In American Gods, Neil Gaiman writes a supernatural story that’s spawned a TV show and fans around the world. Deep within that novel, which is several hundred pages long, is this quote, which stopped me in my tracks:
We need individual stories. Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, “casualties may rise to a million.” With individual stories, the statistics become people — but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless.
To truly understand something, we need more than rote facts and figures. We need emotions.
In September of 1889, the Santiago Canyon Fire raked through Southern California. It’s disputably the largest single fire in the state’s history, but there’s little to be found about it online. A Wikipedia page. A few old-looking photos in a Google Image Search that seem like they could be from back then. It was devastating, but it seems to be lost in the annals of wildfire lore.
Fast forward nearly 129 years. Two wildfires, the Ranch Fire and the River Fire, have together burned 350,000 acres. They’re so close that those managing the containment combined resources to fight them as a single fire: the Mendocino Complex Fire. The Ranch Fire alone is the largest in California since 1900, but paired with its sister fire, news stations and papers are heralding the Mendocino Complex as the largest fire in the state’s history. If the story continues to unfold the way it has, the Ranch Fire may take the Santiago Canyon Fire’s place as the largest single fire ever.
The Mendocino Complex Fire started at the end of July and is basically three hours due north of San Francisco. It sounds big. A firefighter from Utah died fighting it. Hundreds of structures have burned. But the numbers don’t compute. Is 350,000, like, really that much? Why can’t the fire crews stop it? Why does California have so many wildfires? You’re right next to the ocean, so why does it take so long to put them out?
(Thankfully, in the week since I’ve started writing this post, the River Fire has been contained. The Ranch Fire, however, continues its march into the record books.)
When disasters strike now, we can look up hashtags on Twitter and Instagram and instantly see what’s happening almost anywhere on the planet. Social media has helped people see past a few adjectives in a news headline and witness the individual stories. This can be good, as it often stokes empathy and goodwill. It can also be bad, as it inevitably also ignites fear, anger, and misinformation.
To an outsider, like I was before I moved to San Diego in late 2015, the wildfires seem terrifying. The images and videos make these fires look apocalyptic. The dark mouth of hell with bright orange fangs. Take the video from last year of an early commute on the 405 in Los Angeles through an active wildfire. Most non-Californians were frantic: why are people driving so slow? Why are they driving at all? Why aren’t people freaking out? Why wasn’t the city shut down?
In fact, a few years ago, I saved this post because of the absolute dread that sank into my soul when I saw it (dark tourism in a way, I guess):
The images currently being shared of the Mendocino Complex Fire, as well as the Carr Fire in Redding (which is about three hours northeast of the Mendocino blaze), are haunting. Reading the Twitter feed for the #CarrFire hashtag the night it unexpectedly jumped the river and threatened the town of Redding was like reading the major plot points for a Dark Knight movie: everything’s on fire (literally), everything’s going wrong, and people are scared.
To put it in perspective, the Mendocino Fire is roughly half the size of Rhode Island. Or half the size of Yosemite National Park which, coincidentally, had to be closed recently because of the Ferguson Fire. (There was also a separate, much smaller fire in Yosemite in early August called the Unicorn Fire, which followed the tradition of naming fires “for the area in which they start — a geographical location, local landmark, street, lake, mountain, peak, etc.”)
The Mendocino Complex Fire is 350,000 acres, which is basically 550 square miles; compare that to the sizes of the cities of Dallas (386), Houston (600), and Los Angeles (4,751). New York City is a meager 304.6 square miles.
This fire is big.
In Southern California, you know something’s going wrong when you see cumulonimbus clouds. I learned this a few weeks ago. I was driving to the gym, and I saw a big, puffy cloud on the horizon. I later texted a friend, “It looks like Anzo Borrego is getting a big storm!” She texted back: “That’s not a storm. It’s a fire.”
That was no puffy storm cloud: it was a pyrocumulus cloud. These clouds resemble a gathering thunderstorm you see in Texas and the Plains, but they’re the result of massive wildfires and can be seen for miles. This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg; fires are often driven by high temperatures, winds (including the Santa Ana winds that whip through SoCal every year), as well as difficult terrain and incredible amounts of fuel in the form of dead, dried-out, or other vegetation.
California is a very dry state. SoCal, in particular, is known for lots of sunny days and very little rain. Combine that with rising temperatures, regular droughts, and human interference, and you have a state that no longer has a fire season. It’s now a constant threat.
