Have Wildfires Ruined California’s Magic?
The honeymoon’s over for its residents now that wildfires are almost constant. Has living in this natural wonderland lost its magic?
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Early in mytwo-writer marriage, my husbandand I joked that we should add a silent third spouse who worked in venture capital or practiced corporate law. But really, we already had a bonus partner: California. The state was dramatic and a handful. But she was gorgeous, and she brought into our lives, through the natural world, all the treasure and magic we’d need. The beaches. The mountains. The clean waves at Malibu. The seal pups at A?o Nuevo State Park. This was not just our relationship to California; this was everyone here. The implicit bargain was that California would protect and deliver to her residents the earth’s own splendor. In return, we’d spend a stupid amount of money on housing and tolerate a few hazards. We stowed an earthquake kit in the basement of our tiny house and, even prepandemic, cached boxes of N95 masks under the sink. Why live anywhere else? My human spouse hung photos of El Capitan in the entrance hall. We propped a bright red surfboard against the living-room wall.
In hindsight, it’s clear that this romance between California and her citizens was fundamentally unstable, built on a lousy foundation and crumbling for years. But when you’re enmeshed, even the troublesome patterns are hard to see. All Californians tell their stories. Ours, courtesy of privilege (race, education, a house purchased in the 1990s), are mundane. Police escorted us over flaming hills as we tried to return home from backpacking trips. I woke up to texts from friends: HAVE YOU HEARD FROM YOUR PARENTS? ARE YOUR PARENTS OK? after their neighborhood in Napa burned. My parents — thank God — were already with me. Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s largest utility, started turning off power to millions of residents in an attempt not to ignite (more of) the state. We all knew these so-called public-safety power shut-offs were an appalling sign of a diseased empire. You couldn’t just abandon basic functions and duties, could you? But it turns out you can.
The dominant story in California these days is that the orange, dystopian smoke-filled sky that blanketed the state on Sept. 9, 2020, was proof that our beloved was corrupted and had been for some time. We were in the midst of the worst wildfire season in the state’s history, and the evident wrongness traumatized us and shook us awake. Living in California now meant accepting that fire was no longer an episodic hazard, like earthquakes. Wildfire was a constant, with us everywhere, every day, all year long, like tinnitus or regret. The dry spring was bad; the dry summer, worse; the dry fall, unbearable. Even a wet winter (if we caught a break from the drought) offered little reprieve. All thoughts, all phenomena, existed relative to fire. Where we are now — January, the fresh and less fire-alarming time of year — should be the moment for us to relax and reassess what we’re doing in California and how to live here well. Yet the rains turn the burn scars into mud slides and allow the next season’s flora, what the foresters call fuel, to grow.
Billboards beckon us to Miami. Fantasy communes blossom in Maine. For those of us committed to sticking it out, our relationship task is making peace with smoke. (I should say this exercise is not for everyone. A recent study found that a month of medium-to-heavy wildfire smoke — what much of California experienced over the last few years — increases the risk of preterm birth by 20 percent. As one of the study’s authors told me, “Wildfire is literally making it unsafe to be pregnant in California.”)
One afternoon in August I lay on the deck of my friend Kevin’s cabin not far from Mono Lake, in the eastern Sierra Nevada, and told myself that I could love, in some deeply-flawed-but-beautiful kintsugi way, the ash-paste air. Kevin’s cabin is perfect — was perfect. Out in the sagebrush, off a dirt road, next to an aspen-lined creek in the high desert, the cabin has everything and nothing: no electricity, no running water. Just one 10-foot-by-12-foot room with a sliding-glass door onto the epic mountain sky. Each summer — often several times a summer — my family drove over Tioga Pass, crossed the cattle guard up into Lundy Canyon, stripped on the rock beside the swimming hole, plunged into the snowmelt and emerged, elated and cleansed. The light shimmered off the aspen leaves like God’s own disco ball. We felt rich every time we arrived.
This year, after I jumped in, I told myself I still felt renewed despite the smoke. That was a lie. The next day we hiked up into Twenty Lakes Basin, where you could cliff-dive and bathe in glacial melt. The world here, too, did not feel OK. The meadows looked dull green from drought and ash. This was not the California I first married, but to be honest, I’m not the same person, either. Time is a beast. Did choosing to stay here mean a life defined by worry, vigilance and loss?
