As I write, the Black Hills are burning: over 70 square miles in the Legion Lake Fire, with a second fire starting at the French Creek horse camp and spreading through Wind Cave National Park toward the town of Buffalo Gap. For South Dakota's national forest, the fire has proved devastating. But it's just a blip when compared with the nearly 400 square miles now burning in California. The Thomas Fire, as it has been named, is already the fourth largest wildfire in California history, with a good chance to move up the rankings—and it follows the Tubbs Fire that blackened northern California and spread into the city of Santa Rosa at the end of October. The West, in other words, is a tinderbox, and this season the flames took hold.
The question, of course, is why: Why so many fires in recent years? Why so much damage—so many acres burned, so many houses destroyed? Why such loss from both uncontrolled wildfires in the brush and rolling forest fires in the timber?
A trio of books on the topic have appeared in recent months: Land on Fire: The New Reality of Wildfire in the West by Gary Ferguson, Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame by Michael Kodas, and Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future by Edward Struzik. Ferguson's essayistic book is the best-written of the three, Kodas's journalism provides the quickest read, and Struzik's Canadian-centered volume proves the most scholarly. What all these books have in common, however, is a sense that there is something deeply wrong with the way we fight wilderness fire in North America these days. "There have been four years in the last half century when more than 9 million acres have burned in the United States," Ferguson notes, "and all of them have been since 2006."
The story of the modern response to forest fires begins in two great seasons of conflagration across the West, bracketing the turn into the twentieth century: the smoke-filled year of 1889 and the "Big Blowup" of 1910 that made Idaho’s Ed Pulaski the most famous firefighter in American history. (The axes used by forest-firefighters are still called "Pulaskis" in his honor.) The fires seized the national imagination, as America's newspapers made a national star of Pulaski and demanded government action.
Despite Kodas's suggestion, William James did not explicitly mention forest fires in "The Moral Equivalent of War," the 1910 lecture he gave at Stanford. But it seems reasonable to guess that the plague of western fires was in his mind when he called for a substitute to military service—an "army enlisted against Nature." James got what he wanted, and then some. The national Forest Service was reorganized in 1905, and after the fires of 1910, it took firefighting as its most notable and morally elevated duty.
For some years the effort was astonishingly successful—so successful, in fact, that by the early 1930s Forest Service could formalize its institutional goal of extinguishing every fire by the morning of the day after the fire was reported. Towers were built to watch for fires, and the army enlisted against nature was ready to be deployed at a moment's notice. Kodas seems a little overwrought when he describes fire as "one of humanity's greatest allies," but he is absolutely right when he points out that it had become "suddenly one of America's greatest enemies."
None of the authors focus enough on the role played by the disaster-delighted yellow journalism of the nation's newspapers in that era, but all three of their books note the result: almost a hundred years of relatively few megafires (burning more than 100,000 acres), followed by over a decade of combustion. Before 1995, the United States averaged one megafire a year. After 2005, the average has been almost 10 a year, with the $3 billion cost to the Forest Service, an increase of 10 times over the budget of the 1990s. "Big fires," Ferguson points out, "are becoming common fires."
It's common to turn, at this point in the story, to the effect of global warming, as Ferguson, Kodas, and Struzik each do. And, indeed, a decrease in the snowpack has consequences. But much of the gesturing toward the topic reads like virtue-signaling: the effort to see every moment of every natural occurrence as proof of the looming climate apocalypse. And the reason is that the other factors the authors list are sufficient, in themselves, to provide an explanation for the western fires.
The first cause has been known for enough years that the surprise is our national inability to address the problem. The success of the Forest Service, together with related endeavors by state rangers, created wildernesses that were over-rich with fuel. As Kodas notes, in Colorado, "forests that historically had fewer than 100 trees per acre now have upwards of 500." Without the natural cycle of small fires, we created forests that were doomed to great fires.
The second cause of the modern spate of wildfires also relates, in its way, to the success of national and state efforts to curate and cultivate nature preserves. We wanted a tame wilderness, and as we got closer and closer to what was perceived as safe nature, people wanted to live on its edges. Hurricanes cause more damage and loss of life in the 21st century in great part because more people live in the danger zone, imagining life by the oceans will be safe. And so wilderness fires cause more damage and loss of life these days because more people live on the attractive edges of those wildernesses—where a fire can reach them, with their lovely homes providing yet more fuel to the fire.
The third cause again relates to the national unwillingness to allow the small fires that burn away the fuel needed for the great fires. There exists a large industry devoted to fighting fires—an industry that receives billions of dollars a year from the government and constantly lobbies for more. The strange behavior of fire investigators after the 2007 Moonlight Fire in northern California confirmed the sense that a cadre of influential government contractors makes its living off assigning blame for fires, with the result that even private corporations, averse to litigation, are drawn into the effort to prevent the least fire.
And so the fuel for a megafire grows and grows. Come a dry Santa Ana wind, and California is ready to burn. Come a dry season, and the Black Hills are ripe for the flame, like logs carefully laid in a fireplace.