Blazes on the New Frontier
It takes only a whiff of smoke for it all to return. Sensations deeper than memory. The streaks of flame. The throb of heat. The gusts of smoke, twisting white and black like exhausted whirlwinds. A rush of adrenaline that can blow your head off. A fatigue so profound that it can rearrange your chromosomes. The sense of a world in such commotion that it seems to slow.
The big fire.
Most fires aren't big, and most wildland firefighting is a world of routine jobs and small blazes. It's a life of coming to know a place through its fires as a naturalist might know it through its flowers or mammals. In the deep backcountry, away from lodges and roads, the chief skill is just finding the fire -- a smoking snag, a smoldering stump. Only if that first attack fails does the firefight scale up into a campaign that resembles nothing so much as the moral equivalent of war. It's an intoxicating life, full of flame and fortune.
It was the life I knew for 15 summers as a North Rim Longshot, fighting fires in the Grand Canyon. It was a way of life that defined fire protection from its origins on the frontier of the Old West until very recent times. It was one of the founding narratives of wildland fire, the saga of smoke-chasing, the firefighter as a kind of woodsman. It was a seasonal life for seasonal workers: Fire season was a time in your life before you grew up and went on to family and career. I traded my shovel for a pencil and began a career as a smoke-chaser scholar, tracking down the long history of humanity and fire around the world.
But over the past 15 years or so, this culture of fire has encountered a dramatically different environment. The names for the new fire frontier vary -- the wildland-urban interface, the I-zone, the intermix. They all describe the mingling of exurban developments with lands that are uncultivated or wild, a kind of ecological omelet. America is recolonizing its once-rural countryside. In the East, this means houses sprouting on former fields and woodlands; in the West, on ranches and landscapes abutting the public domain. The city and the wild mix in metastable compound.
These circumstances aren't unique to the West, or even to the United States. Variants have spawned throughout the industrial world: Fires erupt outside Sydney and Melbourne, Barcelona and Athens, the outer fringes of Vancouver. In the United States, exurban developments are interbreeding with whatever local hazards exist, whether floods, coastal surges, tornados or earthquakes. Fire is far from the most damaging: One Category 4 hurricane is worth a a century of wildfires (except perhaps in California). But fire is the most telegenic threat, and it offers the best political theater. You can't fight -- or appear to fight -- hurricanes, floods or F6 twisters. You can fight fire.
The pressures behind America's recolonization are many, as seemingly irresistible as a rising sea. The U.S. population has doubled over the past half-century. Historically it has balked at codes that might restrict where and how something is built. Americans have come to savor settings that blend natural features with urban services. And it is not merely blinkered exurbanites who seek out such places. A few years ago, I was at a national fire training class when attendees were asked who among them lived in the I-zone. About 80 percent raised their hands (including me), and though some protested that they lived there because of their job, they admitted that they chose that job because it got them into such places.
This recolonization has kindled a new fire frontier that eerily inverts the old. Instead of agricultural encroachments, we have urban ones. Instead of a landscape laden with combustibles as a result of logging and land clearing, the scene bloats with inflammable structures amid an overgrown biota. Instead of fires rushing into forest reserves, fires roar out of reserves and into the exurbs.
The population expansion of the 19th century sparked a wave of horrific conflagrations. The old frontier was a frontier aflame, as ax and torch met logging slash and clapboard village. The new frontier is recapitulating that sorry scenario, as arson, accident, lightning and machinery collide with houses and a revanchist flora. In the wildest settings, modern homesteading is verging into an extreme sport.
So far fire protection has more or less kept the bubble from bursting, if at great cost. Fire services have tried, with mixed success, to shift the burden to homeowners and developers. But the latest outbreak of subsidized and speculative development may prove to be the environmental equivalent of the subprime mortgage mess, promoting environments -- liar landscapes, as it were -- beyond the pale of control. Now nature is calling in its markers.
Fire protection in the I-zone demands a different culture of firefighting. Because the fires emerged from the wildlands, the problem has evolved as a variant of wildland fire. But it makes more sense to consider it as a subspecies of urban fire -- of shielding structures, of protecting lives, of massing engines against flames. This is a long way from smoke-chasing. Urban fire happens in a profoundly social setting. The culture of urban firefighting is one of saving victims. It has its own traditions, its own sensations, its own fraternity. Ultimately the new frontier consists of urban enclaves, and this argues for solutions akin to urban fire services. California has gone further in this metamorphosis than anyplace else, and Southern California beyond the rest of the state. But they've had a long time to learn.
Still, the United States remains decades behind Australia. After the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, Australians studied precisely why houses in the urban bush burned. The most obvious hazard was a combustible roof. They learned that most structures burned from ember attacks -- showers of sparks, often thrown by winds after the flaming front had passed. They tracked how vegetation near a house could permit direct flame contact. And they learned that people died not huddled in their houses but in flight from them, that most fatalities occurred in last-minute evacuations.