California’s Vestal Flame

Karsten Winegeart/Portland forest fires from 2018

In much of North America, late October brings the first winter snows. In California, it’s still fire season. I took advantage of the t-shirt weather to take a ride through Bohemia Ecological Reserve, a land trust in Sonoma County. 

I rode in the bed of a truck belonging to Cam, the forest’s steward and my guide, alongside his polka-dotted dog. Our bumpy ride over access roads took us across a newly restored landscape—streams and ponds dotted the serpentine barrens, where groves of endemic Sargent’s Cypress stretched themselves out into the uniquely Californian heat. 

The cypress stand was neatly separated from the rest of the oak savanna, resembling the paradise European explorers must have first encountered. Turning a corner, Cam pointed to some foothills in the distance, calling out from the driver’s cabin that they were covered in parched Douglas fir. The stand had colonized the hills in the absence of wildfire. 

Stewarding the landscape is hard work. Cam uses chainsaws to cut down tan oaks that have succumbed to sudden oak death, and maintains access roads by mowing and mulching the golden grass on either side. The work is intensely physical, and his hands are calloused and leathery. This preserve was no untouched wilderness—its ecological health hinged on the work of human hands.

Cam lives on the property in a yurt he built himself. Sitting on a roughshod wooden stool by an oak tree formed by his own pruning, swirling a glass of iced water, he explained how the terrain looked before management began. Waist-high non-native grasses had proliferated throughout the understory, and thickets of long poison oak spindles had obscured the ailing tree canopy. Everywhere was choked with vegetation. “In effect,” he said, “it was fire-starved.”

Fire’s benefit to the landscape wasn’t news to me. My family has been living in California for six generations. The man-made clearing reminded me of my own time working on a fire crew in the Pacific Northwest: the endless days spent bucking trees, hauling the pieces onto burn piles, and the momentary terror of stumbling upon a hidden hive of bees. 

Indigenous peoples like the Miwok, who traditionally inhabited lands like those of the Bohemia Ecological Preserve, understood the importance of fire too. They would burn the land to increase the acorn yield of tan oak, as the oaks’ acorns are spared from larval infestation if the ground is first cleared with a light burn that functions as a preservative. While Europeans practiced prescribed burns in the southeast of the continent, they suppressed the practice early on in California. In 1793, the Spanish governor of California described it as a form of “childishness” belonging to “both Christian and Gentile Indians in this country.” Not aware of the purpose of the practice, he enacted an edict that would “prohibit for the future… all kinds of burning, not only in the vicinity of the towns but even at the most remote distances…” 

Later, when American settlers would go on to burn the land, it was usually to make room for farms. Professional forestry standards imported from Prussia put an end to that too, stressing that forests were a public resource whose value was proportional to their timber density.

But even in the early twentieth century, research demonstrated that “light burns” are the best way to prevent the overgrowth that contributes to the severity of conflagrations. It is now an accepted practice among the Forest Service and other agencies, but the damage has been done—most of California’s twenty most destructive wildfires on record have occurred in the last decade, owing largely to a century of absolute fire suppression. Even then, the amount of land that now burns in California is only large relative to those suppressed fires of the twentieth century. In prehistoric times it wasn’t uncommon for the total acreage burned to be double that of the 4.4 million acres burned in 2020, for example. What has changed is that the intensity of the burns has grown worse, and the population density in fire-prone areas has grown.

Strikingly, Cam said that everything he did—cutting, mulching, mowing—was only for the sake of simulating the light burn of a seasonal wildfire. Controlled burns often make landowners nervous, as it’s not unheard of that they escape and become true wildfires. The owners of the ecological preserve lived atop a hill that was on the property, and no doubt the fact that fire travels faster up slopes made them hesitant to allow it. Instead, Cam mowed tall grasses before they went to seed in order to simulate a small brushfire, aiding in the regeneration of native grasses rather than invasive ones. 

Bohemia was a uniquely well-maintained plot that struck a balance between conservancy and restoration, where money and purposeful vision had come into contact. To the untrained eye, it was just a clean forest floor. But Cam’s conscious involvement, thoughtfully simulating the natural controls of fire, had constructed a niche of reciprocity between his mode of habitation and the land.