Some fires, like the Carr Fire, become so intense they create their own weather and drive themselves. CNN reported, “The Carr Fire raging in Northern California is so large and hot that it is creating its own localized weather system with variable strong winds.” It’s unpredictably dangerous, and fires like this often turn fire crews into door-to-door shepherds fighting to safely evacuate residents.
This fire, which is still burning, is already the sixth most destructive wildfire in California’s recent history. (The most destructive fire since record-keeping began? October 2017. Less than a year ago.)
With wind comes the opportunity for a fire to spread and create spot fires, which are fires “ignited outside the perimeter of the main fire by flying sparks or embers.” It’s just like when you’re sitting near a campfire and an ember singes your clothes, even though you’re sitting a few feet from it. Multiply the size of the fire and the distance those embers fly, especially when flames get taller. They may be one meter high, or they can grow to 50 meters or taller — the height of Niagara Falls.
Add wind and lots of fuel from years of drought, and you have rapidly spreading, erratic fires that, like the Carr Fire, jump rivers, or eight-lane highways, or from peak to peak. They can speed through fuel at top speeds of 12.5mph.
All it takes is a lightning strike. Or a cigarette butt. Or a ricocheting bullet. Or chains from a trailer hitch sparking as the driver goes down a road. Or an arsonist. Or a campfire improperly extinguished. Or fireworks.
Living in California means you have a fire plan. In tornado alley, you have a plan for severe weather; get on the lowest floor of the house, away from windows, preferably in a bathtub, covered by a blanket, with a radio so you know what’s happening. When I lived in the top-floor apartment in Dallas, my first-floor neighbors stopped me in the parking lot the day after a severe storm. “If there’s a tornado warning, you come downstairs and take shelter. If we’re not home, break in.”
Here, homeowners learn about defensible space: “An area a minimum of 30 feet around a structure that is cleared of flammable brush or vegetation.” That doesn’t guarantee your home will survive, but it helps. If you live at the top of a hill, you watch fires even more closely, as they can rocket uphill faster than fire crews can put them out. With the best views come the most fire danger, and by the time you see the fire racing up the hill toward your multimillion dollar home, it may be too late.
You also have to know how to evacuate if you’re going to live in a wildfire-prone area. When there’s a wildfire nearby, you keep your gas tank at halfway or more in case you have to get out quick. You keep an overnight bag in your trunk in case you’re away from home and then can’t get back because roads are closed or your home is in danger. Some people keep a shovel in their car in case they’re driving and spot a fire that just started; civilians have been known to put out a fire before the trucks get there. You keep your eyes peeled. If there’s smoke, you call it in. If there’s a rumor of a fire, you’ll see police, firetrucks, and civilians pulled over on the side of the highway searching for it.
There are instructions for what to do when you’re stuck inside a vehicle in a fire, just like people in Tornado Alley are taught what to do when they’re driving and a tornado chases them down. Just like people who face harsh winter weather know how to handle a white-out.
It’s part of the culture here. And while a lot of people outside the state ask, incredulously, why anyone would live in California with all these fires, Californians would ask the same of people who live under the threat of hurricanes, tornados, or brutal winter weather. I would imagine the answers are similar: we know what to do, we’re used to it, this is home, if it happens, we’ll rebuild.
Of course, sometimes the worst-case scenario happens. A wildfire destroys everything, and a family escapes with their lives. Or, terribly, people don’t make it out. Sometimes, because of all the loss, a move is in order.
But for the most part, people stay. If they leave, it’s more often because of a job opportunity, a lower cost of living, or some other reason. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but Californians seem to regard wildfires the way most people in Tornado Alley regard tornados: “Is a tornado a good enough reason for me to abandon this home that I’ve come to love? Certainly not. Fear of disaster should inform good decisions, certainly, but it shouldn’t control your life until you have nothing left but fear.”
Fear is what I had, in spades, when I moved out here. I swallowed it because my roommate, Jenn, is an intelligence analyst who works with insurance companies on fire monitoring and analysis. She knows where they are, what they’re doing, why they’re doing what they’re doing, and how dangerous they are. When I have wildfire questions, she’s the person I turn to.
While I was on a trip with friends in Mexico last December, the Lilac Fire started in northern San Diego County. Jessica, who was with me, owned a condo that was directly in the fire’s path. Remarkably, she kept her cool. Over the course of a few days, we operated under the assumption that Jess was probably going to lose her home.
However, a few long days later, surrounded by charred terrain and tall palm trees that looked like candlesticks as they burned, Jess’s complex sat untouched. Ash had gotten in through open windows, and her fridge leaked after the power was cut, but her condo (and her roommate’s cat) survived. There was plenty to clean, and smoke had drenched her condo in its musty cologne.
