Everyone Needs a Wildfire Plan Now
“We all need to get our heads wrapped around more fire, in more places, at more times of the year.”
When I initially set out to interview Justin Angle, one of the authors of This Is Wildfire: How to Protect Yourself, Your Home, and Your Community in the Age of Heat, I’d expected we’d mostly be talking about California.
The forthcoming book is a practical guide and a history of living in the age of wildfires, and has been an invaluable resource in my own reporting on the subject . Written with environmental journalist Nick Mott, This Is Wildfire springs from the co-authors’ six-part 2021 podcast Fireline , and is shrewdly scheduled to be published on August 29, when western fire season really starts to pick up ( you can preorder the book here ).
Though midsummer is often considered “peak wildfire season,” it is September and October that are “far more destructive and burn through many more acres” due to the abundance of dried-out vegetation and blustery autumnal winds, the Western Fire Chiefs Association writes . In fact, the 2018 Camp Fire — the most deadly and destructive wildfire in California’s history — didn’t start until early November. But last week, as a benchmark for modern wildfire devastation, the Camp Fire was surpassed by the horrific wildfires in Maui; so far, there are 96 confirmed fatalities, a number that authorities expect to rise as search efforts continue.
When I spoke to Angle at the end of last week, we were both still reeling from the news. Our conversation touched on why the tragedy in Hawaii is “shocking but not surprising,” the practicalities of home-hardening and evacuation preparedness, and how Americans will need to come together to learn to live with wildfire. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
This Is Wildfire feels like a natural progression from your podcast, Fireline , but I wanted to go back before that, to when you first became interested in wildfires. What was — if you’ll excuse the pun — the spark?
It might not seem obvious; I’m a business school professor at the University of Montana. But when I moved here in 2012, it was a particularly bad fire and smoke year and I’d never really been exposed to those things in my life. Living through it for the first time, I quickly learned that fire plays a large role not only in the ecosystem here in the northern Rocky Mountains but also in the culture. Missoula is an epicenter for so much important fire work, whether it’s the smokejumper training center and the base, the Rocky Mountain research lab, or the Forest Service and the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation doing some really important fire science.
Many of the people I was meeting were prominent players doing important work on fire. So I set out to understand it myself and quickly realized that there seemed to be a lack of general understanding in the community. You know, you read about wildfires and there will be all kinds of vocabulary and jargon, “type three this,” “type one this,” “incident response team,” all sorts of stuff that seemed like gobbly-gook to the average person. It seemed like there was a need for a general explainer. And I was a podcaster — I’d been doing a current affairs radio show for a few years at the time — and I thought about doing a single episode [on wildfire] and quickly realized that, wow, this is a much bigger project that needs journalistic treatment. I’m not trained in journalism so I teamed up with Nick [Mott], who’s an outstanding journalist, and we made Fireline together.
This has been a strange fire year so far, from the smoke event on the East Coast in June to the deadly fires in Maui this week . I have the uneasy sense that your book is going to be increasingly relevant to people who live beyond the traditional borders of the American West in the coming years. As an expert on the topic of wildfire, what are you making of all this?
It’s shocking but not surprising. If you think back to a very formative moment in our country’s relationship with fire, that was the Big Blowup in 1910 when 3 million acres burned [in the inland Northwest]. The smoke from that event blanketed New York City and caused a lot of folks living in that area to think a lot more about wildfire. So maybe we’re witnessing a similar moment where the smoke effects reach more people.
Fiery images in the media this time of year are common, but seeing it in a place that’s unusual, that people don’t associate with burning to the extent they’re seeing now — maybe it breaks through and helps. I mean, one of the big themes of the book is trying to help people imagine and grasp how they can be a part of solutions moving forward. Maybe this is a little motivation for people to, you know, not necessarily wake up, that might be too pejorative a framing, but for fire to be more on the radar screen and for folks to think, Oh, this is a thing that I should be more cognizant of and be thinking about protecting myself and my family from.
One of the really scary things we saw in the Maui fire was how little time people had to evacuate, in part because the fire spread so quickly and unpredictably due to the high winds. In writing a guide for wildfires, what did you want your readers to understand about what they should do in the seconds and minutes after getting an evacuation alert?
First off, be tuned in to all those sources of information. Be signed up for evacuation notices and air quality notices. How that information is disseminated varies a lot from locality to locality. It’s often organized at the county level, but it’s hard to give a one-size-fits-all recommendation; you really have to investigate it in your own area. But that’s absolutely worth the effort, it’s critical.
In the book, we talk about a simple thing called a go bag. If you live in wildfire-prone lands, or any place where natural disaster is a risk — and that’s almost everywhere now — have a go bag with your essential items ready to go. If you need to scramble out the door in moments, it’s ready with your critical items. And it helps put you in that mindset of preparedness.
The other thing for homeowners, with a wind-driven fire — in Maui, I don’t know exactly how much of this occurred — but one of the biggest risks to homes is floating embers finding a weak spot in your home, whether that’s some pine needles in your gutter, or a wooden roof, or some spare wood under your deck. Understand the risks to your home and how they manifest and the work you can do to make your home safer. That could provide a margin of safety and protection that, as a homeowner, you have a lot of control over. Understand how home ignitions work and how they can be prevented with sound maintenance and in some communities, better zoning and better construction and better materials. Some of it is very much accessible to the individual and some of it is going to take more change at the system and policy level.
How close to your home does a wildfire have to be in order to be considered a threat? When should someone start to follow the progress and alerts?
