This story originally originated at Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
On a crisp winter morning, while my daughters lingered over pancakes with their grandparents, I drove a few miles past houses nestled among incense pastors, Ponderosa pines, and Douglas firs. I could not imagine that these trees roared with flames, because I wanted to see the neighbors set a spot of fire on fire.
I grew up here in Nevada City, California, about halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe at the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Like many of our neighbors, my family came to the forest, but with the forest comes forest fires. And in the last couple of years it seems that the whole West has been on fire.
A quarter of a mile up a steep driveway where the rising sun illuminated a panorama of wooded ridges, I met Dario Davidson, a retired lumberjack wearing a fuzzy baseball hat and well-groomed leather gloves. He was there to perform a controlled combustion, a way to clear out the underbrush and leaves that give peaks to fires. In one hand he picked up what looked like a low key flame writer, called a drip pan, and with the other he flew a lighter until the mixture of gasoline and diesel flared in his wick. Then he tipped the jug forward and dribbled a flaming fuel on the forest floor.
Immediately a knee-high fence rose after him. Fire can immerse itself. It is easy to lose and stare in the flames of a fireplace; It is even more fascinating to see them spread outdoors. I watched as the flames transformed the top few inches of pine trees and oak leaves an ash on top of the older decomposing duff. Sweet smelly smoke gusted around us and we bent away.
Perhaps I should have felt some respect for the fear that this mini-forest fire could grow beyond our control. Sooner or later, a true fire runner will race through here. Houses will burn and the narrow roads will jam up. People I love, including my aging parents, could die. But I wasn't even worried: I've lived with the reality of fire for 40 years. So instead of fear, I felt a tension of excitement as the flames rose.
Davidson ventured toward the black patch, where the flames became appalling and diminished to smoke. He explained that the goal of this burn was to reduce the amount of fuel available for a future fire.
"This country has been pretty well managed," Davidson said. "There are maybe 1
Although you are not surrounded by forest, this heat can be fatal. Nearby homes can burst into flames with high enough temperatures. And floating embers can seed dozens of new blazes. But trees and houses can survive a lower intensity incineration.
Davidson spread more fire, and the flames licked up tree trunks that charged the thick bark that evolved to isolate the living tissue from within the fire. For more than a century, we have managed to stifle fires that unintentionally create the conditions of disaster. People have made prescribed burns for decades, but too few and too rarely to make much difference. After many years of disastrous action, it was a relief to witness this little action – the heat of fire felt good and the whole experience felt charitable. It was like coming out for a run after solving to stop eating Christmas cakes and start exercising. It's not that bad, do you think, why don't we do it all the time?
Nevada County's people are no strangers to fire. Wildfires stud my memories of growing up in Nevada County. In 1988, my parents packed valuables into our car as a flame threatened to sweep through the city. A few years later, when my brother and I were teenagers at home alone one afternoon, we dragged a pump and hoses out to our pond as embers fell around us and helicopters roared overhead. The wind kept the first fire out of the densely populated areas, and people rebuilt what burned down. The other fire was a small tile just above the hill from my father's house, which firefighters managed to suppress within a few hours.
But things get worse. People here feel unusually nervous when wildfires consume neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, Malibu and Redding. Last year, Camp Fire devoured the entire city of Paradise just 50 miles north of here. When officials held a fire safety meeting in Nevada County last month, residents followed the government building and packed the stairs outside the meeting room.
"Business as usual" makes things worse every year. Firstly, there are greenhouse gas emissions that make the summers warmer and dry in the West. Second, forests produce tons of new fuel every year. In the 100 odd years when the government has extinguished fires in the western United States, the trees have produced a stable bill of branches, leaves and needles, creating a layer of duff that is thick enough in some places to keep the water from trickling down to tree roots . Adding it to the worst drought in history, pushing the state from 2011 to 2014, throwing some green beetle and you get 129 million dead trees in California, drying out and magnifying the risk of yet another devastating fire for the state. 19659003] Although people do not see the threat, insurance companies do. The increasing risk of fires raises the cost of insuring houses in well-known fire areas. Newspapers have run a lot of stories about people around Nevada City who have found the cost prohibitive and moving out. The State Insurance Director recently said that California is "slowly marching against a world that is uncertain." A company, Merced Property & Casualty Company, opened its stomach after the fire in Paradise burned down many of its customers' homes.
Despite a despair of media stories about people losing their insurance and leaving the area, Mark Sektnan, president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, told me: "We don't see a trend." Insurance prices are rising in some places, but California does not allow insurers to take up premiums based on recent disasters, and almost anyone can find home insurance if they want it, he said. (Whether they can afford it, it's another question.) "19659003]" We began to see all those stories of unmanageable properties, and we thought we saw a crisis here, "Sektnan said. "But it turned out that the same guy had talked to four different media stores."
