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.