Some of the most destructive and tragic wildfires to hit California in the state’s history are burning even now. Thanks to climate change, this is, sadly, the new normal. The question is whether it will continue to worsen—and how much of the state will burn. Which is why it’s a fitting time to run Cristoph Weber’s deeply researched speculative piece about the future of fire in California. What begins as an homage to military SF quickly becomes something more. Continue reading after the story for an author’s note that details the interviews and research that went into forging this piece. Enjoy. -the ed
A thirty-foot wave of flame roars toward us over the grassy plain. We stand our ground. We were soldiers once.
Behind us loom the titans of California Redwood Emergency Preserve. Sequoia sempervirens. The world’s tallest trees. Their foliage trembles in the wind like frightened fingers. Our assignment is to keep them alive. In years past, that wasn’t hard: coast redwoods have insulating bark over a foot thick, making them highly resistant to typical wildfires.
‘Typical’ is not a word I’d use today.
I lean around the heat shield of our Humvee’s turret toward my second gunner, kneeling in the truck’s bed. “You ready, Em?”
She slaps her machine gun playfully, but her eyes are focused. She grew up here on the Redwood Coast. So did I. When our forces wrote off California, when they left to salvage what they could in Oregon and Washington, we stayed behind. For us, this is personal.
I shout at our driver. “Spud, punch it!”
Dust billows from our Humvee’s tires as it speeds along our forested bank. The river is all that stands between our redwoods and the approaching grassfire. The fuel break the water provides is not enough.
But it’s about to get wider.
Em and I pull our triggers simultaneously. Incendiary rounds stream from our gun barrels and over the river, the red tracers like lasers through fog. They burrow into the far bank’s crisp grass tinder and a thousand fires leap to life. For a moment it’s like a spring from my youth, a phantom of the golden poppy fields that once graced our state. The gold blooms coalesce into a snake of flame that sidewinds to meet the charging orange wave.
There’s a saying, that you can’t fight fire with fire. It’s nonsense. Dumping water on today’s infernos is like pissing on a housefire. These days fire is the only way to fight fire. And that’s what we’re doing: lighting a backburn to clear out all the grass in the main fire’s path, to starve it to death.
When you work with fire you start to see it as a living creature. Just a hungry animal with a life cycle not unlike ours. Fires are born, they eat, they grow, they die. They even breathe like us—inhaling oxygen, exhaling carbon dioxide. And a fire running as fast as this one can suck serious wind, gasping in a constant breath that pulls the ground-level air inward to replace its convective exhalation.
And that’s its weakness. That inflow wind pulls our backburn toward the oncoming wave, consuming all the fuel between them. When they meet, both fires will starve, wither, and die.
“It’s lagging!” Em shouts.
She’s right. Unless we speed up our backburn, the main fire will crash over it, hop the river, and devour the redwoods. Us, too, if we get pinched.
Far out in the grass, I spot a patch of fallen trees not fully consumed in previous fires. Once, this was all redwood forest. But after decades of drought, fire staged its coup. Western forests, once our allies against warming, threw in the towel and slicked off, releasing millennia of captured carbon, initiating a feedback cycle resulting in more warming, more lightning, more fires, and more overtime hours than I ever wanted.
But those downed trees on the plain didn’t fully burn, and if I can get them to ignite now they’ll heat things up, help our backburn move faster. “Em, PIG!”
She hands me the propelled incendiary grenade launcher. I shoulder the weapon, pull the trigger. The PIG hisses like an angry cat as it speeds toward the fallen trees, exploding in a flash of white that drives back the shadow of overhead smoke. Flames scurry from the woodpile toward the main front, encouraging our trailing backburn to charge faster.
Fueled by the roiling air, a tornado of flame leaps from the oncoming front like an upright, angry serpent. It tears toward us through the grass, through our backburn, and into the charred area just across the river. The lower half of the whirl flickers from orange to black. I grin. Starved of fuel, it’s coughing, choking on the ash.
Then, in the hyper-oxygenated, superheated vortex, the ash re-ignites. The revitalized serpent storms to the river’s edge, spits embers over the water. Firebrands drift down into the redwoods like an infernal snow. Em’s upturned, wide eyes glow with fear and firelight.
