much of what is Californian doesn’t work even in California. California is a part of the whole. It is not a part that speaks for the whole.
During the fire revolution, California designed a system to replace what it (and much of the country) found objectionable. The times they were a changin’. But then they kept on changing, in California more than elsewhere. Like much that bubbled out of the cultural cauldron that was the Sixties, the reforms proved inadequate as administrative prescriptions. What began as a bold, even utopian bid to prospect a new world of fire is ending, half a century later, with an ever-more costly scramble to protect the indefensible consequences of what in fact resulted. Golden California finds itself caught between the same fires as much as the rest of the country, only more so.
August 2011 / [pdf]