Aching and eager to escape my own boring loop of depressive thoughts, I met with Alex Steffen, a climate futurist, on the back patio of a bar in Berkeley. Steffen, a 53-year-old mountain of a man with a crystal-ball-bald pate, hosts a podcast and publishes a newsletter called “The Snap Forward.” The idea behind both is that the climate crisis has caused us to get lost in time and space; we need to dig ourselves out of nostalgia and face the world as it exists. As he explained to me in his confident baritone, yes, California, and the world, are in bad shape. But the situation is not as devoid of hope as we believe. “We have this idea that the world is either normal and in continuity with what we’ve expected, or it’s the apocalypse, it’s the end of everything — and neither are true,” he said. That orange sky in 2020? “We’re all like, Wow, the sky is apocalyptic! But it’s not apocalyptic. If you can wake up and go to work in the morning, you’re not in an apocalypse, right?”
The more accurate assessment, according to Steffen, is that we’re “trans-apocalyptic.” We’re in the middle of an ongoing crisis, or really a linked series of crises, and we need to learn to be “native to now.” Our lives are going to become — or, really, they already are (the desire to keep talking about the present as the future is intense) — defined by “constant engagement with ecological realities,” floods, dry wells, fires. And there’s no opting out. What does that even mean?
We’re living through a discontinuity. This is Steffen’s core point. “Discontinuity is a moment where the experience and expertise you’ve built up over time cease to work,” he said. “It is extremely stressful, emotionally, to go through a process of understanding the world as we thought it was, is no longer there.” No kidding. “There’s real grief and loss. There’s the shock that comes with recognizing that you are unprepared for what has already happened.”
I found Steffen’s sweeping, dark pronouncements comforting. He at least had language and a functional metaphor to describe what was going on. Most of us have dragged our feet and deluded ourselves for too long about the state of the world. While we remain stuck, our world pulled away from our understanding of it. We’ve now fallen into a gap in our apprehension of reality. We need to acknowledge this, size up the rupture, then hurl ourselves over the breach.
As we sat there, the bar’s concrete patio filled up with young, busy people and their laptops, their gatherings part of an endless stream of work meetings displaced by the pandemic, individuals trying to make the shapes of their lives as “normal” as possible — the whole premise of which, Steffen argued, was a mistake. The mind-set locks us into defining ourselves as the trapped inhabitants of someone else’s broken world.
Relinquishing the idea of normal will require strength, levelheadedness, optimism and bravery, the grit to keep clinging to some thin vine of hope as we swing out of the wreckage toward some solid ground that we cannot yet see. “We’re no longer dealing with a fire regime in the woods that responds to the kinds of mild prevention and mild responses, the sensible responses we have thought about, and that thought alone is a crisis,” Steffen said. “It means the lives we had we no longer have.”
Fire crews standing by in the town of Johnsondale, not far from the Sequoia National Forest.Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
How did our fire problem get to this point? (Californians: To live here these days means either knowing all this or refusing to learn. So the primer below will either be a review or something you’ll have a strong urge to skip, but shouldn’t.)
One, California has a Mediterranean climate. Much of its landscape evolved with fire as a natural part of the cycle. Which is to say, it needs to burn.
Two, colonizers stole the land from Indigenous Californians, who knew how to live well with the ecology and burned vegetation at specific times of the year in part to maintain the health of the landscape and keep themselves safe. Then settlers, with government help, killed native Californians. Now very few people continue those Indigenous practices, and we have not returned land to the tribes. “I truly know almost everybody who has a cultural knowledge of fire, and I could probably count them, including myself, on my two hands,” Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok geography and planning professor at California State University, Chico, told me. This was the same conversation in which he noted that places near him that haven’t burned are just waiting. “In Butte County, we talk about the three remaining green ridges: the ridge I live on, the ridge to the north of me and the one just north of that. Those are the last three places where fire hasn’t been.”
Three, the United States Forest Service grew up between World War I and World War II and has since engaged in a forever war with fire. The war analogy is not a stretch. In 1947, Smokey Bear started exhorting citizens, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” sounding remarkably like Uncle Sam recruiting YOU to fight for the United States Army. The U.S.F.S. owns more than half of forested California. (The state owns about 3 percent.) For the last 116 years, the agency has practiced an exuberant form of fire suppression, in part because it’s mandated to protect the nation’s forests and rangelands for multiple, sometimes conflicting uses: recreation, watershed health, propping up rural economies. A result is that California’s forests are now stuffed like a hoarder’s garage, with 300 to 400 trees per acre. Pre-U.S.F.S., the number was 30 to 70. You can think of the excess biomass as a huge fire debt. That debt will be paid off, willingly or not.
