Historic, record-breaking fires swept through the State of California this weekend… and our new Governor Gavin Newsom announced, California in a state of emergency. Just as we dodged 1 bullet days earlier in the midterm elections, and reclaimed the House in DC… 1,000’s of houses in theRepublic of California have now been claimed by two of the most devastating fires in our history, the Camp Fire in the north, and the Woolsey Fire in the south.
It’s 6am Monday morning-Veteran’s Day in California, and entire crews of strong, courageous, and self-sacrificing fire-fighters are 24-7, battling on all fronts to take back the neighbor’s house…. Currently, the Camp Fire raging through Paradise in Northern California is 25% contained, with 29 deaths, 200 + missing, 6,453 homes and 260 commercial buildings incinerated across 111,000 acres of land. Similarly, the Woolsey Fire crossing both Ventura and Los Angeles Counties in Southern California is 15% contained and continues to burn across 85,500 acres, having taken two lives and destroyed 177 buildings; including the Malibu mansions of well-known stars. Nearly 57,000 structures are still threatened…and the fire danger remains high across the entire region.
It’s 6am Wednesday morning. Camp Fire is 35% contained, 48 deaths now confirmed, 8,817 structures destroyed, 7600 homes lost. Woolsey Fire burned 97,620 acres, 2 deaths, 57,000 structures threatened, 483 buildings destroyed; 47% contained.
Visit Fire Tracker for current updates.
Imagine people (just like us) living the dream in Malibu’s mountain paradise on Friday night, rising early Saturday morning to jump in the car (or for some celebrities, like the Kardashians… a private jet), and scramble for your life to escape a climaxing fire event, flanking Malibu’s main road (in-out) on both sides. We are living in extraordinary times. Imagine the security cameras of homes (just like ours) capturing live the consumption and incineration of family legacies, as well historic Hollywood film sets, like the Western Town on Paramount’s Ranch. We are living in extraordinary times. And who would have thought we would ever see llamas tied to lifeguard stations on Zuma’s beach, covered in auburn haze?
And just when we think it could never happen to us, another fire patrol zooms overhead to ensure that spot fires could (and do, like the 41 acres at Griffith Park over the hill) easily flare up here too, when lifted by the warm, dry Santa Ana winds. Indeed, the threat of fire is real all across the Ventura/Los Angeles county wildland interface. Fire conditions are in this season ripe to roar, but thank goodness the winds were forgiving these past days, so no fire has yet knocked on our door.
Part I: The Problem
The Real Fire Raging
It’s not that Californians are foreign to fire. The Santa Ana winds kick up every year and tempt the shrub oak, chaparral bushes, and pine forests to ignite. And, I imagine other responsible, firewise residents like us ensure every autumn— their trees are well trimmed, drip-irrigated gardens green, water hoses ready, and family evacuation plans, well thought. Right?! Wouldn’t the same level of preparedness hold true for you, smart residents living near hurricane/tornado alleys, below avalanche gulches, and within flooding zones, too? Most of us living at the wildland-urban interface at one point realize nature can and will eventually disturb, no matter what you’ve heard. The mild threat of danger lurks everywhere, all the time… but the same is true for streetwise urbanites, keeping wary eyes out for crime, theft, or violence on their city blocks. No one living anywhere is ever 100% safe. And while no one can ever be 100% prepared for a natural disaster either; building greater awareness and better coordination among citizens living in a fire zone (or subject to other nature threats) is always a powerfully positive topic of discussion when events like our California fires remind us of our place in nature.
And that said, there is a deeper conversation I believe also needs to be highlighted… one concerning the constant threat of fire burning across our multi-year, drought-effected California. Even when the fire events mushroom up each Indian summer, this persistent fire continues to smolder underground, traveling throughout the roots of communities across the West. Clearly, we Californians have entered a new abnormal reality in regards to the frequency, intensity, speed, and spread of wildfires. And, the dramatic change in fire behavior these past years is an expression of these hidden, enflamed roots… the fires, their symptoms.
