The Year Wildfires in the West Spread Like the Plague

12 December 2020

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USA – Surely the dominant story of 2020 will be the coronavirus pandemic and the economic upheaval and political fallout it caused. But the enduring images of the year may well be of another contagion—the fires that splashed across the globe and the havoc they wrought where humanity’s and nature’s economies met.

The fires seemed everywhere, partly because of extensive media coverage—fires are visually graphic and guaranteed to grab attention. But this wasn’t hype. The fires were real. Many occurred in the usual places—like California, African savannas and Australia—that are built to burn, though this time they came with performance enhancers. Few of such fires were individually unprecedented, but they were so many they swarmed, and they came in serial outbreaks. In their ensemble they qualify as epic.

Others occurred in places where direct human meddling by felling rainforest, draining peat or abandoning former farmland made fire possible, or moved flame from an artisanal craft to an industrial enterprise. Still others were in a few dappled places for which fire is rare, like Brazil’s Pantanal and the Siberian tundra north of the Arctic Circle. Even Greenland burned.

Not all those fires were ruinous. Landscape fire is an agent of renewal and creative destruction. In developed countries even mammoth burns were extracting a fire tithe owed nature, whose interest had compounded thanks to policies promoting fire’s exclusion. Surveys of California’s August Complex—the state’s first gigafire, burning more than a million acres—estimated that half of the acreage burned was low severity, and somewhat less than half high severity; what was missing (as with so much of the year) was a mixed-severity middle. Most members of the wildland fire community believed that the land was getting too much bad fire but needed much, much more good fire.

Still, there were serious direct and collateral damages. Small towns were razed, lives lost, protected areas blasted with fires beyond the range of their adaptive capacity. Evacuees became refugees. The fires cost billions to contain, and more to clean up urban sites. Earlier in the cycle liability for starting fires had forced California’s primary utility, PG&E, to declare bankruptcy and its executives to face criminal charges. The state had to intervene to prevent insurers from canceling coverage.

Then there was the smoke. It put the fires’ reach well beyond the flames’ grasp. It smothered metropolises from Sydney to San Francisco, sparked a public-health emergency, and drove residents indoors. Plumes carried sun-obscuring, secondhand smoke to places that had thought themselves immune to West Coast pathologies. More than flame, the mega-pall became the outbreak’s defining image.

A long time coming

For a fire to get public attention, it typically has to burn houses, kill people or involve celebrities. This year’s fires had all that. But unlike even bad years of the past, these fires continued to burn for weeks, then months. A more complex and nuanced understanding of causes emerged.

There was no single driver. Fire is a reaction that resembles a driverless car, barreling down the road. The fires synthesized vegetation, terrain, weather and human settlement, and all the human finagling that has affected each of those contributing causes. The easiest explanation is that the fires fed on how the developed world has lived on the land. The outbreaks transmuted abstract notions like energy and climate and urban design into flame.

The deep dialectic involves two realms of combustion. One occurs in living landscapes. The other burns lithic landscapes, or fossilized biomass. As people adopted fossil fuels, they remade their habitats. Effects were benign in houses, factories and cities, problematic in the countryside, and malign in wild lands for which fire’s removal was itself a primary disruption. Removing smoke and open flame from the built environment improved human health. Removing them from natural landscapes worsened ecological health.

Fifty years ago the American fire community recognized it had created a fire crisis and revised policy to restore good fire in living landscapes. Meanwhile, greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels altered climate, globalizing a fire crisis into a fire epoch, in which humanity’s combustion practices were creating the pyric equivalent of an ice age. The fires of 2020 made unblinklingly clear for all those who had missed the memos nature had been sending what such an epoch might mean.


Yet why should this year be more memorable than so many others? In 1978 the U.S. Forest Service rewrote its policies, completing a decadelong reformation that sought to balance removing bad fires with restoring good ones. In 1988 Yellowstone National Park and swaths of Amazonia burned to obsessive media attention, and James Hansen informed Congress that the signature of global warming had become unmistakable. In 1998 the World Wildlife Fund announced “the year the Earth caught fire.” In 2007-08 big fires pummeled California.

Wildfires had been growing more feral for decades. Given so newsworthy a year, one might expect this latest round to be no more memorable than an unusually annoying virus.

But this year both fire and virus blew beyond norms. They revealed a planet suffering through a breakdown between humanity and the natural world. Coronavirus was one marker, wildfire another. The fires seemed to make eerily visible the exponential rate of spread, the geographic range, the costs, and the breakdown of social life wrought by Covid-19. Plumes that twisted like serpents and thickened into palls like oil slicks gave physical expression to a malaise of gloom and foreboding.

What can be done

It was a year of contagion. A pandemic spread like wildfire. Wildfires spread like a plague.

The pandemic will pass; Covid-19 will succumb eventually to vaccines. Fire will go on forever. But all the conditions that are worsening the fire scene are the result of human actions, from poorly managed landscapes to urban sprawl to climate change. What people have done, they can undo. We can cease our binge burning of fossil fuels. We can design exurbs to adapt to fire-prone settings. We can replace wildfires with tamed ones that benefit the living landscape and protect the built landscape.

It won’t be easy. But we’re the Earth’s keystone species for fire. It’s our role in the great chain of being.

Dr. Pyne is an emeritus professor at Arizona State University and the author of “Fire: A Brief History.” He can be reached at





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