Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read MoreRead More
The Age of Inescapable Wildfire
A conversation with Manjula Martin about her new book The Last Fire Season.
When Manjula Martin was growing up in Northern California in the 1980s, wildfires weren’t something she thought about much. She knew about disaster — the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, which killed 63 people and injured thousands, hit when she was a teenager — but fire, she thought, was just something that happened up in the mountains in the summer.
Things are different now. In 2017, Martin left the high prices of San Francisco for the redwoods of Sonoma County. The night of their housewarming party, a firestorm swept through Santa Rosa and Sonoma and Napa counties. The next year — 5 years ago this week — the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state’s history, destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
In her new book, The Last Fire Season (out on January 16 next year), Martin writes about the fires that swept through California in 2020, weaving her personal story with that of fire in California writ large. It’s a beautiful book, and I called her up to talk about her relationship with fire and how we can learn to live with the changing world. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The book opens in 2020, which was a year of multiple fire complexes. Was that the first time fire made itself known in the immediate vicinity of your home?
No, it wasn’t. But it was the first time that I realized that it wasn’t an anomaly.
We had horrible fires near my area in 2017. In 2018, the Camp Fire happened in Northern California, which was like a four-hour drive away, but the smoke from that fire lingered in the Bay Area for weeks. And then in 2019, the Kincade fire was a huge fire up here in Sonoma, and the entire west of the county was evacuated in basically the course of a night, including ourselves.
Then in 2020, the Lightning Complex fires happened in late August, which is what the book starts with. And that was the moment where I personally was like, “oh, this is going to keep happening.”
Before that a natural disaster to me felt like a thing that happened once and then that’s it, right? It wasn’t connected to larger things for me. But the fact is that the new wildfires that we’re having are bigger and hotter and far more destructive than the previous wildfires we’ve had, and 2020, which is probably far too late, was the year that I personally put that all together under the name of climate change. It wasn’t the first year I knew about fire, but it was the moment I realized that I was going to be living with fire for the rest of my life.
I was struck by your description of the 2020 fires and the ways that COVID complicated your experience of them. It reminded me of the concept of cascading events; it was striking to read about how your go bag was filled with these N95 masks that were there for the sake of the fires, but also, of course, turned out to have utility for this other thing that you’re dealing with at the same time.
That was one of the reasons why I chose to center the book around 2020. I think that was a moment where it became clear for a lot of people that disasters don’t take their turn. When it was happening, I felt it was a historic moment.
You named your book The Last Fire Season. But, of course, it wasn’t the last.
Unfortunately not. The book began as an essay, and since I was writing it in 2021 I thought I was writing about the last fire season I had experienced. But then I realized that it was actually a really great title for a book. It’s pretty commonly acknowledged now that in the North American West, fire season isn’t really a thing anymore. Now fire authorities talk about having a fire year.
That is directly linked to the changing of the weather and the climate. But for me, the deeper meaning of it is this idea that fire being seasonal also sort of implies that it’s temporary, and that it’s going to go away. But really it’s not seasonal, it’s part of this land. And we’re going to be living with it forever.
There’s a point in your book where you write that the California ecosystem was fire-adapted, but also that fire is changing. What do you mean by that?
Since time immemorial, California’s ecosystems — from oak woodlands to redwood forests to grasslands and chaparral — evolved with fire as part of their natural cycle. Fire is actually something that helps the cycle of the landscape reset and continue.
And this was something that Indigenous people knew and really sort of harnessed and used in the way that they tended the lands. But the genocide of Indigenous people in California really sort of stopped that cycle, as is the case with colonialism in most places.
Right, you have a chapter about the Indigenous history of fire in California and the suppression of fire both through violence against Indigenous communities and also a long history of policies against fire.
Yeah, the colonial policies of managing the land in California had been what they call ”total fire exclusion,” which is basically the idea that all fire is bad and we need to extinguish fires right away. There was a policy in place called the 10 AM policy that actually said every new forest fire needs to be extinguished by 10 AM the next morning. And, you know, there are a lot of reasons why that happened, including profits and fear and prioritizing human habitat and recreation over the landscape. But the result is that the landscapes here are actually neglected at this point, 150 years after colonization.
You wrote at one point about going to prescribed burns and there was a section that really stood out to me:
Fire is exuberant. It’s joyous. It dances. I can see why people joke that all firefighters are secret pyros. It’s so much fun.
I fully relate to this feeling. Has going to prescribed burns changed your own relationship with fire?