So what is the real root of the problem that continues to flare up in extreme fire events across the West in recent years? The root is nature consciousness. We have become disconnected from our nature…from our human+nature conscious selves. As Californians we love our outdoors. We swim in the oceans and hike in our mountains. We know we need nature and we are drawn to quiet, natural places, outside the city to re-create and to refresh. But that said, we have somehow forgotten amidst the busy-ness of life that we not only reside in nature, we are nature. Our every action has an impact-for better or for worse; on the environment in which we live, locally and globally. While we could have a whole conversation about our cultural environment and our human+human nature; I’ve focus this opinion piece on our human+nature connection to explore what has changed in California (and across the West) to disrupt the natural life-giving role of fire in nature and to disfigure the natural shape of the fire triangle in such a way to cause out-of-bounds death and destruction across our wooded oak hills and mountain forest ecosystems.
Even after studying fire during my master’s in natural disturbance ecology at Utah State University and working in Boulder County as the fire ecologist; I still feel I know very little about the mysterious nature and behavior of fire. That said, I do remember and always go back to the basics of the Fire Triangle. Fire needs a right ignition source, enough fuel, and ideal fire climate… as anyone who has tried to light wet wood with a dull piece of flint on a snowy, cold afternoon could also tell you. Right!?
So how have we changed the shape and size of the fire triangle to now bear witness to such a dramatic, new abnormal shift in fire behavior that’s precipitated these unruly, extreme fires burning now in California?
The population of Los Angeles is estimated at just over 4 million (census in 2016, and there are likely a whole lot more of us now). As well, 10.16 million are accounted for in the Los Angeles county- the largest in the US. So first, there are now an extraordinary number of us–potential ignition sources. And a good percentage of these ignition sources (citizens) are driving cars, motorcycles, and trucks across a network of large and small windy roads, with little-none- overgrown vegetation, celebrating birthdays with barbecue parties, lighting up cigarettes or marajuana joints in neighborhood parks, using electronics, ovens, stoves in the home, daily. Further imagine, 10 million people is quite a number to feed a constant stream of electrical power too, over towering transmission lines, still many buzzing over ground. That’s also a large number of citizens for a city and county to educate and make consciously aware of our ignition potential. After all, it just takes one spark with the right fuel at the right time… and the wrong, mistaken, or unconscious action.
Disfigured Fire Triangle Hypothesis1:
There are many more of us-ignition sources.
Re-figured Fire Triangle Solution 1:
Educate everyone in Firewise prevention and safety.
Genius architect and visionary designer, Frank Lloyd Wright built beautiful homes in California (and across the US) that integrated nature into the design, creating almost a seamless connection between the indoor and outdoor living space. In these homes we feel healthy and whole, as his architectural wonders elegantly meshed with the surrounding natural environment. But while the vision and design motivations of FLW are brilliant, it is important from a fire safety perspective to delve deeper into the ecology of the natural ecosystem where we live… and design our home to be Firewise, too.
As a starting point, the nature of forests is that they succeed and senesce. Fire, degradation, death, and destruction are necessary processes in the living, dynamic, zero waste, synergistic, and circular ecology of every natural system. Therefore, to preclude fire from occurring or to alter the biodiversity/age/fuel composition of woodland, forest species will inevitably tip a naturally balanced system out of balance…and only delay the eventual ignition of a likely more extreme fire event. The nature of nature is that she will always swing the pendulum back to center and return to the golden mean. It just is her way. As well, as water seeks a path of least gravitational resistance, fire will seek a path of greatest fuel source and oxygen. So if we steward the land in one direction— e.g. exclude fire from a system for so long, let fuels accumulate in our forests unnaturally, or build our homes where fire naturally wants to burn… then we must expect her to eventually react, recalibrate… and fire to return.
Such was the case of Paradise and Malibu. Fire was long overdue. But the good news forward is that now aware by reducing fuel loads, we mitigate the threat of extreme fire events; we can direct fire prevention resources (local, state, federal) toward public works projects to selectively harvest forests and to trim them back to greater health. Further, the super-good news is that when we invest in such sustainable forest management practices, we also employ a young workforce, who can extract wood, sell the raw resource, and/or convert it into natural capital given the right business model. We live in California–the land of the possible, creative, innovate, and free; so we can figure out a way to make money when we save the forest day… It doesn’t have to be free!
