When Lily Clarke arrived at the August Complex Fire, it was a fire of sensational size. The blaze eventually burned more than 1 million acres, becoming the largest recorded wildfire in California history. Across the country in 2020, flames charred an area nearly 5 times the size of Yellowstone National Park — the largest swath of land burned since reliable records began. Wildfires across the country are getting bigger, hotter and more devastating. But what’s all this fire really mean — for the west, for firefighters and for everyday folks? And what’s it really like to fight fire on the ground?
- Lily Clarke fights wildfire for the US Forest Service and received her Master of Science in Systems Ecology from the University of Montana.
- John Maclean is the author of 5 books about wildfire.
Support for this program comes from Berkshire Hathaway Home services Montana Properties, First Security Bank, Blackfoot Communications, and A New Angle podcast.
Justin Angle Late last summer, it felt like the whole country was up in flames. Coronavirus had turned life upside down, election season was heating up. And across a lot of the West, things really were on fire.
[News story clip]: “Raging wildfires have scorched a record number of acres and killed at least 31 people.”
Justin Angle If you listened to the news, fire was something catastrophic.
[News story clip]: “The death toll continues to climb from those devastating wildfires.”
[News story clip]: “Devastation and death. 15 killed in this area alone.”
Justin Angle Wildfires seemed out of control. And smoke was suffocating cities and towns across the West.
[News story clip]: “Orange skies, thick smoke, walls of flame.”
[News story clip]: “Health officials have warned people to stay inside…”
Justin Angle This is something that’s become all too familiar in this part of the country. Every summer — and sometimes in the spring and fall, too — we hear the same thing.
[News story clips]: (indistinguishable wildfire news headlines)
Justin Angle I’m telling you all this because there’s more than one way to think about wildfire. In this first view – what you’ve been hearing so far – it threatens our way of life.
But here’s another way of seeing fire.
[Lily Clarke]: “Hi, my name is Lily Jane Clarke. In the background, you might be hearing some fire. That’s what it is…”
Justin Angle Lily’s a wildland firefighter. She recorded these messages on her phone, and sent them to us while she was working on the August Complex, a burn in Northern California that sprawled over a million acres last summer and fall.
I’m starting with Lily because I find her attitude towards fire really interesting.
[Lily Clarke]:“That whistling- that’s the sound of a tree taking flame.”
Justin Angle Here, in the August Complex, it’s something she sees every day.
[Lily Clarke]:“I’m currently standing right next to it, if you’re wondering how I can get that sound.”
Justin Angle But still, it’s something beautiful and awe-inspiring. Part of the natural world, like the view from a mountaintop.
[Lily Clarke]: “The experience of a forest taking fire is really something. The way you can feel its energy. The way you can just watch the trees take it….”
Justin Angle It’s part of her job to get up close and personal with fire. But she’s still transfixed by it.
[Lily Clarke]: “Right now an oak tree is going up in flames. It’s beautiful. Watching embers either cascade down the hills or right now fly up into the leaves of the trees and the limbs. The flames are encapsulating the trunk. And the embers just keep flying.”
Justin Angle So in these two views of fire, there’s fire as catastrophe. As something to be controlled and destroyed. Wiped off the landscape. Feared. And then there’s fire as something natural, even beautiful.
These two versions of fire fascinated me. They seem incompatible, almost like they’re relating to totally different phenomena. But they’re about the same thing.
This podcast is an attempt to reconcile those two views of fire. Because the thing is, neither view is wrong.
By just about every measure, fires are getting bigger, hotter, and more devastating than we’ve ever seen before.
Here are some fairly depressing numbers: In 2004 for the first time since reliable records began, wildland fires burned more than 8 million acres in a single year in the U.S. That’s about 8 times the size of Glacier National Park. In the years since, that’s happened 9 more times. And researchers predict that number could double by the middle of the century.
But if you zoom out, fires have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Longer than humans have been around. Fires are a natural, even crucial, part of ecosystems.