The fire danger and high insurance prices are likely to move some citizens of Nevada City, but most seem to be being put down – at least for now. Big, slow tendencies, such as climate change, almost never trigger radical action. Instead, these shifts lead to gradual adjustment.
During my stay in Nevada City this winter, I asked several locals about the risk of staying put, they were sanguine about the fires that threatened their homes, and insurance rates reflect this risk. "When we moved here, we realized the danger," said Suzanne Ferroggiaro, who lives a few miles from my mother. "We've lived in different places and we've always had threats – tornado threats, hurricane threats, flood threats."
It is impossible to isolate yourself completely from natural disasters, and even the threat of fire is more prevalent than you might expect. It's not just a rural danger. State Fire Department, Cal Fire, says the cities of Nevada County are "very high fire hazard severity zones", but they are also slices of Los Angeles, Oakland and San Diego.
Most people do not go back. Instead, they try new techniques.
Back at the burning, Davidson taught the neighbors and a group of young foresters how to control a controlled firewood. Because the fire moves uphill, they have started near the top of the slope so the fire quickly moved to the upper perimeter – a line of barren dirt – where it ran out of fuel and burned out. Then the workers moved down a few feet and set a new fire of fire, so that the flames reached the previous burning year before they died. With this technique, the fire always goes out alone: You must work to spread the controlled firewood. "You just want it to be really slow and boring," Davidson said.
Nevertheless, the workers had rockets ("scratched" in timber jargon) out of a perimeter line that removed needles ("down to mineral soil", Davidson advised), which kept the fire a good 100 meters from Kathy Keville's house. The controlled firewood was part of a demonstration project for the Lower Colfax Firewise Community Association, and neighbors had gathered to see, learn, and help.
This is a new phenomenon here in California's Brandland: not the use of controlled burns, but the willingness to participate in the community's organization to dampen future fires. The figures reflect this: There are 23 of these associations in Nevada County, 25 others have filed their papers to be officially recognized, and 25 others organize according to the County Fire Council.
My parents have always cut manzanita and scotch diet to maintain Cal Fire recommended 100 feet of "safe place" around their homes (though they get older employing the others to do most of the work), but we were never part of a joint effort.
That was the same for Davidson. "I kept my little five acres and thought I was safe," he said. "Then I started looking at fire cards, and I realized that it was just a small stamp. I could do all the work I wanted and it would still burn if my neighbors didn't do anything."
So in In 2016, he began to arrange meetings. From an initial mailing list of 26, the Lower Colfax Firewise Community Association has grown to include 680 people living on 421 packages covering 2,900 acres.
These societies are a relatively new development in California and one needed, says Scott McLean, spokesman for Cal Fire. The neighbors help motivate each other, they train each other, and they find out who needs help. The last point is crucial during emergency situations when fire agencies expect individuals to save each other.
"People need, not just a personal plan, but a community plan," McLean said. "What about the little street they live on? Who's going to help the older neighbors?"
When McLean's former boss, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, resigned this year, he gave a series of silent closing interviews. "People can say what they want to say, but firefighters live living climate change. It stares them in the face every day," he said. People need to organize themselves and local authorities need to improve their planning and regulations, says Pimlott.
So everything has to be changed, but it has always been true. California has always had to adapt to its beautiful surroundings. "Brand is a lifestyle in California, and we must learn to live with what we need to learn to get more resilient communities," he said.
As the climate continues to change, we can expect to see much more adaptation like this. Where you might expect to see mass migration and large headline gripping actions, look for lots of local meetings, hyper-local associations leap up and lots of tinkering around the edges. Whether congressional politicians have ever figured out how to cope with climate change, people who are no different from you and I will continue to hunt for solutions that fit their community.
I left before the burning was finished (these things can take all day). At the end, the workers would tap out and spray the area with water. They had planned the incineration between the winter storms – a dripping rain with a chance of snow was due at the end of the week. Back to my mother's house I could see a smoke of smoke rising through the ponderosa from the direction of Keville's property. But you probably wouldn't feel the smoke if you didn't search it. The sky was blue, and the air is clear enough to look beyond the canyon where the Bear River runs past the next ridge that separates it from the American river bank.
The little fire Davidson phrase can make this place a little safer for my parents and for my children when I release them for summer visits. There is no way to completely eliminate the environmental risks stemming from past failures. But if this kind of thing inspires more social efforts and more individuals step up to take responsibility for the problems within their understanding, it can make us all a little more secure.
More Great WIRED Stories