On that note, here are a few amazing people and programs to watch, who are doing just that…
Youth Voices: On the Firelines
Cory Beattie, Wildland Firefighter and Student
West Coast Resilience
Governor Jay Inslee, State of Washington
Mayor Ted Wheeler, City of Portland, Oregon
Mayor Gregor Robertson, City of Vancouver
Increasing Forest Resilience, Supporting Clean Water
Leigh Madeira, Co-Founder & Partner, Blue Forest Conservation
Finally, reflecting again on FLW’s deeper ecological message of living in tune with our human+nature; we shouldn’t forget nature as our teacher in figuring out ways to reduce our forest fuel load and adapting to the good life on the wildland-urban interface. Nature can give some good advice (life having evolved on this planet for over 3.8 billion years) on optimally designing, building, re-building our homes & gardens in sustainable, elegant, and Firewise ways. And just to give one example… the spider spins a web that is beautiful in its form, while efficient and resilient in its function. She uses minimal insect-water resources to spin her web… and she places it in the ideal location to attract food, while also protecting against natural disturbances, like wind sheer. There are 1000’s of these biomimicry examples from nature, where she shares her wisdom and can inspire the thoughtful, healthy design of our homes and sustainable lifestyles. If you are interested to learn more… and to receive a daily nature inspiration this 2019, then visit, Naturally Intelligent by Design to learn more and add yourself to our email list.
Disfigured Fire Triangle Hypothesis2:
Forest fuel is overly dry and excessive.
Re-figured Fire Triangle Solution 2:
Think like a spider, well manage your forest garden to reduce fuels.
What does Trump’s US trade war with China have to do with the new abnormal fire climate and subsequent anomalous speed, scale, frequency, and intensity of California fires? It turns out, quite a lot. Brazil currently exports 65 million tons of soy to China. The US exported 30 million tons to China… until Trump started the trade war. Now, China is turning toward Brazil to pick up the soybean slack… and what do you think the country would say to this new massive, multi-billion USD export opportunity… especially the new presidency under Jair Bolsonaro? (Forest Finance Summit, UN, 2018) Already, from 2006 to 2017, Brazil’s Amazon lost 91,890 miles2 of forest cover (Google Earth)- an area 50% the size of the East Coast, to mining, ranching, soy bean production. “The combined impacts of deforestation, climate change, and extensive use of fire to clear lands in the Amazon has now brought the tropical forest to its tipping point.” Tom Lovejoy (environmental scientist) (NYT, Nov. 8, 2018)
If the largest contiguous tropical forests vanish in the name of development and progress, then the ability for the forest to drawdown the excessive carbon we have put as a species and at a planetary scale… also vanishes. Consequently, we are left with a global climate, which has spun out of its “goldilocks” ideal climate phase and tipped into an entirely new climate paradigm… one that climate models continue to predict will bring longer, drier, warmer weather to California Mediterranean climates. If the Brazilian government, now charged by a man who recently claimed: “where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it, and we are going to reclaim it…” (NYT, Nov. 8, 2018) continues to unleash unregulated bands of miners, loggers, and farmers to clear forest land; then the tropical forest ecosystem will collapse… and fire will continue to rage across California forests, and beyond.
Thus, the changed climate of fire and abnormal fire behavior we have seen in California, and likely will continue to experience here on the West Coast, is directly and strongly influenced by our climate actions on a planetary scale. And that is why it is so important for us as individuals, communities, and global citizens to continue to drive our new climate economy toward renewable energy; as well, to protect and promote healthy forests and sustainable management.
Disfigured Fire Triangle Hypothesis 3: Human-caused global climate change has shifted local fire climate conditions to greater extremes.
Re-figured Fire Triangle Solution 3:
Reduce your carbon footprint.
Part II: Solutions
Nature’s Solution-the Forgotten Forest Solution
It’s very tempting to accuse the dark, destructive forest of causing the deaths of now 48 people and damage to billions USD property. However, nature is not our enemy; it is ourselves. When we live amidst and alter our environment, we become our environment. Nature is a reflection of ourselves… and when nature is not well; we are not well.