The Gordian Knot

In California, trusts such as the Bohemia Ecological Preserve preside over 2.5 million acres of land, in contrast to the 33 million acres owned and worked by government agencies, timber companies, and private owners. All these factions have varying relationships with their wilderness landscapes. Some, depending on resources, locale, and ownership are more active in forest management than others. Bohemia is largely maintained through the stewardship and labor of Cam, overseeing around 1,000 acres amidst a sea of millions.

The surrounding land preserves and property owners have become interested in creating fire breaks like those of Bohemia, thinning trees and clearing underbrush. Cam told me that Bohemia’s neighbors were forming a group in a bid to obtain CalFire grant money directed towards land management, which would provide funds for the kind of mechanical thinning he practices. This kind of development strays from the traditional conservationism that posits human management as something inherently damaging to natural preserves.

Tree-thinning, for example, is often misrepresented by conservation activists as clear-cutting done for the profit of timber companies rather than a preventative measure. Ironically enough, Forest Service doctrine in the early twentieth century criticized fire prevention methods like controlled burns for reducing timber yields—its conservationist policy led to a tripling of forest density in an attempt to grow the standing reserve of timber. As this unbalanced equilibrium increases the severity of ensuing wildfire, it only brings home the point that active conservation entails an intensive, laborious cultivation of remote areas we’d usually consider “wilderness.” A forest can be “conserved,” but a quick look at the density of the understory, whether it is clean or overwhelmed with dead branches and poison oak, tells a story of management or an absence of management.

For Cam the work is unceasing, and over the years his own role within the landscape has made him grow fond of its niches and nuances. His appreciation was evident in the stunning photographs of wildlife that he took and kept in a cabinet inside his yurt, ranging from northern pygmy owls to mountain lions which make home throughout the forest. But despite the “blood, sweat, and tears” he put into the land, he told me that the prospect of a brushfire ripping through the landscape he worked seemed “downright cathartic.” No matter how many grasses he whacked, he could not simulate the pyrophytic needs of trees like the Sargent Cypress, whose resinous cones only open up and go to seed once exposed to high temperatures.

But for those who finance and hold capital within the land, wildfire disrupts a conservancy as it is supposed to be: an invested wilderness landscape that has been manicured to exist in a “natural state.” It is a complicated dance involving many parties, positions, and goals—many property owners simply don’t want their land to burn. Prescribed burns devalue property, and until this year landowners were liable for any controlled burns that escaped their control. This greatly diminishes the impetus to use prescribed burns as a method of forest management, leaving mulching and thinning brush as the only viable options. Both require heavy equipment and labor, are less cost-effective, and only partially simulate the beneficial effects of fire upon the landscape.

Even prescribed burns are no solution in themselves. As Stephen Pyne discusses in his book World Fire, wildfire management is a paradox in its search for what he calls a “vestal flame,” referencing the ancient Roman practice of keeping an eternally lit fire within the city center to guarantee prosperity and the fortune of the gods. Just as the extinguishing of the vestal flame portended bad omens for the city’s fate, so too have the suppression-heavy fire policies of the twentieth century bound California’s environmental policies into a Gordian knot. Decades of absolute fire suppression, deemed in the past as the “number one priority” for any forester, have created an increasingly hostile fire regime that can’t simply be legislated or mulched away.

The fires of old California were vestal, without destructive intent or capability, relational to the interactions between human, landscape, and fire. Fire doesn’t carry a morality. It burns what it will under the correct conditions—yet the effect of the fire regime upon the land itself is a partial litmus test for the health of that relational landscape. 

Although the destruction of homes and livelihood does not directly correlate with “unhealthy” land, it indicates that our relation to that landscape has been broadly forgotten in a particular form of separation that presents itself as conservancy. It puts us in a position where we, as a result of our own works, do not know how to integrate and live with a terrain that has grown uncompromising with our ways of life. 

Conservancy of the Eye

This lack of integration with a landscape may be discernible in conservancy’s preference for the “eye,” or the maintenance of a landscape for its beauty rather than for a differentiated function. The separation between an area in which we live and a place which we admire has been an endemic feature of American life, reflected not just by the demarcated boundaries of our National Park System but also by the superficially utilitarian layouts of our cities. Millions of people stream into state or national parks every year to experience the illusion that there is no human presence there—an illusion constructed through the removal of longstanding indigenous and homesteader presence.