Those three factors lay the basic groundwork. The dangers continued compounding from there.
We logged; and then, especially in far Northern California, we mostly stopped logging to protect the spotted owl and other endangered species. This meant that we removed the biggest, most valuable, most fire-resistant trees, old-growth nobles that take centuries to regrow, and left behind whole middle schools of plantation-style stands. These stands tend to burn hotter and send flames up into the canopy. Canopy fire is generally bad. Good fire creeps along the forest floor, clearing out fuel on the ground.
At the same time, California’s population exploded: to 39.5 million in 2020 from 3.5 million in 1920. The state also created a gothic regulatory framework that made most urban and suburban housing outrageously expensive, difficult and slow to build. So, people moved deeper into the W.U.I., or wildland-urban interface — the areas where the human-built landscape bumps up against the natural world — often seeking affordable homes. Now Californians are out there, everywhere, nestled among the fuel.
The accelerant on this pyre: We’ve spewed, and keep spewing, carbon dioxide and methane into the sky, trapping heat on our planet, making California hotter and drier. The core problem is known as the “vapor-pressure deficit.” There’s not enough moisture in the air. Hot, dry air means hot, dry fuels; hot, dry fuels mean wildfire. Preventing ignitions now takes drastic measures.
The culpability of PG&E is hard to fathom. As the planet warmed and the company paid bonuses to executives and dividends to shareholders, it allowed vital equipment to fall into disrepair. Power lines blew down in high winds, setting off fires through huge swaths of the state. This keeps happening. As of this writing, PG&E has pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter. It owes more than $24 billion in damages. The company, finally, has plans to put 10,000 miles of power lines underground — a nice start that will take years.
Humans, meanwhile, continue to be careless and set the world aflame. Firecrackers, cars throwing sparks, a rancher hammering a metal stake into a wasps’ nest, expectant parents igniting pyrotechnic devices at gender-reveal parties. “Don’t smoke cigarettes on your hike in the dry grass hills!” one exasperated fire scientist told me. “That’s why we closed state parks.”
A result of all this? More fires, with more severity. The acreage itself isn’t bad. We have a backlog that needs to burn; might as well get to it. But the critical dryness along with the pileup of fuels makes many wildfires grow too big, too hot, too fast. This wipes out huge tracts of trees, kills sequoias that are thousands of years old and makes many wildfires impossible to fight.
The threat is not just in the woods. California is 33 percent forest, 7 percent grassland and 8 percent chaparral (bushes and shrubs). Those grasses and shrubs are “flashier,” meaning they burn easier and faster. This brings fire into communities, and once fire is in a community, the houses are the fuel. Worst of all (I’m only sort of kidding), plants grow back. This makes “fuels management” a maintenance problem, a Sisyphean chore. We can’t just balance the fire debt and call ourselves good. If we do, we’ll be right back in jeopardy soon.
A man standing in the wreckage of his family’s cabin in Twin Bridges, destroyed by the Caldor fire.Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
None of this is a surprise. Fire professionals have known for decades that every step of this 18-dimensional disaster was coming. In 2014, the quadrennial review by the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service laid out four scenarios for how the fire landscape might look in a decade or so. Two of the scenarios are “high impact” — bad. They sound far too familiar.
Scenario No. 1 — Hot, Dry and Out of Control: Year-round, higher-intensity and more destructive fire spreading into communities that have not seen wildfire in 100 years. “Fire behavior is now so extreme that, because of safety concerns, the community is limited in terms of what fires it can suppress with ground forces alone.”
Scenario No. 2 — Suppression-Centric: Forests are more flammable than ever. Thirty percent of the United States population is affected by smoke. This is “driving considerable disillusionment from air-quality concerns and lifestyle disruptions. … The country is a tinderbox and conditions are continuing to deteriorate.”
In 2015, the Forest Service’s “Futuring Fire Policy” memo sounded the same. We’re headed for more cataclysmic wildfires. Suppressing fire now just delays the catastrophe.