The good news is that the converse is also true.
When nature is well; we are well. When we protect the health and integrity of forests, we drawdown carbon and oxygenate our air, we feed ourselves, 1.2 billion people can work, 2/5th of world families gain access to natural medicine, 1/3 of the climate challenge is solved, and 70% of the water on the planet is filtered and cleansed for our consumption. When nature is well; we are well.
That means when we act as the stewards of nature and make conscious decisions to control our economies and communal ecologies that support life; life supports us. The forest is not only a sacrificial victim in the abnormally large and intense California fires, still burning— the problem; but also the solution. If the world’s forests (taken as a whole) have the capacity to draw down 25% of our carbon excess in the atmosphere due to human activity, then forests are a massively important part of the solution to mitigate climate change… and advance forest fire behavior in the Western States to a new, healthier normal. Clearly, we have entered an abnormal period in human history, where our impact on our environment has reached planetary scale impact. And, we have a choice. We can be responsible or not. We can leverage our global influence for bad-and destroy life; or for good… and support life.
And when we choose the later, then we are obliged to hold ourselves accountable to reducing our carbon footprint, offsetting our fossil-fuel burning activities… and eventually eliminating them all together. The Roadmap for Global Climate Action and the Global Footprint Network show us the way, where we can all play a positive role… And, our journey starts with understanding our natural world, appreciating our stewardship responsibility, and making lifestyle/business/consumer decisions that are realistically and practically tied to our sustainable values in support of life.
People’s Solution: In the Public We Trust
I truly believe that most people are good. I truly believe that most people want the best for their families and their communities. I truly believe that most people care about life and want to leave a positive living legacy. I truly believe that most people appreciate and care about their home and their environment, and would like to live in peace. I truly believe that most of us are naturally intelligent human beings.
And as nature continues to checkmate our un-intelligent human actions; she reminds us of this stewardship role we were meant to play here and now…and when we don’t, won’t, ignore, or choose to remain passive… we have by default chosen to suffer the raging consequences, together. (Watch: I See Fire, Ed Sheeran)
In Trump We Do Not Trust
But if it’s our nature and our true north to support life and to protect the natural world upon which life depends; then how is it possible we have traveled so far south? How could we elect a President who has such disdain of, disregard for, and disconnection to his personal health— suffering from a “disordered mind” (according to Ian Hughes, filled with hate, paranoia, and narcissism); and the health of the people and country he is —by oath and by law, required to protect? How is it we have lost our moral compass direction, true north?
At least we can be grateful that Trump has not succeeded to pull the majority of the US population off the cliff, so far right toward few of his most extremist policy moves (e.g. repealing the Affordable Health Care Act or constructing a fortress wall on the Mexican border). Yet, he has sadly, successfully, and in such short time… unraveled more environmental protection legislation and unleashed an unprecedented wave of unsustainable, harmful activities, which are destructive to our environment and to our democracy, than any other US President in history. From insisting on the Keystone XL pipeline, to removing our country from the Paris Climate Agreement, to bringing coal-fired power plants back online, to removing vehicle emission standards; this US leader, in God, we can not trust. And even recently when he had the opportunity to trash ocean trash and encourage Americans to RRR (reduce, reuse, recycle) plastics; he used his stage to trash China…for trashing our trash in our collective commons, Pacific (peaceful?) Ocean. Why? What is the advantage to humanity, lost; by continually poking at the nuclear fire and causing climate chaos? Does he realize that he is playing carelessly with our lives and the collective survival of our species? (For a deeper, thoughtful reflection see: Jeff Sach’s: Trump’s Diminishing Power and Rising Rage)
In Constitutional Law and Moral Leadership We Trust
The good news is that we do live in a democratic republic where constitutional law, when violated, should trump even Trump. And as The Children’s Trust Juliana vs. United States climate lawsuit continues to take its course for trial in the highest Supreme Court; we will see if justice prevails.