While the bright flames get the most attention, smoke from a fire can be a major health hazard. “Wildfires send smoke, soot, toxic gases and tiny particles into the air, which can be carried for tens or even hundreds of miles, and have been linked to respiratory and heart problems.” The images of car carcasses, skeletal remains of homes and businesses, and charred fields of crops belie the danger — sure, the fire has passed. But the toxic fumes from burned rubber, plastic, paint, pesticides, and other hazardous materials have been released. The danger is still very present. Beijing may have a reputation for terrible air quality, but the air quality around wildfires, especially in areas where structures have burned, may be comparably bad.
Fires aren’t entirely bad news. They’re essential for the cycle of forest life, and sometimes prescribed burns, or fires set by authorities to “meet specific objectives related to hazardous fuels or habitat improvement,” take place. Some fires, like the Thomas Fire that burned northern Los Angeles late last year, are allowed to continue burning under the control of fire crews. That way the cycle of life continues, fuel is burned in a contained environment, and the future of the area is a little safer.
According to National Geographic:
Although often harmful and destructive to humans, naturally occurring wildfires play an integral role in nature. They return nutrients to the soil by burning dead or decaying matter. They also act as a disinfectant, removing disease-ridden plants and harmful insects from a forest ecosystem. And by burning through thick canopies and brushy undergrowth, wildfires allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, enabling a new generation of seedlings to grow.
Furthermore, when an area has burned in recent memory, chances are you won’t see another major wildfire there for at least a while. Fires need fuel, oxygen, and a heat source to burn; if there’s no fuel because of a previous fire, there’s a reduced likelihood of another fire.
San Diego County, where I live, has had two major recent fires: the Cedar Fire in 2003 and the Witch Fire in 2007. The Cedar Fire, started by a hunter who got lost and lit a signal fire to get found, is listed as one of the largest and most destructive fires in California’s history. It destroyed 2,232 residences, 22 commercial properties, and 566 outbuildings. Many more were damaged. It burned 273,000 acres. 15 people died.
The Witch Fire, on the other hand, started because of power lines arcing in the Santa Ana winds. It wasn’t as bad, statistically speaking, as the Cedar Fire, but it certainly made a name for itself.
Those fires were 15 and 11 years ago, respectively. The fuel has had some time to accumulate. Small fires have been popping up all over San Diego County recently, and it’s just a matter of time before we have to deal with the destruction, evacuations, and rebuilding again.
I regularly hike in a few of the areas that burned. There are signs that mark the trails, and you can still see charred remnants here and there. The reminder is stark: it happened here before, and it’s going to happen again.
Thankfully, fire crews here are fast and contain fires quickly. This means the fire’s still burning, but it’s not going to grow beyond its borders. “Rather than describing how much of the fire has been put out or beaten back, containment actually refers to the perimeter that firefighters create around the fire to keep it from spreading.” A fire is 50% contained? Then the perimeter is halfway done. Fires can jump containment lines, especially when the winds are acting up, and they may not go out for a while even after they’re contained, but containment is a good thing.
I didn’t know about containment or, really, anything about wildfires before I moved to San Diego. All I knew is that they looked terrifying.
It was noon, and I was set to pick up my friend in Ramona at 3:30pm. The drive to get her was roughly 30 minutes and relied on Highway 78, a stretch of windy road that cuts across the sides of hills, past vineyards, and through swaths of open land.
At 1:40pm, I saw a Facebook post from a fire monitoring group that a small fire was spotted off 78 near the San Diego Safari Park. I sighed and turned notifications on for the post so I’d see updates. When the fire kept growing, crews shut down 78, so I researched other ways to get to my friend’s home. The drive was going to take at least 45 minutes now, and traffic was bound to be heavy. I got ready quickly and left my apartment.
You could see the smoke from the highway, but it didn’t look too bad. I exited and started down a snaking one-lane road that often slowed me down to 25mph or slower on the turns. I could see the smoke much more clearly, and I was going to drive within a couple of miles of the blaze, though I would never see the flames. As I drove, I noticed how much more traffic was going in the opposite direction. Did they know something I didn’t?
My adrenaline was pumping. I wasn’t scared, but I kept an eye out for spot fires and considered my options if I needed to turn around and get out of there, and fast.
Helicopters thumped overhead. I couldn’t take my eyes off the road for more than a second or two at a time, but I noticed them flying lower with each pass. They were filling water buckets nearby, and if I’d stopped, I probably could’ve made out the pilots.