But this separation of the natural from the manmade is exactly what leads to systemic failure in landscape management. Anti-developmental conservationism combined with thoughtlessly planned urban development demarcates man and nature as belonging to two separate spheres, where only the places that have a zip code are the real dwelling-places. The disregard shown by California’s developers to their climactic “firescape” through urban sprawl is a provocation that does not go unanswered—as can be seen by tragedies like the 2018 Camp Fire, where the town of Paradise was burned to the ground and 85 people were killed.

The problem is no longer that we see our forests as standing reserves of timber to be exploited. Now, they have become places meant purely for sanctity and beauty. But this creates a sterile landscape wherein both of those traits are actually lost, because all the other flashpoints of volatility and chaos have been ignored or  suppressed. A “natural landscape” becomes one where the human is removed from the picture in order to please the human eye. Our landscape, and perhaps what anthropologist Tim Ingold calls our “taskscape,” is more widely confined to the sanctity of the eye and mistrust of the hand:

“To perceive the landscape is therefore to carry out an act of remembrance… [but] remembering is not so much a matter of calling up an internal image, stored in the mind, as of engaging perceptually with an environment that is itself pregnant with the past.”

Conservation has become too broad of a term, because it does not denote the state of what is being conserved, and for what purpose. The way we understand, imagine, and interact with the landscape of California in light of its history is left unquestioned and half-imagined. But in the Gordian knot California finds itself in, a hesitancy to terraform the land just guarantees that it’ll become a tinderbox.

This preference for a particular form of conservation doesn’t just show itself in parks. It also appears in Californian urban development. An array of Californian city councils, developers, and property owners draw up voter-approved urban growth boundaries (UGB) to set the demarcations between what is wildland and what is urban. The “Santa Rosa General Plan 2035,” for example, dictates that “Development outside the UGB is discouraged in order to promote open areas around the city and to demarcate an obvious end to urban development.” 

The UGB system aims to manage orderly, centripetal growth in proper zones. The idealized urban growth boundary can also be contrasted with city limits, which define the end of a more tightly urbanized area and the beginning of the wildland-urban interface, a more intermediate zone.  

At present, 38 cities within the Bay Area have adopted UGBs as measures to direct urban growth. Additionally, the UGB garners praise from many environmentalists, as it safeguards wildland areas from the “predations” of real estate investors and individuals wishing to build outside of the urban center, thus keeping urban sprawl in check. UGBs also assist in the construction of greenbelts, which create a favorable divide between different land use zones. This is unambiguously a positive for both the inhabitants of a city and those surrounding it.

But with the separation of the urban space from the “wildland” comes a disconnect. Through the political implementation of a specified urban growth, the city also puts a limit on how wildland is “interfaced” with, instead focusing on the character of endogenous urban development. 

A city or town’s population no longer participates in the cultivation of the regional landscape. An artificial distinction stands between natural terrain and human activity, outside the odd hike one may take in a park managed by a non-profit or the state where visitors are drilled to “leave no trace.” A strict dichotomy is made between those who wish to exploit a landscape and those who wish to preserve it. 

It’s an illusion that can only last until the wildfires show up. Then, along with peoples’ homes, it disappears into the flames.

Xactimate®

California’s 2017 fire season was among the worst on record. One informational hearing for the California State Senate noted that “wildfires tore through the state, burning 1.2 million acres of land and destroying over 10,000 structures (more than the previous nine years combined). These events resulted in almost 68,000 insurance claims totaling about $14 billion.” 

The city of Santa Rosa bore the brunt of the damage, and its recovery hinged on the fulfillment of insurance policies at a massive scale. With more than 5,500 homes destroyed everyone had been caught off guard by the destruction, including insurers. Estimates and claims had to be derived and verified in a timely way before reconstruction could begin. Insurers began to use Xactimate, a software that estimates the cost of reconstruction and streamlines the process of rebuilding. 

Following a fire, a property owner may bring in a secondary opinion to estimate the cost of repair, but usually an adjuster from an insurance company will utilize software to work out the cost of rebuilding a burnt structure. It’s a controversial practice. State Farm, an insurance company which used Xactimate following the 2017 fires, is being sued by USAA policyholders for an alleged systematic underestimation of repair costs.  

On the United Policyholders website, a section entitled Xactimate Demystified includes this description: “Xactimate® estimates look impressive because they are well-organized, professional-looking and lengthy, but they are often inaccurate. A computer cannot replace the knowledge of a local, experienced construction professional as to the materials, time and labor costs associated with a job.” 

