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Aerial view of wildfire

Property Line

By Ben Rutherfurd

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I wanted to dig it up, that war. Not just the fire but what made the fire. Not just the fire but the land.

 
Wind rattles the leaves of the eucalyptus, piles of invisible, detached caps collecting amid sheaves of papery bark. A wind formed on the lee of Mount Saint Helena and shuttling toward the Pacific, picking up speed, airborne embers dropped like spores not far from my family. Not far from a dream, I watch as fires flower on an interactive map of the globe over the course of 20 years. On Earth, the website says, something is always burning. The pixelated flames crop up in August, die down in December. On a laptop 2,617 miles away in Athens, Georgia, I try to gauge my relationship to this image. As warm winds pour through human habitats in an arid year.

 

 

Coffey Neighborhood on New Year’s Eve. 2017. My footsteps sound outside my head and in. Fourteen weeks since the fire. At first, I’m afraid of being seen (by whom?) (as what?) even though I’ve been here hundreds, maybe thousands of times. I’ve never been anywhere near here. In some places, people have decorated what remains of their homes: tinsel thrown through branches singed black, stockings stapled to the telephone poles. In other places, houses hang open to the air, their rooms and floors exposed like some schoolroom diorama. And in almost places is a fine, grey powder that has the appearance of ash. Then bone. Then ash mixed with bone, heavy in a birdbath, on the hoods of charcoaled cars, on any and all available surfaces

*

A story about fire is also a story about war, which is a warped story.

*

Under the California Disaster and Civil Defense Master Mutual Aid Agreement, various state agencies cross county lines to help in the suppression of fire.

 

polychromatic     

            map of

 

US

When the Wheeler hit Ventura County in 1985, over 3,000 were flown in to assist. Within hours, they had set up camp complete with kitchen, sanitation, transportation, medical facilities, a communications network, a “situation trailer”, a “what if” trailer for long-range contingency planning, and a “pool coordinator” for the off-duty crews swimming in peoples’ backyards. In their own words, firefighters had simply super-imposed a city on top of the incident.i

*

 
            “low

-grade
aluminum”

When Santa Rosa broadcast its evacuation orders, many of my friends ignored them. One stayed behind to hose down his roof. Another, moments from driving away, went back for his television after spotting what he later described as a couple of shady-looking guys across the street

as a fine grey mist fell, disappearing when it hit the ground.

            a living envelope

*

  

   

    melted into

Events listed under the California Disaster and Civil Defense Master Mutual Aid Agreement also include flood, earthquake, pestilence, war, sabotage, and riot.

 

 

 

I wanted to dig it up, that war. Not just the fire but what made the fire. Not just the fire but the land.

*

 
coral

  

 

        clump

 

Section 10 of An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, passed just five months prior to California’s entry to the Union (1850) states:

If any person or persons shall set the prairie on fire, or refuse to use proper exertions to extinguish the fire when the prairies are burning, such person or persons shall be subject to fine or punishment, as a Court may adjudge proper.ii

As Aadita Chaudhury explains, Section 10 targeted Native populations, who tended ecosystems through burning, and served as an alibi for removing them from their lands and justification for enclosure. If costs were high when wildfires damaged property, Natives were likely to be blamed. Fire became what Chaudhury calls a much-policed companion species.iii

*

(—from the root word -spek, “to observe”)

*

incandescent
   OCLI lens

Across the still-young United States, laws surrounding fires are slow to take hold, and the smoke from open flames can still be seen coiling and winding well into the 1900s. Until more scientific methods of forest management, which place supreme value on timber yields and rationalize the land, migrate across the Atlantic.iv

            the circle almost circled

*

In a letter to the editor of The San Francisco Call in the fall of 1902, one H.D. Ostrander addressed the threat posed by fire to American forests.

chipped grey

  
tablet:

Under the present conditions, which will become worse from year to year, when a fire starts it consumes everything in its path, the flames reach to such height as to communicate with the boughs of the trees, and when this is the case the fire is beyond human control, and nothing will stop it other than a barren mountain.

Lamenting the seemingly endless amount of dead matter on the forest floor, Ostrander urged the American Forestry Congress to burn, and burn often. Though scientists and laymen alike continued to denounce light burning—igniting cool fires to favor certain plants and mitigate the threat of bigger burns—as an illegitimate method of forest management.v

Self-reliance, science, white supremacy stood still.