When I called around to fire experts this fall for an update on the situation, the response was grim. People started talking to me about zombie towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills — towns almost guaranteed to incinerate. The darkest statements came from the most knowledgeable people. “I do think that we’re going to have significant community destruction,” one retired senior official told me. “We are going to be playing just a completely defensive game. I don’t know that we will ever get ahead of it until we have so much destruction that we kind of eliminated the problem.”
Eliminated the problem. Whole towns burned off the map.
I asked Zeke Lunder, the best wildfire analyst that I knew, who should be worried. He rejected the whole premise of the question. Worried? Ha. We’ve passed that stage. We exist in a world of knowing that not everywhere nor everyone will be spared. “We need to accept that there’s going to be a fire,” he said. “It’s going to burn the whole town down. When that happens, let’s have identified a pot of money to buy these 5,000 lots that are in the worst places and we know are never going to be safe. So, let’s buy them and rebuild in a footprint that’s defensible.”
I asked if he knew of any towns doing that. He said no.
Being a climate futurist is a strange gig. You’re not the practitioner; you’re the rhetorical wizard. Lord knows we need smart people like Steffen to inspire ideas that will help us escape our deadly status quo. But until the transcendent creative geniuses arrive, we also need to work with what exists, even if we know it’s not enough. That means addressing our wildfire problem with what’s dully and bureaucratically known as “forest management.”
Forest management is a catchall phrase for a Swiss Army knife of large-format landscaping tools. Relevant to mitigating wildfire risk, those include prescribed fire (burning on purpose, when conditions are favorable, to pay down the fire debt); mechanical thinning (pruning at vast scale); and cutting fuel breaks (creating wide belts of land with few fuels, so fire can’t run across). Increasingly this means partnering with tribes, who have been fighting to reclaim their traditions, as well as their lands.
Toward these ends, the State of California is now investing a lot of money in forest management — $1.5 billion for wildfire and forest resilience over the last two years. Nonprofits are funding community projects. Locals are burning and thinning around towns themselves. The federal Build Back Better package included $14 billion, to be spread across the country over the coming decade, with $10 billion specifically for the wildland-urban interface. We’re talking about a lot of trees here. Tens of millions of acres of California are overloaded with fuels. A recent state-federal agreement aims to treat a million acres per year. But we’re never going to clear out the tree hoard through human effort alone.
This brings us to one other forest-management tool in the knife: “managed wildfire.” This one, however, does not always pair well with the other overabundant species out there in California: people. Managed wildfire (perhaps a bit of lexicological wishful thinking) means allowing wildfires to burn for what foresters call “resource benefit,” i.e., the health of the forest. There’s no scientific dispute that this is necessary and good. We’ve got an overstock of trees; we need to work with nature, not against it. But managing, as opposed to suppressing, wildfire sounds terrible to many voters because it requires residents to trade short-term harms (fear, smoke, potential loss of property) for a long-term good (lower risk in the future). If you accept the full scope of the dilemma, the bargain pencils out. But if you don’t acknowledge how dire California’s wildfire situation is, forget it. Managed wildfire is a political nightmare.
A Forest Service building wrapped to protect it from heat and embers.Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
Tensions between scientists and politicians erupted early in the 2021 fire season, when the Forest Service didn’t bring its full suppression efforts to fight the Tamarack fire. (Several other fires posed more imminent threats, and the Forest Service did not have the resources to fight all of them equally.) In July, that fire got out of control, destroyed 23 buildings and spawned a fire tornado near Markleeville, a tiny unincorporated town. The Forest Service responded by shutting down managed wildfire not just in drought-ridden California but throughout the United States for the rest of the year. Forty-one scientists wrote a letter to the Forest Service’s chief, Randy Moore, arguing that this would only make the wildfire problem worse, which of course he knew. Many of the signatories believed he was caving to political pressure from a local congressman, Tom McClintock, and the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, who was then facing a recall. Condoning houses burning for resource benefit plays poorly in rural districts.
A few weeks later, I stood at the Minaret Vista overlook, in Mammoth Lakes, staring down at hundreds of square miles of forested ravines with Stacy Corless. She used to be the executive director of a nonprofit, but in 2015 she became a Mono County Supervisor and last year, the chairwoman of the Rural County Representatives of California. She knows the topography of state fire politics all too well. The town of Mammoth Lakes is “surrounded by national forest,” Corless told me. “Completely surrounded.”
Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
The landscape below us was a hiker’s paradise and a wonderland for flames. “The accusation is that people like me have made this quote political, but come on. There’s nothing political about life and death and loss of property and trying to deal with evacuations,” she said. “If you’re a scientist, or if your constituents are the trees, or whatever, yeah, that’s one thing. That’s your job to think of that first. But if it’s your job to think of people. … “
Granted, there’s the baseline problem that our propensity for extractive conquest — our history of ruining anything and everything in exchange for gold, oil, water, land, lumber, you name it — created the need to manage our forests and their fires at all. But this is politics in a discontinuity. You’re governing for the world you and your constituents wish you still lived in, a place you may even believe you still inhabit. But it’s gone.
The false sense of long-term stability in these communities is also propped up by what economists call a moral hazard: a situation in which individuals tolerate excessive risk because they know they won’t bear the full cost. Fire protection in the West is a free public good, paid mostly by the federal government, some by the states. Take that benefit away and ask residents and developers to pay for the firefighting they use? Californians would stop deciding to move to the W.U.I. because it’s cheap. Counties would stop approving new developments for the property taxes.
Aurora Mullett, an insurance agent in El Dorado County, drove me around the Sierra foothills in the black Mustang convertible she usually shares with her dog. “This is the stupidest [expletive] I’ve ever seen,” she said, waving at a newish subdivision. “This place catches on fire two or three times a year.” Magical thinking serves no one well on the fire front. Close to the still-smoldering burn scar from the Caldor fire, all the houses remained pink from retardant drops. Already, Mullett told me, the El Dorado County supervisors had discussed waiving the ordinances requiring locals to spend the extra money to rebuild to the current wildfire code, just as supervisors in Butte County did after the Camp fire destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018. (The El Dorado supervisors later changed their minds.)
Mullett raised her kids up here in these woods. She loves to hike and fish just over the knoll in the Desolation Wilderness. But she has seen too much. She knows nothing we do is enough. She might run for insurance commissioner. Hedging her bets, she also bought some property on a lake in Tennessee.
Aurora Mullett, an insurance agent in El Dorado County.Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
This is the moment in the story where you and I would both like me to introduce a majestic, mood-changing solution, a Gladwellian big idea. This is the best I’ve got: We need to stop thinking a dashing rescuer in a red slicker or yellow fire-resistant shirt should come save us from wildfire. We don’t fight hurricanes. We don’t fight tornadoes. No one assumes there will be an armed defense from an earthquake or a flood. Instead, we bolt our houses to our foundations. We raise our homes on stilts. Now we, Californians of the Anthropocene, need to grow up, take responsibility and stop expecting to be saved.
Kimiko Barrett, who studies wildfire at Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit that aims to make “complex data understandable” so others can make better decisions around land use, helped snap this into focus for me one afternoon. We have, she said, “a home-ignition problem, more than a wildland-fire problem.” So simple, yet such a profound shift. Until we accept this, we’re going to remain deluded and stuck.
This is the unsexy part of the marriage that involves the endless trips to Lowe’s. In practical terms, what we’re talking about here is home hardening (the preferred jargon for fireproofing your home from the outside). The details are about as thrilling as moving a stack of firewood farther away from your house. Homes ignite in two different ways: from the fire front (direct flames and heat) and from embers (chunks of burning stuff that blow in the wind). Hardening against embers is relatively easy: Install a fireproof roof; place screens over eaves; clear a “defensible space” (a perimeter with nothing flammable). These measures are also cheap. California spent about $4 billion fighting fires this year. A recent white paper, “A New Strategy for Addressing the Wildfire Epidemic in California,” suggests appropriating $1 billion to retrofit 100,000 homes every year. (Ideally this would target homes built before 2008, when the state began mandating the use of ignition-resistant materials on all new construction in high-fire risk zones.) If all houses in California built before 1995 had been retrofitted to 2012 standards, another 2021 paper found, the state would have saved $11 billion in losses from the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons alone.