As a mediator, the third-party software utilizes publicly available data sets to generate an estimate for coverage. Although following a catastrophic fire event the estimate may be inaccurate, it nonetheless inscribes its own “quantities” upon the landscape. 

After their destruction, most communities take shape as they did before, incentivized to do so by a system of insurance payments that sees value mainly in what came before. To remove human judgment further from the equation, softwares like Xactimate store, remember, and calculate an objective price of construction and subsequent “value” based on public datasets that only record the past.  

In Santa Rosa, the houses in Coffey Park and Fountain Grove were reconstructed following ostensibly progressive new standards utilizing CalGreen updates and Chapter 7A fire codes—yet the location of the housing tract is the same as before. This is not a system that incentivizes the interrogation and testing of the built foundations of California. Instead, software like Xactimate and preset zoning regulations just assist in replicating the structures that led to their destruction in the first place, reaffirming wildfire’s oppositional role rather than our ability to change.

The unpredictability of wildfire is a disrupting force in the current epistemology that favors replication and stasis. It’s the long past that dominates our present; but this present, built in the semblance of our recent past, may be inherently unfit for the future.

Coffey Park was built in 1986 and destroyed in 2017. This is a relatively short period of time for a community to set its ideal state in stone, perceiving that the conditions of 2017 were unique to that year. Simply updating fire-resilient building codes and “macro-scale” mandates like the UBG, which only aim to separate peoples’ lives from fire further, will do little to address California’s collective relation with its own landscape. Fire rejuvenates California’s landscapes, but not yet its people.

Home of the Free

The boundaries between the use, exploitation, and value of a landscape haven’t always been so strict. As the English “Digger” Gerrard Winstanley once said in 1649, “England is not a free people, till the poor that have no land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons…” Although not as many people cultivate the land for their livelihood in the twenty-first century as was the case in the seventeenth, this quote may nonetheless acquire a new meaning: that a people are not free until they have purposefully, consciously chosen—perhaps most abstractly—to “dig and labour” the landscape. 

Our sense of freedom is intimately tied to our land. The ability to move around in whatever direction we please, and the feeling that anything can happen so long as we put our minds to it, characterized the sense of freedom that America’s settlers felt. But a more publicly-minded notion of freedom understands society as made up of people who belong and owe something to the land. Stewardship comes from a sense of responsibility over what is given to us.

In America and elsewhere, the bonds which connect us to the land and each other have continually frayed. But in meeting those who work the landscape in the face of wildfire, I have often found that camaraderie and generative energy arise from this very responsibility.

As Pyne writes in World Fire, “The issue is not whether humans are present but the character of human presence,” responding to the misanthropic refrain that “humans are the problem.” Private or public lands under conservation—and even the UGB system—are not problems in themselves. Rather, the dichotomy between wildland and urban reinforces a lack of contact between ourselves and the wilderness. What remains is a connection thought of purely in terms of confrontation with “raw” nature.

For the native peoples of California, there was not an analogous conception of a definite border between what ought to burn and what ought not to; “property” was purposefully burned to condition specific life patterns, such as the Miwok’s conscious promotion of oak savanna habitats for acorn production. As one writer puts it, “the bounty of this region existed not despite human presence, but rather (to a certain degree) because of it.” It’s only fitting that the land becomes more hostile once we imagine ourselves to be separate from it.

It’s too easy to believe that we are not actively shaping the landscape already by the fact of our very settlement. After all, our short lives pale in comparison to a landscape beyond a human conception of time, and as the truism goes, we’ve become detached from nature. The landscape of the wildland is just as much shaped by our troubled present condition and our multilayered social organization within it.

Instead, the holistic labor on the land carried out by woodsmen and stewards throughout California may be a better reference for re-examining our own relationship with the landscape, as they work not to rid wildfire from the land, but to embody it. It allows the land to form us in a way that helps us live on it, just as the Digger and the Miwok cultures were conditioned by the “commons” they depended upon.

The violence, love, tending, and extraction over the course of multiple lifetimes creates a sort of palimpsest—a record on which new authors constantly write over old texts, or add new pictures to a photobook. And as Cam and the Bohemia Ecological Preserve can show us, ownership is the beginning of stewardship. When we become active in our total landscape, we discover that equilibrium is not the same as stasis. Sometimes, it takes the form of fire.

Galen Peterson worked on a hand crew during the 2020 fire season. He currently lives and writes in Sonoma, California.