 
 

“He who
plants
 

  a garden

As late as 1911, an agent in the Division of Forestry writing for the Sierra Club Bulletin openly refuted the idea of burning up the woods, and, unable to concede that Native populations held sustainable burning practices, clung to the belief that the Government, first of all, must keep its lands producing timber crops indefinitely by protecting, encouraging, and bringing to maturity every bit of natural young growth.vi

*

As of 2020, ecologists predict up to 20 million acres of flammable vegetation currently in need of treatment or reduction across state, private, or federal lands.vii California alone contains over a thousand non-native plant species, many of which have either altered the state’s fire regimes or will do so in the future.viii

Eucalyptus
Foxtail Barley
Giant Reed
Ripgut Brome

*

plants

 

  happiness”

Fire as a sign of insubordination, of that which won’t adhere to the law, the law that is a product and producer of its own enforcement.ix

*

—and after the conflagration? a rotting

log enlivened

with X-mas tree

lights lies on the

American sidewalk.

 
       plastic
tombstone
Dr. Evil

  

skeleton
bringing

   pinky to
lip

 

 

    

mug with THE
BUCK
STOPS
HERE

 
 

Each smoke season, my friends living in what is deemed a State Responsibility Area (SRA) are instructed to harden their homes by surrounding them with three concentric circles, each with a specific design—a principle known as Defensible Space.

Zone 0, the Ember-Resistant Zone, encompasses the house and immediate area five feet from its foundation.x Because most homes are lost to flying embers blown in from the front, experts recommend shoring up garage door seals, installing drip edges where embers might catch, and covering any attic vents with 1/8metal mesh screens.

*

Since 1970, human populations in California’s most flammable regions have risen by 300 percent.

It is predicted that by 2050, 1.2 million new homes will have been built.xi

Land made useful won’t be given up.

 

 

 

 

 

      watercolor
           sun

*

Zone 1 of Defensible Space, the Lean, Clean and Green Zone, should extend 30 feet from buildings, structures, decks, etc. or to your property line. This zone should consist of well-hydrated landscaping and be cleared of any superfluous debris or flammable patio furniture.xii

Zone 2, the Reduce Fuel Zone, stretches to a 100-foot radius. Here, homeowners should reduce vegetation levels by keeping lawns trimmed, removing any dead or dying plants, and maintaining ample space between trees.xiii This zone is intended to disrupt the fire’s path but it’s also an aesthetic transition between the more heavily modified Zone 1 and the unmodified surroundings.

Landscapes are always made through the filter of belonging.

*

It’s important to understand the ecological processes that took place before European settlement, says one man in an online tutorial, “Living with Wildfire: A Guide for Property Owners.” We’ve changed all that in the last 150 years.

 
cable cut
      from        

 Half Dome
climb

While not living in an SRA, because their neighborhood is flanked by knee-high grasses that take to flame in fall, my parents prepare each year a just-in-case bag left by the door. They install a fire-resistant roof, in keeping with citywide safety procedures. They strip back the mulberry trees and rinse out the gutters, where pinecones and leaves may collect overtime and ignite from flying sparks.

*

As the video explains, a fire will travel more voraciously uphill, and vegetation density will determine whether it can ladder up and reach the tops of trees.

(Cartoon embers fling themselves onto a cartoon house)

   hexagonal

 
AIR
      FORCE

*

The ones that take days, weeks, to contain are what people call the big hitters. Against these, crews may revert to a defensive attack, look along the perimeter for a natural break or set up a control line. Maybe start a backfire to cut it off from its fuel.xiv

*

Yellow star thistle
Peruvian peppertree
Spanish broom
Gorse

How we talk about the wildfires is also how we talk about the West, writes Jesse Kindig in the Boston Review. That is, desiring the authentic in a landscape of inauthenticity, about safely yearning for something never there in the first place, about obscuring violence with romance.xv

*

First the wind then the embers then the embers then the embers that catch

silver
  Humbucker

*

in brambles that meet the field that takes to flame that warms the soil
        that churns the seeds that sprout the trees that cover

the street with their leaves

*

—and after the conflagration?

slabs of plywood read YOU LOOT WE SHOOT

            a font of automatic fire

Russian
porcelain

 

 

   “integrated
straw”

  

 
 
 

KARLOVY
VARY

 