Alexander Maranghides is a fire-protection engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who has spent the last four years studying the material landscape that allowed Paradise to be destroyed. He’s a details guy. With him, all the emotional clothes-rending and finger-wagging around the climate crisis is gone. In their place: the thrill of facts. He explained that fire exploits weakness, just as water does. If you harden your home 90 percent of the way, and you’re in the path of a high-intensity wildfire stoked by fierce winds, “there’s going to be millions of embers,” and your house is going to burn. “You can harden your home for embers. You put a shed next to your house. An ember lands on your shed, ignites and burns your house,” Maranghides said, walking me through a PowerPoint. “You can do the same with your car. You harden your home for embers. You park your car next to your house. The ember ignites the car. The car burns the house down.” Then your house burns your neighbor’s house down too.
‘Forests, in California, are more resilient than humans are in California.’
Maranghides’s employer is the agency that in 1973 published the America Burning report. That report led to fire-resistant pajamas, a new fire code and the creation of the U.S. Fire Administration. Structure fires in the United States dropped 54 percent between 1977 and 2015. His goal is to do the same for wildfire. “I’m not saying this lightly — it’s not accusatory,” Maranghides said. “It’s not about forest fires. Forest fires will happen, and forest fires will burn out. But whether a forest fire turns into a devastation like Paradise or not has to do with how we build and live.”
A look at the California 2022 wildfire budget suggests we have a lot of cognitive work to do. Of the $1.5 billion total, only $25 million is for home hardening.
Then there’s the far more radical, D.I.Y., save-yourself-from-wildfire move: choosing to stay and defend your own home. There’s an impeccable logic in the idea that if you’re going to eat meat, you should be willing to kill the animal yourself. Does it follow that if you’re going to live in a high fire-risk zone, you should be willing to stick around and snuff out embers with your own shovel or rake (or, as one man in Mendocino County used, a gallon of milk)? The impulse to defend yourself embodies a certain Western frontier ethos. Is this the kind of bravery required of us now?
The Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Calfire, are “already admitting that they can’t do this on their own,” Amanda Stasiewicz, a social scientist at Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University, said. “The next question is, Well, then how are we going to do this together? Because as much as long-term partnerships around fuels reduction are fantastic — getting PG&E infrastructure underground, reducing emissions, all that stuff, fantastic — people right now want to know what their options are to keep their lives safe if we continue to demonstrate that we can’t keep up with the pace and scale of the work that needs to be done.”
Californians, especially deep in the W.U.I., have many questions: Would it be safe for a bunch of us to shelter on a golf course? There’s an old mining shaft on my property — should we shelter down there? But thinking you want to stay and standing before a fire are two different things, like practicing Lamaze and childbirth. Many of the 173 people who died in the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires in Australia remained at their properties but then panicked and tried to flee when they heard the fires racing toward them.
Shortly after the Caldor fire burned over the Sierra crest in late August — the second fire in history to do so; the first was a few weeks before — I drove up to Hayfork, a former-logging-now-cannabis-growing town in far Northern California that, like Mammoth Lakes, is surrounded by national forest. The country was then at what the National Interagency Fire Center blandly calls Preparedness Level 5, meaning red alert, all the country’s wildfire resources maxed out. In California alone, the Dixie fire, which eventually grew to almost a million acres, was then burning, along with the McFarland fire, the Antelope fire, the River Complex fire and the McCash fire. Hayfork sat under smoke from the Monument fire.
At the Northern Delights cafe, a science teacher turned pot farmer walked in staring at his phone. A friend had just texted him a photo: hot-pink retardant had dropped over the friend’s cannabis crop. For the last 20 years the former teacher and his family have lived out in the Hayfork woods, across the road from a chunk of Forest Service land, which he described with remarkable good cheer as “a frightening display of fuel management.” He and his wife have a deal: If they can see flames from the house, she leaves with the kids. He stays behind. Their relationship with fire is as intimate as it gets. Sometimes they turn out their lights to sleep and their bedroom glows.
Branden Silva pumping water from a fork of the American River for his family and neighbors in Twin Bridges. Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
In early September, I drove to Tahoe. A veil of smoke from the Caldor fire still hung over the lake. People were water-skiing and paddle-boarding — a vision of a diminished world, neither destroyed nor preserved but decayed. For a few weeks at the end of August, the state had been consumed with fear that the vacation town of South Lake Tahoe, an emblem of the splashy, golden California we all married, would burn. Nobody could believe the fire had run down from the mountains into the lake basin, including all the people who always knew it would.
