Fire Talk

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

California. Mid-summer. It’s early evening, and several of us are out taking a walk. The sun sits above the horizon, a perfect circle, and bright red! Beautiful. Awesome. We stand and stare.

“Oh, that’s because of the smoke coming from all the fires going on,” someone remarks.

“The smoke has really been getting to me this year.”

“It’s the Mendocino fire.”

“I thought I heard thunder,” someone remarks.

“Maybe we’ll get some rain. What a relief that would be.”

“Scares me. You know, thunder means lightning, and that could mean more wildfires.”

This is California fire talk. It happens every year during fire season.

For those of us who do not live in the direct path of wildfires, fire season begins when fires begin, when we read the daily reports and are forced to breathe in the smoke.

For those who live in fire-prone environments, the season begins in early spring, with the anticipation of the wildfires that surely will come. By July, as the dryness sets in and the temperatures rise, the prospect of fire becomes ever more real.

People tend to become more vigilant. They might begin to watch for the telltale red sun or brown hazy sky. Or they might wake in the middle of the night and look out their windows, sniff the air.  Has a fire started somewhere as they slept? Fire talk enters their conversations.  In coffee shops, at the supermarket they chat facilely about fuel loading and suppression, backfiring and cutting line.

These people accept that they have chosen to live with wildfire. It’s not simply that they learn to clear brush from around their homes or to plan for potential evacuation. Or, that from time to time they will have to endure weeks of smoke-filled air because of a wildfire somewhere in the forest. It’s that they become acquainted with fire as a breathing machine that needs oxygen to thrive and maintains a unique and vital relationship to their living world.

They learn that fire can take on a life of its own and get out of hand. All it needs is the opportunity to get so hot that it starts feeding on oxygen from all sides, sucking the air in, creating an updraft from the inward gusts of wind, propelling the flames as through a chimney hundreds of feet into the air. The wind whirls around the burning column, counter-clockwise, generating a hurricane-like firestorm with winds that can travel ten times faster than the surrounding winds, and temperatures that can climb to above three thousand degrees Fahrenheit. During such a firestorm, plumes of white pyro cumulus clouds that look like thunderheads – known to billow as high as eight miles into the air – can form as the fire enters the cooler upper atmosphere. (see illustration below)

For those who live on the periphery of wildfire country, a fire thunderhead appearing above the horizon is a pronouncement that a wildfire has taken charge somewhere in the forest.

Is it any wonder, then, that firefighters relate to wildfires as if they were alive? They speak of fires as running uphill and creeping along the ground, jumping rivers, and spotting across fire lines. They say that fires can throw embers and firebrands. They can escape, even shape an entire forest. To firefighters, wildfires are mean and wily and show exceptional endurance or fierceness or moxie. They are full of surprises, an enemy that must be defeated. They are alive and moody, feed on oxygen, suck in the air. Fires are driven.

A lookout volunteer reflected on her experience sighting fires:

It really does seem like it’s a living thing you’re dealing with. It’s almost as though it’s trying to spite you. Jump on that thing. Strangle it. It kind of brings out that kind of defense in you. You want to get it.

A Forest Service fuels specialist relates to fire as if it were a dragon:

It breathes. You watch it pulse, the wind will stop dead for a minute, like the fire is almost taking a breath. Then whoosh, it really starts going.

Here is an illustration of a Firestorm.

3 thoughts on “Fire Talk”

  1. A DIALOGUE BETWEEN ED FROM HAWAII AND MARCIA:

    ED: As a native Californian, I’m familiar with the annual spate of forest fires occurring
    throughout the state. While now living in Hawaii, which currently has its own natural
    disaster to contend with, my insight into California’s fires is limited to the evening
    newscasts. Both events result in unanticipated changes in the lives impacted by
    each.

    MARCIA: Hi, Ed: When I lived in L.A. it was earthquakes. In Oakhurst it was fires. I must admit that I am not sorry to be in the direct line of fire for the wildfires. Pretty tense situation. But I have no way of imagining what it would be like living with the threat of volcano eruption.

    ED: With so many fires occurring throughout the western US, many viewers are becoming
    numb to their destructive powers. In recent weeks, the news media has focused on
    the “firenadoes,” generated by each fires own internally-generated weather systems.
    I see these as the mainland’s version of the volcanic eruptions on our island of
    Hawaii, ongoing since May 2018. Both the firenadoes and the volcanic displays are
    made even more dramatic when viewed at night.

    MARCIA: I agree that people are becoming numb to their destructive powers. But I think on the other side of the coin, I think people are becoming more aware of how important it is to clear around their houses. CalFire and the Forest Service are all letting people know that firefighters are not going to put themselves in jeopardy to save a burning house, but if the house that is burning is cleared of surrounding brush, it is more likely that they will go in and try to save it. I guess it comes down to practicality.

    ED: California’s authorities, especially those in forested communities, do a good job
    reminding residents to clear their properties of dried vegetation. I don’t know if this
    action is tied to penalties for not complying but it should. For those areas outside inhabited locations, I sense the state and municipalities are not practicing what they
    preach. Is it a lack of oversight, or ecological/legislative constraints that inhibit
    routine clearing of dead underbrush, a prominent source of fuel for the current
    situation the state finds itself?

    MARCIA: As I said before, I think people have had the sense of entitlement about firefighters going in to save their homes. But that’s not what’s happening and time and time again it has been shown that homes where combustible material is cleared are more likely to be savable.

    While on the ground, firefighters experience first-hand, the belief their adversary is
    alive. One minute, flames are moving In a safe direction but can shift suddenly to
    engulf personnel and equipment. A very dangerous job, and we should be thankful
    there are individuals willing to perform this task, and in some cases give their lives
    for this noble cause.

    MARCIA: Where I used to live, after a wildfire there are signs all around thanking the firefighters. During the fire, when they come into town, people shower them with admiration and gratitude, and try to pay for their meals and give them gifts, which they do not accept.

  2. I am so weary of the smoke and fire but feel bad about even complaining when it is so much worse in many places. Braden Varney the 36 year old dozier operator who lost his life in the Ferguson Fire was my son’s good friend. Our son is also a firefighter so it hits really close to home. We loved Braden and are devastated for his family. So many sad stories. I have lived with fire danger all my life with my husband working USFS for 40 years (You wrote about him so eloquently in your book Fighting Fire in the Sierra Nevada) Marcia. But it has seemed to get worse and worse and scientists are saying it is the new norm. I hope not but think they could be right. I love Mariposa but it has been a very sad hard summer. I will be glad to see the winter come. We miss you Marcia.

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