A NASA satellite orbits the earth to track fires as they occur. The dream of pure representation. Satellite data can be downloaded through USGS by private citizens, but problems with climate (smoke, cloud cover) hinder analysts from achieving an exact replica of the ground. By using a set of algorithms, and then reconstructing (filling in?) the blind parts they complete the picture. Sometimes color corrections to geography are made in Photoshop.xvi

            trace of the original

One must ask at this point, what is discarded and concealed from the this idealized, mathematical world?xvii

*

 

 

 

     handmade

mailbox

Coffey Neighborhood on NY’s Eve. 2017. No ooze trailing from aluminum hubcaps. No risk of asbestos. No smoke. No smell of chemicals. No search teams with cadaver dogs scouring (suburban) ruins for (human) remains. Just me and a few others gazing around at Nowhere, California, or is this Everywhere (Who can say?) (I can’t say)? And shadows: addresses without houses. Names without streets. A dining room light, a little way down, winks off (a school night). Fourteen weeks. Most of the event has been removed, the quotidian built itself back up around this football field’s worth of exposed ground. Land. You’ve never been anywhere near here. You’ve been here thousands of times.

*

Stephen Pyne describes two possible futures for humanity’s relationship with fire. One is a Promethean narrative that sees it as a technological power, as something abstracted from its setting, perhaps by violence, certainly as something held in defiance of an existing order.

Russian Thistle
Peruvian Pepper Tree
Spanish Broom
Gorse

The other is a more primeval narrative in which fire is a companion on our journey and part of a shared stewardship of the living world.xviii

*

And what the fire leaves behind is an archive, we can read the algorithms of control, circles within circles, war

and the landscapes of the war.

The land is a product of the law. The law is a product and producer of its own enforcement.

  

  
  

   white

 

       ceramic

   

 

rabbit

 

  
 

antique
 

     teacup

Sometimes, looking up, I wonder if I’ll see NASA’s Landsat-8 Spacecraft, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), or the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission (GPM) blinking across the night sky like an airborne ember or the little red bulb on a security camera.

*

Dear Camera,

How do you distinguish a fire from a riot’s aftermath?

 
floral pattern

 

 


i. Didion, Joan, “Fire Season,” After Henry. Vintage (1993).

ii. California State Legislature, An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians: 52.

iii. Chasing Fires – Aadita Chaudhury (York University), YouTube, uploaded by Dominic Berry (September 13, 2019).

iv. Minor, Jesse, and Geoffrey A. Boyce, “Smokey Bear and the Pyropolitics of United States Forest Governance,” Political Geography, vol. 62 (2018): 79–93.

v. “How to Save the Forests by Use of Fire,” The San Francisco Call (September 23, 1902).

vi. Olmsted, F. E., “Fire and the Forest: Theory of Light Burning,” The Sierra Club Bulletin, vol. 8 (1911): 43–47.

vii. “Should We Fight Wildfires with Controlled Burns? | KQED Education,” KQED (December 3, 2020).

viii. Rowland, Teisha, “How the Eucalyptus Came to California,” Santa Barbara Independent (January 15, 2011).

ix. Colin Dayan, The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, Princeton University Press (2013): xii.

x. Separating Your Home from Wildfire: The Zones of Defensible Space, YouTube (May 3, 2021).

xi. “Fireproofing the Future,” The New Yorker (online) (February 2, 2019).

xii. Separating Your Home, YouTube (May 3, 2021).

xiii. Ibid.

xiv. Didion, “Fire Season”: 215-216.   

xv. “Defensible Space,” Boston Review (October 22, 2018).

xvi. Sagara, Eric, “How We Used Satellite Data to Track Wildfires,” Reveal (March 9, 2016).

xvii. Chasing Fires – Aadita Chaudhury (York University).

xviii. Pyne, Stephen, Here and There: A Fire Survey (To the Last Smoke), The University of Arizona Press (2018): 11.

 

 

This is the 12th of 13 contributions to the Lookout: Writing + Art About Wildfires series, in partnership with the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word at Oregon State University. The series runs from mid-May through mid-July, 2022, the traditional height of wildfire season in the Western United States.

 

Ben RutherfurdBen Rutherfurd is a writer from Northern California. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona and is currently a PhD candidate in English at the University of Georgia, where he was a 2018-2019 Lamar Dodd School of Art Interdisciplinary Fellow.

Header photo courtesy Shutterstock.

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