A Los Angeles County fire department helicopter drops water on a wildfire in the Sylmar area. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)
Houses are on fire in California. You've probably seen the pictures - taken mostly at night because that's when big wildfires look scariest. You might wonder why this keeps happening. People - many of them rich and famous - build their houses in wonderfully scenic places, right up against the edges of national forests and wildland preserves, and then the fires come. The fall of 2008 was especially disastrous - more of California burned than at any time since the 1930s.
Here's why: For the past century, fire authorities in developed countries - influenced by logging interests, among others, who are understandably eager to preserve trees - have generally tried to control wildfire by eliminating it altogether. This backfires. If local fires - either planned or otherwise - aren't allowed to burn, brush and underbrush builds up, and then with the predictable seasonal winds you get huge running fires. Residents around the fires are told to evacuate, which means their properties are unprotected.
An alternative - teaching people how to stay put - sounds completely crazy. But it isn't. Especially if you look at history.
The tremendous effort to suppress most wildland fires creates an ecological upset that shows up in two ways. Plant and animal species that depend on fire - and there a lot of them, most famously the giant redwood trees of the Pacific coast that need the ash from fires around them to germinate - these species can't thrive without fire. And second, if you don't have occasional fires that clear out underbrush and grasslands - whether they come about naturally from lightning or are deliberately set by foresters and managed as what they call prescribed fire - if you don't let smaller fires burn you're liable to have enormous fires instead.
San Francisco Earthquake of 1906: Ruins in vicinity of Post and Grant Avenue. Photograph by H.D. Chadwic.
Because modern buildings are built NOT to burn, big city fire departments spend most of their time on other kinds of work. In Toronto, believe it or not, only 7% of fire calls are really about fire.
But fire does strike cities. The huge 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire killed some 3,000 people and was the worst American disaster up to 9/11. Then in 1989 there was another San Francisco earthquake and fire, much smaller than the 1906 fire, but instructive.
Reading List & Related WebsitesStewart Brand
World Fire. The Culture of Fire on Earth, (Henry Holt and Co., 1995; and paperback edition, University of Washington Press, 1997; Japanese edition, Hosei University Press, 2001).
Vestal Fire. An Environmental History, Told Through Fire, of Europe and Europe's Encounter with the World, (1997; and paperback edition, University of Washington Press, 2000).
Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland
and Rural Fire, (1982; and paperback edition, University of
Washington Press, 1997).
Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada, (2007; University of British Columbia Press; US distributor - University of Washington Press).
Burning Bush. A Fire History of Australia, (1991; paperback edition, University of Washington Press, 1998).
The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica (1986; paperback edition, University of Washington Press, 1998).
Norman Maclean. Young Men and Fire. University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Dennis Smith. Report from Ground Zero: The Story of the Rescue Efforts at the World Trade Center. Viking, 2002; Penguin/Plume, 2003. Agent: Writer's House.
It was an event that seemed like the end of the world - and in many ways it was. The most famous fire in modern times. The fire that generated two wars. The fire that melted and brought down the tallest buildings on earth, killing more than 2000 occupants and 343 firefighters. The twin towers of the World Trade Center survived the impact of the airplanes, but couldn't survive the fire. Formerly a firefighter and now a best-selling author, Dennis Smith was at the World Trade Center fire. He talked to the firefighters and later recorded their stories. The result is a rivetting book called Report from Ground Zero.
John V. Morris. The Hysteria
Fire: New York, 1741. Whole Earth, Winter 1999.
|The Great Toronto Fire of 1904 looking north on Bay Street.|