Molten Bubble

I stood at the window and watched a house on a hill above Sunset implode, its oxygen sucked out by the force of the fire. –Joan Didion (1989)

The summer’s fires outside Austin reminded me of a recent escape.

One Sunday behind the Orange Curtain in the fall of 2007 I searched for a newspaper on Fashion Island, a hideous high-end mall for the vulgar riche built into the Newport Beach embankment. Like looking for a priest in a whorehouse. Although you can find at least one of whatever you’re looking for eventually, isn’t that right, Father?

Suddenly, my head a moment out of the boosterism, I found myself in an ash downpour. The housing bubbles along the Irvine hills–Foothill Ranch, Modjeska Canyon, Silverado Canyon, Portola Hills–were all Halloween/orange and chimney red. A monstrous black cloud of smoke, spurred seaward by the Santa Anas, blotting out eight-figure views of the ocean, passed judgment on the county in which I found myself jailed 3-5 pending probation.

Earlier in the year just south, Jeff Bowman, San Diego’s fire chief, quit in frustration. Bowman was incensed at his city’s refusal to provide the funding for the manpower and fire companies needed to, uh, fight fires. San Diego, with only fifty fire companies, capable now only of chaperoning its own firestorms to the ocean, left a single fire company to cover the rest of the city. Bowman and his family would flee their threatened home, a victim of his own premonitions.

For decades Carey McWilliams, Joan Didion, Mike Davis and many others have sketched the Southland’s fire socioecology. It’s a ritualized burnt offering for Californian commentators. But there’s something else to living in it. Squeezed between a line of fire and the sea. Walking through the open air maze of Anthropologies and Louis Vuittons with a headache from the smoke and a nagging suspicion the manicured ground underneath–a simulated biome laid atop the desert floor—might melt away on the next step.

Fires have always been a part of the natural cycle. But how did we get here, where many multiple fires simultaneously threatened to burn through, burn down, and burn out Southern California, one of the most extensive and densely populated commuter networks in the country? The plumes of smoke were visible from space.


Fire is defined by a number of properties. The source of the fuel consumed may differ across the forest canopy. A surface fire burns on low-lying plants and grasses. A crown fire consumes the upper portions of the canopy. Some soils contain so much organic material that they can support fires of their own—ground fires.

Fires are also defined by their intensity: low, moderate, or high. The severity and geographic extent of a fire can be determined by the history of an area. A series of fires have burned through Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado with increasing frequency: 1972, 1989, 1996, 2000, and 2002. A fire atlas shows the fires there partitioned—no overlaps—as each eats only the ripest load of tinder available. On the other hand, in many places some spots are hit more frequently than others. A documented history of fires can help determine where in a fire-prone region the next might begin.

Fires can structure the phylogenetic and age structures of a forest. In burning down the forest at whatever stage of its succession, typically at its catastrophe climax, fires reset the clock and succession begins anew. Fast-growing annual pioneer species make a living on bouncing from one burnt region to another before producing conditions that promote their own replacement by perennials.

Some pioneer species are in their way always present. Once fire clears out a mature forest, new pioneer plants germinate from a resident seed bank. Fire-stimulated germination can begin with enough heat. Other plants, as in the Western Australian Blue Lechenaultia, germinate with just enough of a ‘whiff’ of the chemicals in smoke.

Fire can mold the life history of organisms. Many a tree species can escape frequent fires by growing to a size refuge. Only when the trees are large enough will they be able to survive a burn. That kind of demographic bottleneck puts a premium on growth rates in the early life of the tree.

Avoiding debilitating damage is one way to go. Other chaparral plants promote fire outbreaks. Dylan Schwilk and David Ackerly searched for correlations in fire-promoting characteristics across different types of pine. A negative correlation between serotiny (releasing non-dormant seeds from a cone upon exposure to fire) and self-pruning (dropping dead branches) proved the most interesting. Those pines that retain such branches provide more fuel for fires. So plants that don’t self-prune—that is, which fuel fires—also open their cones upon a fire.

Arson as a reproductive strategy.


Fire, then, isn’t merely ecologically tolerated or taken advantage of by native plants, but is also–the trees brag–regularly promoted. What happens, though, when such fires are anthropogenically suppressed? Southwest U.S. fire outbreaks have precipitously declined since the turn of the 20th Century (see figure 5 here). More fuel for fire accumulates. And when fires do occur they’re orders of magnitude larger than the natural ecology has typically selected.

Fire suppression has gone hand-in-hand with regional housing booms. In the latest round, the exurbs—way out beyond the suburbs and up into the mountains—were until the most recent bust undergoing expansion right up against (and sometimes through) the last of the true forest. These relatively wealthy but ecologically precarious communities put considerable political pressure on local governments to prohibit fires from occurring at all.

The results are as ugly as they are ironic. With enough wood fuel and spurred on by seasonal Santa Ana winds, the conflagrations, as I witnessed in the Santiago fire, are increasingly unstoppable. Maps of Jeff Bowman’s fire further south in San Diego County, showed the county end-to-end splayed by active fires, smoking ruins, and mandatory evacuation zones. The world gone afire.

Bottom line—such an Americanism—who and what are responsible for the fires? We can blame the arsonists. But so much fuel accumulates such fires are bound to happen, if only by lightening strike. We could look to California’s changing climate. Southern California is now marked by increasing droughts. We could blame the bore and bark beetles, killing as many as 90% of oak and pine trees in some areas of San Diego County.

Much attention has certainly been paid to the fires as a criminal matter—targeting pyromaniacs human and otherwise—or even as a political Rorschach—Arizonians this summer blamed their wildfires on immigrants, some of whom served heroically on firefighting units saving rows of McMansions guarding the border—but almost none has been directed at the developers and city fathers who overbuilt into areas until recently left untouched.

Fire suppression remains tightly entwined with the imperatives of what was treated as ceilingless growth in the real estate market, and the political opportunism found in protecting such a run. Mrs. O’Leary’s cash cow.

As in any large ecosystem in which humans are deeply integrated, the causes and effects of such a disturbance are multifactorial and track back deeply into our social structure and political economy. That said, you gotta hand it to them. It takes considerable ingenuity to maneuver a forest fire into laying literal siege to a major American city.

I left California for good soon after.


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