Good fire and cultural fire, which is generally the term we use when we’re talking about Indigenous use of fire, have radically changed my feelings about fire. Humans have evolved with fire, and the more I engage with fire, the more I learn about it, the more I understand its role in both the land and the history of this place, the less afraid I feel.
You write about your own experience with getting a hysterectomy and how that affected your life afterwards, and I thought that was an interesting choice. You could have written a book that was just about fire, and we could have never learned about your hysterectomy. But you chose to include it. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came to happen?
I could have written a straight journalistic look at wildfire right now or at the 2020 fire season specifically. And that was something I toyed with. But I ultimately realized, in thinking about this idea of cascading disasters, that they’re all happening while people are living their lives. Climate change, wars, economic ruin are all happening on top of whatever else is going on in your life. So I thought this part of my life was worth including.
The hysterectomy, and many associated health crises, led me to having chronic pain. And one of the only things that helped me with that was gardening. For me, the physical act of literally touching the land, being in this dialogue with the environment and the ecosystem around me, was the thing that helped me recover from this health crisis. I wasn’t quite well. And more importantly, nature wasn’t quite well. And gardening in this environment is what really made it click for me that this environment is going through a crisis as well.
That garden was partly how you knew about the oncoming fires in 2020, right?
Yeah, when the Lightning Complex fires started, I was out in my garden watering the roses. I saw this little black object on the ground, and when I leaned down and picked it up I saw it was a leaf of a California bay laurel tree. And it was burned black, but it was still whole. It had been blown on the wind and landed in my garden. It was sort of like a messenger, telling me that a few miles away these trees were burning.
Bay trees are a natural part of the forest understory here, but they are highly flammable. They’re basically made of oil, and they serve as what’s called a ladder fuel; if fire gets in that tree, it will shoot up it and then can get into the crowns of taller trees like redwoods or oaks that would normally be more fire resistant. It’s literally a fire spreader. Anyone who lives in the area will tell you that when there’s a fire nearby it rains burnt leaves.
Parts of the book are unexpectedly written in the past tense. You write, for example, that “Northern California was a very large place,” but the depictions of events in the past or future are written in the present tense. Was that intentional? Did you mean to contract the idea of Northern California?
I absolutely did. The convention in nonfiction is to write events in the past tense, but to phrase facts, or things that are still true, in the present tense. I felt like it was important to acknowledge that the things we take as granted, these truths about the way the environment works, might not always remain that way. It was also partly a pragmatic decision, because I didn’t know what would happen before the book came out. What if my house burned down before that, or if I have to move? Things are just so chaotic right now.
The other time I break with convention is when I write about Indigenous nations and Indigenous management practices. I intentionally used the present tense there as a way to push back against the trope of a lot of non-Indigenous writers portraying Indigenous people and worldviews as extinct when in fact they’re very, very alive.
Throughout the book you’re constantly talking to your partner about whether to stay in your home or move away to a “safer” area. I think it can be really hard for people who don’t live in areas under threat to grasp just how hard the concept of migrating really is.
Right, that’s such a common binary: to stay or go. And the reality is actually a lot messier. I’m fortunate to even have the choice of whether to stay or go; I am a person who has a lot of different privileges. I have resources, I have friends, I’m educated, I’m white.
Most people don’t willingly leave their homes unless things are really bad. But it’s never really all bad: Sometimes there’s extreme weather and disasters, and then there isn’t. It’s up and down. There’s a lot of talk around what the perfect solution is, where the safe places are. And the truth is that nowhere is safe because of climate change.
For me, the point of living at this moment on this planet is that it’s messy. It’s full of grief, it’s full of joy and beauty, and it’s also dangerous. There may be a time when I leave this place, for a variety of reasons. But I think the idea that you can run away from climate change is false.
Something I’ve learned a lot from talking with people who are deeply connected to the land here and who work with fire is that you have a responsibility to the place where you live. If I love this place so much, what do I owe it? The idea of tending a place for its overall health, not just for my personal survival, is very powerful.
Right, at one point you write about you and your partner thinking about doing prescribed burns in the woods near you to help reduce the risk of more fires.
We have thought a lot about the idea of reintroducing good fire where we live. Our neighborhood has been getting together and doing work days where we clear fuels from the forest floor together. And it’s really proof of how much work is needed, because you can clear brush and cut dead limbs off trees for a day with a group of 15 people, and then you look at this tiny quarter acre that you’ve worked on, and it still needs so much more work.
Stewardship is a constant act.
Absolutely. And it might not be perfect, and honestly it might not make a difference. These woods might still burn. But if and when they do burn, they are going to be healthier afterwards because the fire is going to be healthier.