Enormous wildfires are raging through expansive real estate in Napa Valley and just east of San Jose. These fires, the LNU and SCU Fire Complexes, respectively, are 2 of the 5 largest in California’s recorded history. Really, the featured graphic is necessary to do the scale any kind of justice. (As of this morning, the LNU Complex is 33% contained and the SCU Complex only 25% contained.) The smoke from these and other wildfires drifted over Santa Barbara until yesterday, when onshore winds kicked up and cleared the skies. So while we’re no longer reminded of them, they burn no less relentlessly.
The simple fact is that wildfire is a feature of California’s long-term ecology, particularly the coastal sage scrub zone. Here the volatile oils that give the sage (Salvia mellifera and S. apiana) and sage-like plants (Artemisia californica) their aroma and flavor also encourage the rapid spread of fire when conditions are dry. If you have ever gone hiking in California’s coastal sage chaparral, you have undoubtedly come across California coffeeberry (Frangula californica), mentioned here because it is one of several endemic species whose seeds are fire-activated. (A more famous and certainly more conspicuous fire-dependent plant is the lodgepole, or twisted, pine, Pinus contorta, which I know best from the Sierras, P. contorta murrayana, and Colorado Rockies, P. contorta latifolia.) The renowned beauty of the California coast, like that of western pine forests, would not be what it is absent fire.
There is a further, and very practical, reason we must learn to live with wildfire, at least in some managed capacity. This is the growing scale and frequency of fires in places where we’ve chosen to build homes and invest in shared infrastructure. A commitment to stopping these places from burning is fine, but it also means raising the risk of injury and death to firemen, and spending a fortune on control. I’ve heard this very argument repeated since I moved to the western United States, so it’s not new. On the contrary, this may be the end of it: the scale of the fires in Napa and around the South Bay make clear that 100% control is unsustainable, even for some of the wealthiest places in the world.