South Lake had survived through a combination of luck (the wind shifted), good local fuels management and an epic firefighting effort, which one expert guessed cost $1 billion. Up on the granite cliffs above Emerald Bay, I kind of broke down. That spot is sublime: the huge blue lake, the huge blue sky, the Sierra crest — a dazzling, heart-stopping vision. But I could also see the scars that remained from the Angora fire, in 2007, and they are hard to comprehend. So many blackened trees standing: dead. These trees are an indictment, a museum of failure. They are not coming back.
That night, in Tahoe, it rained. The next morning the sky opened up again as I crossed Donner Pass. At a gas station I read a Twitter thread by the novelist Michael Chabon, a Californian, about nihilism versus existentialism. He’d read a draft of his son’s college essay in which that son tried to imagine his own future. Chabon saw his child fighting “to swim against the rising floodwaters of nihilism all around.”
Chabon understood why a person would feel that way about the world, and, in particular, about the world right now. Chabon had felt that way himself once, too. But he also knew, having lived here on Earth for a while, that nihilism is a dead end — no path out. The alternative need not be false hope, or even the belief that the world is not essentially broken and absurd. The alternative is to make your own purpose and meaning, whatever the situation.
This is a hard, daily task for all of us, perhaps even a required practice if you’re a professional savior. This November, Thom Porter, the chief of Calfire, announced that he was stepping down after just three years on the job. Before he resigned, he told me that he worried that he had blown it. He had been a forester his entire adult life, defined his job as leaving a safer world for his “kids and grandkids, all of our kids and grandkids.” He thought that he had failed, that we all have failed. “Here’s a grim thought for you,” he said at the end of our call. “Forests, in California, are more resilient than humans are in California.” If we keep doing what we’re doing, the forests will die, then some will regrow. The humans will have to flee California for good. “They’ve done it before,” Porter said of the trees, “and they’ll do it again if we don’t get our act together and figure out how to make sure that California and the West are places where humans can continue to reside.”
Across California — across the world — it’s easy, even comforting, to sit in despair. To stay depressed and mired in a state where not that much has truly changed. But nihilism is a failure of imagination, the bleak, easy way out. We need to face the lives before us. We need to name the discontinuity: See, there it is, the tear in the universe created by our fear and greed. What we believed was the present is actually the past. That was Steffen’s message to me in the Berkeley bar. We failed to keep pace with the future. And the longer we sat there, drinking our beers, the wider the gap became.
A resident clearing defensible space around his home in September. The house was spared.Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
We can’t fix California’s wildfire problem with a big idea. We can only settle into the trans-apocalypse and work for the best future, the best present. That starts with acknowledging that our political structures have failed us and keep failing us every day. The powerful have failed the vulnerable. The old have failed the young. The global north has failed the global south. We have failed one another.
It’s a real, grown-up, look-mortality-in-the-eye moment we face. In Tahoe, after coming down from the cliffs at Emerald Bay, I took a walk in the woods with two forest ecologists. They moved to South Lake just before the pandemic began, knowing all the risks. But they love it here. They want to love their lives. For work, they climb and study giant sequoias to see the toll our world is having on them. First, they load a compound bow, then shoot an arrow trailing a fishing line over a tree branch. Next, haul a rope, ascend the trunk and survey a tree’s giant limbs for bark-beetle scars. When giant sequoias have enough water, they expel the beetles with sap. When they don’t, the majestic trees die from the top down.
This summer, in Kings Canyon, as the wildfires approached, firefighters wrapped giant sequoias in aluminum foil. This included General Sherman — 2,200 years old and the largest single tree on Earth. This act was meager, and it was devotional. It’s what we’ve got now. The good news is, some of the moves we need to make are easier, more straightforward and more under our control than we imagined, if we’d just allow ourselves to get them done. The bad news is that there is just going to be loss. We’re not used to thinking about the world that way. We’re not used to paying for our mistakes.
There is beauty in the sequoia scars, bleeding out sap. And there’s beauty in the sequoias when they have none.
This article is a partnership between ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine.
Elizabeth Weil is a feature writer for New York Magazine. Previously, she was a writer at large covering climate and California for ProPublica. Meridith Kohut is a photojournalist who won a Courage in Journalism award for her decade of work documenting international humanitarian crises for The New York Times.