Taking stock after a historic month of fire
By Jill Cowan
It’s been a month since the August Complex ignited amid a freakish siege of dry lightning strikes in the Mendocino National Forest.
A week ago, as a new round of blazes consumed thousands and thousands of acres, destroying more lives and more communities, the August Complex became the largest fire in modern California history.
In other words, it’s been a draining month in a year that already defied description.
I checked in with my colleague Jack Healy, who’s been covering the fires on the ground, about what it’s been like:
Q: How long have you been out here covering the fires this year? Where have you been traveling?
A: I live in the foothills outside Denver, so I’ve been living with fires like so many people out here. But I first flew out to California in late August to cover the Creek Fire and the impacts around the Bay Area, Sierras and south toward Santa Cruz. I’ve been through wine country, through the fields around Salinas, through little mountain towns that burned up. Then after Labor Day, I flew into Oregon to cover the fires there and spent my time in little Cascades communities that were getting evacuated and ripped apart.
Q: Whenever I’ve covered wildfires in the past, it always felt like there was a bit of a disconnect between the block-by-block reality of the damage and the kind of large-scale devastation you see on the maps. Is that different this year? How so?
A: “The whole state is on fire” is a refrain you hear a lot. Especially this year. What feels different is how pervasive these fires are, how their calling cards of smoke and ash and haze have just become inescapable across spans of hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles. I’m not an expert in fire behavior, but the damage I’ve seen shows a lot of the same capriciousness of wildfires — where you’re driving through singed fields and past sawed-down trees and seeing house after house that was spared, and suddenly you turn a corner and just see a landscape of loss. Burned houses, burned barns, cars that have all but melted into the roads.
Q: What else has felt different about covering the fires this year? Have you noticed differences in the reactions of people you interview?
A: These feel like very 2020 fires. It is not just that they’ve killed more than 30 people — including multiple children — and broken apart communities and destroyed everything people have worked for their whole lives. They are compounding the pain and stress of an incredibly difficult year. They’re making it harder for people at risk of COVID-19 to stay safe when they’re driven from their homes.
They’re robbing us of the pleasures of outdoor exercise and nature. The country’s angry, paranoid polarization even seeped into how people responded to these fires when misinformation about antifa-led arsons prompted some homeowners to defy evacuation orders, set up militia-style checkpoints in their neighborhoods and really amped up feelings of suspicion and anger in some places at a time when communities are aching to come together and figure out a path forward.
It’s like Judi Vollmer told me in Napa, where she was staying after her home burned: “2020 can go to hell.”