Apocalypse has arrived on the western landscape. The Bay Area is shrouded in a layer of smoke so thick, it broke everything from camera sensors to weather models.
The situation has sparked comparisons to the future, real and imagined. Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 have both been touchpoints for the scenes of a futuristic city bogged down in haze. Others referenced The Martian, a science fiction movie set in the future on another planet entirely (though astronomers pointed out that Venus and Titan are also perfectly acceptable analogs). And the situation in the West has, in part, been painted as a glimpse of the climate future we may all soon face.
The 2020 wildfire season has made time and space feel elastic, the present and future, Earth and space colliding like a snap of a rubber band. But I can’t help feeling the elasticity link the present and the past and the fate of those choking under a blood-red sky with decisions made in board rooms around slick mahogany tables. Our atmosphere and forests are haunted by those decisions, and we forget them at our own risk.
Let’s start with the forest side of the equation. Indigenous groups managed lands using fire as an integral part of the landscape long before there was a National Forest Service. But after the U.S. government extirpated them from their lands, things started to go haywire. Then, the catastrophic firestorm in the Northern Rockies in 1910 dubbed the Big Burn changed everything.
Eventually, the federal government implemented the 10 a.m. rule, decreeing all fires be put out by, you guessed it, 10 a.m. the day after they were spotted. William Greeley, the head of the Forest Service at the time, was certain that the fires were evidence that “Satan was at work.” He also said that “the conviction burned into me is that fire prevention is the number one job of American foresters.”
This was, on its face, a public safety thing since communities were expanding into the forests and the Big Burn killed 87 people, including a number of firefighters. But underlying it was cold, hard economics. The Forest Service’s mission is (emphasis added) “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity” of the land. One of the core pillars of the agency is leasing land for timber.
Fire suppression, then, was really about trying to preserve as much of the forest to chop down with some racism thrown in (Greeley derided the Indigenous approach as “Piute forestry”). The Forest Service was hardly alone in this; a former Wisconsin’s conservation director who served around the time of Greeley noted that “every foot of land we possess as a nation has value, that there is a possible utilization for all of it.” And the mindset of making money off the land continues to this day. In 2017, companies chopped down $179 million worth of timber on Forest Service land alone. While the agency and other land managers have course-corrected to recognize the value of fire on the landscape, there are decades of built-up fuels in forests ready to ignite.
Then there’s the climate side of the equation. This one you might know a little better. But let’s recap to really get the blood flowing and because frankly, feeling rage is a lot more fun than the numb feeling I’ve had lately.
Fossil fuel companies have been aided by pliant politicians, particularly Republicans, in stalling any meaningful climate action. These companies have shifted from hardcore denial to a kinder, gentler form of denial. The party line now is climate change is real, but we’ll be fine. There’s perhaps no better distillation of this mindset than former Exxon CEO and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying the following in a 2012 interview:
“If you take a, what I would call a reasonable scientific approach to that, we believe those consequences are manageable. They do require us to begin to exert—or spend more policy effort on adaptation. ...
And as human beings, as a species, that’s why we’re all still here. We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this.”
I’m sure the people who’s houses burned down or those who are breathing the most polluted air on Earth agree, Rex.
Policymakers had plenty of advice on how to avoid the morass we’re in now, of course. The most famous is former NASA climate scientist James Hansen alerting Congress in 1988, but it’s far from the only warning or even the earliest. Here’s a snippet of testimony from more than 30 years earlier on the risks going hard on the whole fossil fuel burning thing could desertify California:
We haven’t quite reached that stage (yet), but we have seen California swing into deep, dangerous drought this decade that has helped fuel fires. And the risk of a much more ominous multi-decade “megadrought” rise there and in Texas, just as Revelle predicted. Despite this, Congress has done nothing to act.
Oh, and then there are developers who have spent decades luring people to the wildland-urban interface and local governments who have enabled sprawl. From 1990 to 2010, a staggering 13.4 million homes were built in this fire-prone landscape. And half of all homes burned down by fires are rebuilt within five years, putting people back in harm’s way.
While it’s tempting to look forward and warn of a more fiery future, looking at the past has never been more important. We need to understand how exactly we ended up here and who is captured by the special interests that continue to advocate for what futurist Alex Stefan calls “predatory delay.” Only then can we find our way out of the spider webs that have entrapped us in this moment of crisis and fight for a future we won’t constantly compare to dystopia.