I would advise any distance, and what I mean by any distance is a couple of considerations. If a fire is throwing smoke into your breathing air, then you should be paying attention, you should be in tune with the air quality ratings and how that has an effect on your health, and you should be moderating your activities according to the air quality.
The studies on embers and how far they can float — it’s up to two miles in some of the studies, although some of these fires are creating more intense wind systems. I don’t think I’d want to put a number on it. If there’s a fire within 20 miles of my home, I’m paying attention to it for sure. It’s most likely throwing smoke my way and these fires can spread really fast.
Understanding not only the distance away, but: What are the prevailing wind patterns? What’s the landscape like between your home and the fire? And how much vegetation is there? What areas of defense are there — existing burn scars or areas that have been thinned from previous work by the Forest Service? What sort of access does the Forest Service and other agencies have to that area? So a few different things make it hard to say, like, “This is the number,” but if you’re getting smoke from a fire, generally speaking, it’s close enough for you to be paying attention.
In the book you write, “When [fire is] on the news, it’s nearly always an enemy — something wreaking havoc that we must put an end to.” How should people who write about and cover wildfires rethink the narrative?
Fire is a scary thing and it’s a scary thing for good reason: It can cause tremendous loss of life and property. But I think the notion that it’s always this terrible thing that we have to eradicate from the natural world is, one, incorrect, and two, impossible.
We got really good at suppressing fire for a really long time — so much so that the public expected it to be this thing that the government did for us. Clearly, seeing by the intensity of many of these fires we’re experiencing, that is no longer the case. These fires, if they get out of hand, nobody can control them.
And the other piece of that is: A certain amount of fire is needed. We actually need more fire at the right times of the year in the right places to create more balance in the ecosystem. Our forests will be more resilient to fire; there will be better species health. Some species of trees and animals require fire to germinate, to be healthy. And so I think framing fires as an enemy, as this imminently scary thing, has had some consequences that we now need to think through a little bit more and with a little bit more complexity.
How do you tell the difference between a good and bad fire?
A fire that can burn without creating any risk to human values, homes, and life; a fire that can rejuvenate a forest, clean out the understory, thin out the trees, and create defensible space for future fires to run into or for firefighters to base operations out of — they’re called “resource benefit fires” by the agencies. The takeaway is that not all fire is bad: some are good and in general, we need more of them.
We need to accept that, and also be more accepting of smoke from prescribed fires at different times than we expect it. Here in Missoula, people commonly expect August to be a smoky time of the year and we brace ourselves for it. But sometimes when we get smoke in May, people get cranky, people get upset, and they might even get a little PTSD. Like, “Oh my gosh, is my summer gonna be ruined.” And you know, the truth of the matter is maybe some smoke in those times, when it’s safer to do prescribed burns, is something we need to adapt to. A lot of times, the smoke from prescribed burns or lower-intensity fires is much less concentrated and much shorter in duration. So cumulative exposure to smoke — even though any exposure can have consequences — might lead to better air quality in general if it is spread across a wider period of time.
That was one of the parts of the book that was both very surprising to me and also a lightbulb moment. I can’t remember what the quote was exactly, but it was something along the lines of, like, You’re going to have smoke one way or the other. Do you want it from a megafire, and to have that horrible choking thick smoke, or from a lower intensity burn?
That’s a quote the Forest Service uses commonly and it’s attributable, to the best of my knowledge, to Mark Finney, a scientist based out here in Missoula. He basically says: “How do you want your smoke and when do you want it?” I mean, you’re going to get it regardless.
One of the things we talked about in the book is the relationship between the climate and fire; higher temperatures mean more fire. If you were to look at the historical relationship between temperature and fire, we’re actually in a fire deficit . You would expect to see more fire right now. That’s largely attributable to our suppression. So that doesn’t necessarily mean what we’re seeing in Maui is the new normal, but I think we all need to get our heads wrapped around more fire, in more places, at more times of the year.
A major theme of This Is Wildfire is that we need to tackle these problems as a community, even when that runs against the rugged individualism and libertarian bent of much of the rural West. Are you optimistic that wildfires are something we can come together on?
I think so, mostly because I think we have to. The fire doesn’t care who you voted for if comes for you and your home. And though there is a sense of rugged individualism in the West, there’s also often a spirit of community, particularly in rural areas.
There are things that people can do at the individual level that we outlined in the book about making sure your home ignition zone is resilient to fire. But your efforts need to be part of a community effort. And that can just increase the need for neighborly relations and making fire more salient in community conversations. I’m optimistic that there is a pathway to more communication and coordination.
Where it gets a little thornier, I think, and where I’m still optimistic but maybe not as optimistic, is: Are we going to be able to have more productive conversations around zoning and building policies and saying, “Hey, is it a good idea to build in that place? Is it a good idea to rebuild in that place? Is that appropriate?”
Historically, particularly with wildfire, we’ve not done a good job of asking the hard questions of whether or not we should build in a certain place and how we should build in a certain place. We’re starting to see more and more of it with hurricanes and tornadoes in a variety of states with a variety of political sentiments, so I am optimistic that it can be done with fire and hopefully some of the fire events that we’re having are going to motivate the necessity for those types of hard conversations.
If there’s one thing readers walk away from your book understanding, what would you want that to be?
That not all fires are bad. Some are really beneficial and we actually, on balance, need more fire in the system. And doing so well, I think, gets us to a healthier place on a variety of levels.