“Spud, heavy foot!” I flip my radio to air-to-ground two as our Humvee accelerates. “Firebird, this is Dragonslayer One, requesting immediate extraction. Over.”
As Spud tears along the riverbank, I look to the redwoods, to those titans who, having survived millennia of fire, now witness their age come to an end. Flames lick at their trunks like lustful tongues, then begin to climb the once-moist protective bark, now desiccating under years of record heat and drought. I think of my childhood, of climbing that same bark, my fingers finding holds deep in their furrowed armor. Now, the titans writhe and groan in the roiling wind. Orange ascends to their foliage and the canopy explodes in a dance of flames, drunk on destruction as they leap from tree to tree.
Spud skids our truck under the hovering Chinook. Em and I connect the chopper’s hanging cables to our Humvee’s slings and then we’re airborne, swinging in the turbulence. I tell myself the world will go on, and it will. But my children will not know these trees as I did, and already that grieves me. With one hand on the truck’s frame, I lean over and squeeze Em’s shoulder. When she looks back, her welling eyes mirror the infernal dance below.
“I’m sorry,” I mouth over the throb of rotors, over the screams of immolating trees.
She turns away. There’s nothing left to say.
All we can do is watch four-hundred-foot flames devour the last stand of redwoods.
This story owes a large debt to work done by climate, forestry, and fire scientists. Special thanks to hotshot firefighter and US Marine Tony Alvarez for his feedback, and for providing the inspiration behind fire soldiers.
These images flashed into my mind years ago, when I read a paper in Science which documented that since the 1980’s, wildfire frequency in the American West has increased fourfold , the area burned has increased by a factor of six and a half, and the change is closely correlated with warming and earlier spring snowmelt. I had the thought (probably familiar to anyone who writes speculative fiction), “what might the future look like if this trend continues?” This story is that vision, with a little spice from some of the things I was lucky enough to witness during my years fighting fire. Firenado, for example, is not the title of a made-for-TV disaster flick, but an actual phenomenon. And firearms (albeit not nearly fun as the story’s PIG) are sometimes used to start backfires.
While the images were there years ago, I didn’t begin this story until I read a NASA-affiliated study finding a high probability of coming decades-long megadrought in the Southwestern US and Great Plains that could, in the words of a coauthor, “make the [previous] mega-droughts seem like quaint walks through the garden of Eden.” If the projections are accurate, it feels plausible that fire might overwhelm the coast redwood’s protective adaptations. It may be happening already: redwoods are increasingly susceptible to mortality by wildfire.
And if there are, as our protagonist suggests, critical thresholds where the biosphere stops buffering our emissions (e.g. by sequestering carbon in forests) and begins to amplify the effects of those emissions (e.g. by releasing that carbon in fires, resulting in more warming, more fire-starting lightning, and a positive feedback cycle), then the possibility of stand-slicking redwood fires becomes a real concern. I wondered, if current climate trends continue, might we find ourselves waging war on natural processes to protect the things we treasure? In addition to stretched-thin fire soldiers, will we see defense forces for other natural phenomena, like floodfighters and hurricane hunters defending our coastal cities?
But I finished the story only after having a long conversation with a local politician who expressed a total lack of concern for climate change, even to the point of doubting that average global temperatures are increasing (note: we’ve developed a tool capable of putting this issue to rest … it’s called a thermometer). He’s not alone: polling suggests climate change isn’t a priority for a majority of Americans. While I don’t usually like tragic endings, I wanted to convey the sense of the loss we’ll face if trends continue, not just for human life and property, as we’re seeing in California, but for our fellow lifeforms, species facing extraordinarily elevated extinction rates. It’s painful to look at the data and conclude that we’re responsible for these increasingly common tragedies, but they won’t stop if we deny our role so we can avoid the discomfort of acknowledging culpability.
Fire is not a villain. It is one of nature’s most beautiful displays, and can be valuable, even essential for species such as certain varieties of lodgepole pine, which actually rely on fire to open their cones and release their seeds. But fire is only beneficial when it occurs within the range of frequencies and intensities to which ecosystems are adapted.
Here’s to keeping it that way.