Meanwhile, other shining lights still provide moral leadership and orient us back to our true north on a global stage (e.g. PM Trudeau and President Macron, Chancellor Merkel, although outgoing), in local state governments (e.g. Kate Brown, Gavin Newsom), and across corporate America… (e.g. RE 100 Network of companies, American Sustainable Business Council) “We are Still In” the Paris Climate Agreement. Specific to our forest & fire narrative; over 475 companies have still made and maintain commitments to net zero deforestation in their operations by 2020. As well, the Tropical Forest Alliance continues to grow strong and capitalize on the public momentum gained at the GCAS (Global Climate Action Summit). Harrison Ford’s plea to fight for Nature “The Forgotten Solution” continues to ring true in the right circles. Of course, we “can’t forget nature” as again, healthy forests are 25% (at least) of the carbon drawdown solution. Other examples of leadership wins on the forest front lines in Latin America, include: the Environmental Minister of Peru, Fabiola Munoz Dodero partnering with WWF and the Moore Foundation to help indigenous communities map, to claim, and to protect their lands; while TNC (The Nature Conservancy) and Santander aggregate $50 million USD in loans for farmers who commit to protect virgin lands…especially now in the frenzy to produce more soy for China. These aims and aspirations, it will be important for us as consumers to encourage and to support in the coming years.
Thus, in the Public we Trust…for in the public we now must trust.
In Indigenous Peoples We Trust
Thankfully, one of the most important groups in the world we really can trust with our public trust is the indigenous peoples. The good news is that many local communities who have historically maintained sustainable lifestyles across seven generations, embracing the 7th Generation long term stewardship philosophy and role in their natural communities…around the world are rising. Bioregional in nature and collectively organized socially in tribal groups, the indigenous peoples are now organizing more effectively and coordinating their message of responsible stewardship, more impactful … thanks in large part to digital media communication tools and a new organization, Nia Tero.
Nia Tero, led by former CI (Conservation International) Executive, Peter Seligman, exists to secure indigenous ownership of vital ecosystems. As most indigenous groups remain well tuned to their human+nature, they are our best role models to learn how to live in a naturally intelligent way and to support the viability and integrity of human+nature ecosystems. And when it comes to fire; they are often the first recruits hired.
In the Future of Bioregional Communities, We Trust
I love this quote from Taxi Driver Wisdom.
“You are not any safer in first class.”
Indeed, there may be a massive financial divide between the trailer-dwellers and retirement home residents in Paradise and the uber-wealthy celebrities scattered throughout the Malibu mountains, but in the end all are residents of our home, Earth. And when we “see fire inside the mountain, …if the sky should be filled with fire and smoke…then we all burn together.” Ed Sheeran, I see Fire
Years ago I studied fire as part of my master’s program at Utah State University in natural disturbance ecology; and soon thereafter, I started work in Boulder County, Colorado working as the fire ecologist. My mandate was to educate mountain communities on the role of fire in the ecosystem and to encourage them to collectively manage their properties in Firewise ways; (e.g. creating defensible space around their homes, re-roofing with fire retardant materials, selectively harvesting pine/fir trees from their dense forests, part of their land conservation easements). All new developments we could regulate; but the established grandfather properties we could not. Some communities welcomed our trainings and support. Other communities- representing a mix of laissez-faire, government-hands off Republican second home owners, staunch Libertarians, and a range of colorful solitary characters; did not entirely embrace fire rules or regulations (from local, state, federal governments).
I hadn’t thought of this time in my life for a while, but these fires miles from my home in California and the community demographics of the fires; flashed me back like lightning to this time in my life.
Why share? Why share now?
There were lessons I learned in Boulder in that job, through that experience. I recognize community social patterns that could help those of us living in wild land –urban interface communities now to mitigate the threat of fire in our neighborhoods in the future.
