'There’s a lot of ego in firefighters — there's a machismo attitude.' (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

August 2, 2023   8 mins

“A call went out, and I could see the fire outside. In the back of my head, I was like ‘Hey, this is just another fire — the fire department’s going to stop it and save my house. I’m going to come back with a good story to tell.’ That wasn’t the case.” I’m speaking to Jim Dowling, a survivor of the Carr Fire which burned for over a month in 2018, consuming much of California’s Shasta and Trinity counties, before it was contained. “The fire moved very, very quickly. And it didn’t seem all that windy. When we evacuated, it was three miles away. Our house went up in the next 24 hours.”

Such harrowing accounts are all too common in the vast wilds of Northern California, uniting residents urban and rural, rich and poor, Right and Left. Lands that were filled with fire-tolerant glades of oak under Native American stewardship are now dense pine forests brimming with flammable biomass. Everyone here has a story about forest fires. Locals’ accounts are served with strong opinions on the political failings of both the Californian Democrats under Gavin Newsom and the Trump-led national GOP. Over the last decade, the West Coast has given us a glimpse into the future of ecological calamity. Now, as the islands of Greece crackle and fume, and as California’s latest wildfire sweeps into Nevada, we can already intimate how these infernal events can reshape a community, igniting all of its underlying social ills. 

Judging by California’s experience, one’s chances of recovering from a forest fire diverge greatly along class and geographic lines. Despite some palliative measures, the California and Federal government, ostensibly committed to the victims of climate change, is visibly asleep at the wheel. Sacramento is leaving its urban and rural peripheries, poverty-stricken inner-city sectors and remote townships to suffer the brunt of escalating fire destruction. The Carr Fire was succeeded by the even greater August Complex Fire in 2020 (which engulfed 379,613 hectares to become the largest fire in Californian history). But August’s damage is dwarfed by the relatively small Camp Fire in 2018. The Camp Fire became the state’s deadliest, killing 85 people and bulldozing the town of Paradise. Many of the smaller settlements I drove through still seem like ghost towns: depleted of life not only by fire but reactively high rents and rocketing insurance premiums.

At the site of the Carr Fire, victims talk of a “fire tornado” ripping through their homes. Its path took it through the small Gold Rush settlements of Whiskeytown, Old Shasta, and French Gulch, and towards the heart of Redding. The Carr formed part of a new wave of fires produced by a combination of climate change, human population, dodgy infrastructure, and the hot Diablo Winds that blow in from the eastern mountains and deserts. California has, always, faced forest fires — but these are new beasts. Together, environmental and human forces have transformed wildfires from manageable occurrences into cataclysmic disasters, rampaging through the dense biomass of pine forests and chaparral shrubs that overgrow without controlled burn operations.

There, I meet Jennifer Gibson, the post-wildfire coordination ecologist for the National Parks Service who lost her own home to Carr. Starting in the centre of Redding, we drive out to Whiskeytown Lake. Vast clusters of blackened pines jut up along mountain lines in what used to be dense forests; what once resembled an alpine vista now appears as a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. And the people here have a dystopian choice to make. Some choose to stay, embracing the pioneer spirit, rebuilding their houses in less-flammable material. Others believe that much of California will one day be uninhabitable and leave, seeking more northerly and temperate lands to settle. “You could hear the propane tanks going off, the sky was red, ashes were raining down. I wake up, and it looks like a war scene,” Gibson says. “After the Carr Fire, I don’t know where to live in California that would feel safe.” But Gibson’s experience is an economic issue too: the combination of the Carr and Camp fires has pushed up construction contractor prices and rents, forcing many to move inland to Idaho and Montana, where costs are lower.

We walk up to Gibson’s house — a burnt-down log cabin, with only the stone foundations remaining. “The wind up here was like giant bellows, feeding the fire into a frenzy. All the houses around here were burnt down,” she says. “It hurts coming back, I’m thinking about selling the land.” Dowling tells me that poor government and insurance company responses have led to general resentment, and even conspiracy, against the state and large corporations. “Distressed people have suspicions… a lot of people would substitute the term ‘insurance company’ for ‘the government’… they blame the system.”

It’s not an unfounded sentiment: upon examination, California’s fire problem soon becomes a problem of state capacity. Across much of the American West, fighting wildfires has become a complex and inefficient bureaucratic system of local, state, federal, park and even private services. But the problem spirals well beyond the remit of firefighters. Wildfires are a profoundly political problem, intersecting with high homelessness rates, rural and urban divides, declining corporate-run infrastructure, and conspiracy theories around politically motivated arsonists.

The specific ignition that started the Camp Fire had corporate origins, coming from a faulty powerline owned by California’s largest utility firm, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). Ensuing lawsuits for liabilities of $30 billion bankrupted the group. Indeed, systems failure in outdated infrastructure is an increasingly common cause of wildfire and other environmental disasters, such as the recent Ohio Derailment. As the California historian Mike Davis points out in his essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn”, Californians live in a “separate and unequal” system of fire prevention funding, regulation, and media attention. The wealthy in the Hollywood Hills, and what Davis calls “the fire coast” of the Santa Monica Mountains, continue to rebuild larger and larger houses after each wildfire while mouthing shallow support for “green” causes.