I passed an overlook where a number of cars were parked and people were watching the smoke grow. It was white. Then more black smoke would swirl up. I mistakenly thought white smoke indicated the fire was out, while black meant something was burning.
“White smoke can often mean material is off-gassing moisture and water vapor, meaning the fire is just starting to consume material. White smoke can also indicate light and flashy fuels such as grass or twigs. [Hence pyrocumulus clouds.] Thick, black smoke indicates heavy fuels that are not being fully consumed. At times, black smoke can be an indicator that a manmade material is burning, such as tires, vehicles, or a structure. As a general rule, the darker the smoke, the more volatile the fire is. Grey smoke can indicate that the fire is slowing down and running out of materials to burn.”
Since I was driving, another local friend texted me important updates, and I could glance at the quick notes on my watch. She asked me to consider turning around, but with an increasing number of other cars on the road and no one telling me to leave, I didn’t feel like I was in danger.
The road finally spit me onto a long, straight stretch of 55mph highway. Cars were stopped so people could look at the smoke billowing up behind the hills, and I finally pulled over, too, to watch the air crews work. I couldn’t stop for long, though, because I needed to get to my friend’s place.
My apologies to my sister and my best friend, Mel, for using my phone while driving. Further apologies for not turning my music off while recording. Rookie move.
The fire continued to grow. More people were being evacuated. However, when I reached Leslie’s place, which was about three miles from the blaze, everything was calm. The fire was close, sure, but it was far enough away, and the winds were working in her favor.
We left Ramona in rush hour traffic that was compounded by evacuees and fire personnel. While we were running errands in another part of the county, she got text updates from her landlord, and I kept an eye on the unofficial evacuations list posted on Facebook. More streets were added every 20 minutes or so. We decided to head back when a street near her own was listed; her landlord wasn’t concerned, but with the long drive back, we decided to err on the side of caution.
At no point was there panic. When I saw firetrucks in my rearview mirror, I pulled over, and the long line of cars before and after me did the same far before the trucks were ready to pass. I didn’t have tailgaters. The overall feeling was calm determination. If the fire spread, people would take action. If they were told to evacuate, they would leave. If they could help, they would do what they could.
Of course, I was still getting texts telling me to get out of Ramona. When you’re not in the thick of it, it’s terrifying to know someone else is. The news and images paint a scary picture, and when all you hear are rising numbers, it’s hard to understand what it’s really like. Sometimes the reality is far more harrowing. Thankfully, for my friend and me that day, the reality was calmer. Leslie has been through multiple evacuations, and her family is being directly affected by the Carr Fire in Redding. What we were dealing with was nowhere comparable, and she was cautiously relaxed. That helped me relax, too.
When we got back to Ramona, I kept my window open to better listen for sirens. Then we turned onto her street, and the smell of the smoke suddenly engulfed us. “I hate to say it, but it smells good, like a campfire,” Leslie said, and we laughed.
The air was hazy. It was a little eerie. And yet the mail truck was still out delivering. FedEx was still out delivering. And we were never alone. People were going out and doing what they needed to do, even with smoke rolling into their town.
I dropped Leslie off with the sound of aircraft in the distance. I told her to call me if she needed help evacuating, and she turned around to check the airspace. Then she shrugged. “I’m not worried. I’m not going to be evacuated.”
She was right. The fire burned 365 acres, which is roughly 0.6 square miles. It could have burned a lot more, but the crews were on it, dropping retardant next to the fire to keep it from spreading and having fire crews on the scene.
As I drove home along the same winding road I drove in on, the air crews were no longer flying over my head. The majority of traffic was heading toward Ramona, not away like I was, and my adrenaline dissipated.
Fires are still scary. They’re destructive. They take lives indiscriminately. When they threaten people, like the Carr Fire the night it moved into Redding, people are rightfully terrified. They may lose everything, and they won’t know if they have for hours or days.
But now, my fear is manageable. It no longer floods through me when I hear about a new fire. I have a fire plan, and I try to keep my gas tank relatively full. The time may come when I have to evacuate, or I find out I’ve lost everything, but that’s what insurance is for.
When fear is concerned, whether it’s living in combustible California or Tornado Alley, it helps to get a taste of the fear to know how you’d react if a full-blown emergency happens. I’d rather not face a wildfire, but now I know I’ll be okay when I have to.
Wonderful article, I learned some things even as a San Diego native!
Thanks, Nathan! The amount of Googling I did is kind of insane, but I learned a lot in the process. Thanks for getting all the way through it!