When the Creek Fire started near the minuscule mountain town of Big Creek, California, it was somewhere near the size of three acres. Early efforts to fight the fire reduced it down to less than an acre, and had those early responders been able to finish it off in its infancy, we might never have heard of the Creek Fire.
But decades of natural conditioning have turned California into a tinder box. Global warming has turned up the heat and dried out the landscape, leaving very little that isn’t fit to burn. Many ignore that California’s foothills are not only forest, but dry grasses and other natural fuels. And California’s mid-2010s drought led to bark-beetle infestations that killed millions of trees but left many of them standing, looming over the landscape like eco-ghosts.
These conditions caused that less-than-an-acre fire to get away from the early responders, and ultimately destroy half the town of Big Creek. Still, Big Creek has a river to the west of it, and the weather patterns naturally run from west to east, so anyone would have predicted that it would have run up and into the mountains, away from the more populated areas south and west of it.
As we planned our Labor Day weekend getaway, we were keeping one eye on the fire, but there was simply no precedent for a fire to burn contrary to prevailing weather patterns, much less cover the approximately 20-25 mile distance between Big Creek and the mountain camp just outside of Auberry that my in-laws have called home for much of the past two decades. We proceeded.
It was only when we arrived near to our destination that it became apparent something had gone terribly wrong. The fire was visible from the road and, what was more, possibly just a few miles from the camp. All of this progress, if one can call it that, had been made in the course of just one day. The fire went from a localized problem to one that threatened the entire area. It even created its own mercurial weather patterns, randomly sending thunder and lightning into the atmosphere, spreading chaos and ruination on an increasing scale.
When we arrived, the threat was palpable, but still not on our doorstep. We decided to leave the suitcases in the car and hope conditions changed.
When we woke in the morning though, nothing had changed. The fire was moving closer. The air was choked with orange smoke. There was little oxygen to breathe. And at 9:00 AM, it was over 100 degrees.
But the human mind tends to resist worst-case scenarios. It always resists so-called “black swan” outcomes. We thought we would be back. We convinced ourselves it would be ok. We took everything we had brought, but our family left a lot behind, assuming there would be something to return to.
Over the next couple of days, the news was mixed. The highlight of the week was when a previously-constructed fire break stopped its progress about a mile from camp. Here, there was some forethought and planning. Somebody had thought about what might happen if a fire went out of control. Perhaps its orange rage could be tempered before it destroyed everything.
Alas, it was not to be. The firebreak fell and there were no defenses left. The camp was completely destroyed. There is little, if any, trace of what once stood there. Undoubtedly, it took less than a day to destroy twenty-five years worth of work. The fire now stands over 175,000 acres. It is just one of several fires in California alone totaling over 3 million acres. Destruction on a nearly inconceivable scale, both macro and micro.
Meanwhile, Oregon’s similarly aggressive fires hover warily just outside Portland’s outer suburbs. Of course they do. Supposedly, Portland’s been on fire for decades.