In contrast, LA’s urban working classes and peripheral rural towns such as Paradise suffer broken infrastructure and displacement. Some leave California permanently while others, rendered homeless by fires, live in encampments that themselves increase the risk of fire because cooking there is done on open flame. Across both LA and Northern California, I saw huge encampments established in the dry scrublands, where urban infrastructure meets the forest. Many homeless people mention that these areas near flammable scrub are the only places not actively swept by the police or subject to complaints from wealthy house owners. These homeowners, often Nimbys, also reject the planned densification of social housing, and rezoning — all policies that might reduce the likelihood of ignition by safely housing those in encampments.

Many, such as Davis, have tended to see California’s forest fires not just as an ecological problem, but a deeply political one. Davis took aim at policies stoked by an elite that had distanced itself from material and environmental realities. The state capacity built between FDR’s New Deal and Nixon’s environmental legislation has been slowly eroded. Consequently, an incredibly complex and failing system was unleashed by deregulation and a Democratic Party that prioritised its elite urban constituents. Davis, writing presciently at the high watermark of California’s reduction of state capacity in the Nineties, argued that the state was caught in a now-familiar doom loop: “Each new conflagration would be punctually followed by reconstruction on a larger and even more exclusive scale as land-use regulations, and sometimes even the fire code, were relaxed to accommodate victims [prompting further fire].”

Indeed, the irrational zoning laws, prohibition of multifamily apartments, lack of social housing, and high rents across California have led some to identify homelessness as a key ignition factor in itself. “There are social issues we need to take care of,” says Assistant Chief Scott Corn of the Shasta-Trinity Unit of CAL FIRE. “Homelessness and drug abuse — we have seen fires start from those two sources exponentially. People will intentionally light fires because that’s the state of mind they’re in [on opioids and meth]. They’ll willingly tell you: ‘I lit the fires because the voices told me to.’” He explains that most of the fires used to be accidental. “Now, when we go to a fire where no crime was involved… that’s a pretty rare thing.” Illegal, energy-intensive marijuana operations can also malfunction and start blazes — to the extent that local conservatives have formed militias and other groups to shut them down and protect farms.

I head into the mountain ranges around Redding with Dan Dennett, another assistant chief in charge of fuel reduction operations in the area. As we climbed in altitude, lines of black pine stumps and desiccated oak trees filled the horizon. Bundles of underbrush, stacked like funeral pyres, burn on the roadside. Dennett is a strong advocate of a more interventionist approach to the problem: fuel reduction through logging, removing undergrowth, bulldozer CATlines, and fuel breaks. These are all techniques which have been controversial with environmentalist groups and scientific studies, who argue that denser forests actually retain flame-retardant moisture better. “The California Environmental Quality Act had good intentions, but it really handcuffed the timber industry,” Dennett says. “Without logging, there’s too much biomass, and the access roads for the fire service aren’t maintained.”

There’s no consensus on protecting California from fire, only an intense debate, which rages inside the fire-fighting institutions themselves. A number of its participants are engaged in political and economic lobbying, advocating different solutions such as technological fire suppression, controlled burns, rewilding approaches, and what has come to be known as TEK (traditional ecological knowledge). However, defence contractors such as Lockheed Martin, who make many of the Forest Service’s aviation tools, compete against these organisations, along with logging consortiums and rancher associations. Despite this, attitudes towards total fire suppression have been souring as many locals embrace more holistic forest “management” techniques such as controlled burns. Some note that as forest fire frequency declines, acreage, time scales and destruction rates skyrocket.

I later speak to Jaime Tarne, who has been involved with wildland firefighting and the science behind fire management since her first season in 1975 with the Forest Service. Instead of hardware, Tarne focuses on the need for auxiliary aid, mental-health services, and community support, as fires become more frequent and deadly every year. “This is something that, during my career, was ignored. You’re away from your family; you have friends who die. You don’t walk back into your home life. It’s not normal. If you make a career out of [wildland firefighting] you will lose friends.” Tarne says this has less to do with funding than human errors in high-stress situations: “People die because mistakes are made. Mistakes are made about how to fight the fire. Mistakes are made about when to leave. There’s a lot of ego in firefighters — there’s a machismo attitude. There’s an issue of not wanting to say no. But climate change is radically changing the severity of fires.”

Despite the difficulty of these working conditions, technological capacity, sponsored by aerospace companies, is only growing. Out in the remote ranchlands of Shasta County, I witness a hugely complex and coordinated set of aerial drops. Several light aircraft and helicopters circulate over a practice fire, dropping large amounts of water and flame retardants in a billowing orange haze. Both CAL FIRE and the Forest Service seem keen to show me these eye-catching displays. However, access to average firefighters was restricted. The aerial firefighters and smokejumpers I did meet only gave vague outlines about their training schedules.

Firefighters’ first mandate is to prevent property damage and save lives — an admirable mission. But, beyond the short term, many see a “war” against fire as merely palliative, if not inflammatory in the long run. The Biden administration is slowly starting to turn its gaze towards the issue of state capacity, especially concerning the environment. However, the encouragement and funding of what has been termed a “fire-industrial complex” may lead to unintended consequences as corporations funded by government contracts look to maintain the profitable problem of fire just as they once did war. Yet, at the same time, long-term holistic solutions to fire are often not vote-winners for average citizens understandably concerned about their houses, farms, cattle, and livelihoods.

Whichever angle you approach California from, whatever your social priorities, fire is nearby. More and more, conflagrations are becoming a symptom of the wider problems of the Golden State, from the hollowing-out of local government, to the venal corporate agenda that has come to replace it. In this regard, even as fires blaze across the globe, California still leads the pack.

Samuel McIlhagga is a British writer and journalist. He works on political thought and theory, culture and foreign affairs.