Simply, the key to successful fire prevention I saw as a pattern in the many communities we served in Boulder was “collective action”. Especially in the case of a fire, it takes a village (and land managers responsible for and around that village) to think and act FireWise. In Boulder County, our entire education program was community-based and focused heavily on homeowner responsibility to the community. Preventing fire and mitigating its spread when fire conditions were ripe; I learned, required 100% commitment by everyone. And as many mountain properties were historic mining claims, the homes in these dangerous fire zones, sat at the top of thin slivers of steep mountainside, accessible only by narrow, winding dirt roads. Thus, the mountain community was only truly Firewise if everyone on the entire mountain slope- everyone; well managed their private lands. A few years ago, I returned to Boulder to produce a film called Inspire for the Paris Climate Summit with the Earth Guardians-committed now to the Children’s Trust lawsuit… to inspire all country leaders to stop their heated arguments and fiery rage… and protect our climate for future generations. We told the story within the context of an Incan legend, threatening fire on the mountainside if people did not band together (in Firewise ways) to mitigate the larger global threat of climate change. How symbolically relevant, right?
Further, the strangely serendipitous (worst) part, was that the only location we could film our winter fire scene for our little film, Inspire, was in the Gold Hill community, whose surrounding forests and homes (including the beautiful cabin where I rented a room) were completely devastated (leveled) by a wildfire in 2010, the Four Mile Fire. How ironic and how powerfully symbolic did that film site become for us in our story then…. and as it turns out also now, to our ever-evolving fire-climate story. (Additional note: Most of those homes sat at the top of old, grandfathered mining claims, conflicted by the complex social constraints explained above.).
Now as I am again living in Southern California and witnessing wildfire very close to home; the fires in Malibu not only remind me of my life in Boulder, but inspire me to learn more about California’s Firewise programs. Interested? Take a look: The NFPA’s Firewise USA
The long & short is that if we imagine our homes as part of a bioregion, and we manage our individual property in ways that protect the larger whole; then in the public we can trust….
And, if we, the people, still choose not to protect our property, then the duty falls on our representative leaders to protect the collective and to require us as citizens to mitigate future “perilous” threats to our sustainable health… like fire. Perhaps again here we can point our compass north toward Canada and PM Trudeau. His new climate policy encourages individual Provinces to put in place climate initiatives and cap-trade incentives to reduce carbon. If provinces fail to do so … no problem. The federal government-committed by law to protect the public trust, now promises to step in and federally regulate carbon reduction. That’s moral leadership, and that’s what’s missing in our US government now at the federal level…to protect us from future fires out west and larger socio-political-economic fires, globally.
In Moral Conscious and Fearless Youth Rising and our Future We Trust
In the wake of Washington state’s failed Carbon Emissions Free Initiative (I-1681) last week, perhaps the most refreshing news on NPR’s Fresh Air was again that hopeful story of traction by 21 youth (Climate Trust), pursuing course to protect our constitutional rights “to live in a climate system capable of sustaining life”. The California fires remind us this week; we are all susceptible to suffering the threat of climate change in real, visceral ways. Thus, we can be grateful to those youth who have put their childhood aside for a greater cause. Thank you….
It has been a few years since we produced Inspire with the Earth Guardian and premiered in Paris @ COP 21. And, I have to admit I am both surprised and uber impressed by how far they have come, how committed they continue to be, and how empowered and empowering to other youth they are…historic. During the midterm elections, they were actively, centrally, and successfully encouraging their peers to exercise their right to vote, and to vote intelligently. Indeed, now they have power… and as they grow up to inherit70% of the nearly $58.7 trillion USD of global investment capital (UN Summit,2018); they will in the next decade have real buying power, as well. In these Earth Guardians , I believe, we can trust to speak with the right heart, right moral values, and right vested interest in the future… their future.
And as this is very good news; we must all still remain “vigilant and cautiously optimistic”. We continue to approach climate tipping points of no return, and the California fires are just another reminder that we all need to accelerate our climate action now lest we run out of time. Achim Steiner (UNDP chair) and Johan Rockstrom (Potsdam Institute)
Thus, my main message to Thrive Global readers is:
It’s time to pointour moral compasses due north again, and be the people the Public CanTrust…because right now it is up to ALL OF US to protect Paradise, Lost! We have a Roadmap. Let’s use it!!!!
Published by Catherine Cunningham, PhD in Thrive Global
For More Articles by Catherine Cunningham, See Natural Intelligence Quest Blog