From my perch as a professor at the University of Montana, I sit at an epicenter of wildfire history, science, and culture here in the West. And I didn’t really understand it. So a couple years ago, I decided to dig in. I started this long journey, that took me from a mine in rural Idaho
[Voice 1]: “The fire was sucking the air out of the tunnel so it was getting harder and harder to breathe”
Justin Angle To the depths of climate science.
[Voice 2]: “You know, I’ll talk about it in a calm way because I’m a scientist and I’m trying to be as objective as I can, but this is me hitting the panic button.”
Justin Angle To children’s literature.
[Voice 3]: “And so, I came home and I told my wife, ‘hey, I think it’d be fun to write a kid’s book’, and she’s like, ‘what?’”
I’m Justin Angle, and this is Fireline: a series about what wildfire means for the West, our planet, and our way of life.
This is episode one: Suppressed.
[Lily Clarke]: “We are sawing along the road to clear off the smaller vegetation that are hanging in the road and could send sparks on to the other side.”
Justin Angle That’s wildland firefighter Lily Clarke again. Most people never experience a wildfire on the ground, firsthand.
But firefighters like Lily get up-close-and-personal with fire. So we’re going to spend some time with her to understand: Why do we fight fire in the first place, and what exactly do firefighters do when they’re out there in the woods?
[Lily Clarke]: “It’s my first time using the chainsaw at night. It’s an experience. And yeah, I’m sleep deprived. The energy of the fire is what keeps me goin’.”
Justin Angle Lily’s 27. She likes to say the color of her hair is unknown, but it’s always curly. When she’s not on a fire sporting a gray hardhat, there’s a good chance you’ll find her wearing her favorite orange beret.
On deployments like this one, Lily lives and breathes fire. Literally. She’s slurping up smoke from the nearby flames all day long.
[Lily Clarke]: “This is my third season of being a wildland firefighter. And whenever I get to be with fire, I just feel all the feels of how much I love this job.”
Justin Angle The Forest Service doesn’t take kindly to untrained University professors who want to get right up next to fires. Which is probably a good thing. So I didn’t actually get to be on the ground with Lily. What I know of her time on the fire is all from a series of voice recordings she sent.
[Lily Clarke]: “Good morning. It’s 4:27 PM.”
Justin Angle Sometimes exhausted, sometimes in her tent, sometimes right at the edge of flames. It’s really rare to get a glimpse behind the curtain, at how firefighting actually works.
Lily got a master’s degree that focused on how communities become more resilient to wildfire. But she wanted an understanding of fire that wasn’t just academic. So she joined a fire crew. Four to six months a year, she and her crewmates travel the country fighting wildfires. The crew is based near the Swan Valley in Northwest Montana, where Lily grew up.
[Lily Clarke]: “Fire was the thing that brought my community of 310 together and tore it apart. Fire was the thing that brought us the following summers in the mountains to play in the ash and find fire morels.”
Justin Angle Those are mushrooms, little morsels of culinary gold that thrive in recently burned areas.
When she recorded this, she was at her camp, which is basically a small city of firefighters; nearly 4 thousand people from across the country had descended on the area to control the burn.
[Lily Clarke]: “My crewmate is playing metal [music] in the background.”
Justin Angle This is a fraction of the standing army that travels all over the country, and sometimes beyond. There are more than 30,000 federal workers who try to control wildland fire. And tens of thousands more state, local, private, and volunteer firefighters too.
[Lily Clarke]: “The camp is set up so that as we work to take care of our public lands with wildfire we also don’t trample on them with over a thousand firefighters in one place.”
Justin Angle The August Complex is actually not just one blaze; it started when a storm pummeled the forests with lightning strikes. More than 30 smaller fires started to simmer, and then to spread. Eventually they all joined up into this one, behemoth burn. Hence the “complex” in the name.
When little burns like those initial fires get detected, it sets off a chain reaction. Lily described what happens.
[Lily Clarke]: “You’re the first on scene. And there’s fire. There’s smoke. There is the unknown of exactly what that fire has been doing, how compromised the trees might be in that area.”
That’s when you are hiking in with your tools. Not really sure exactly what you’re going to see, but knowing like it’s been me trying to bust ass when you get there and you get to this fire and it has been evaluated and your captains are there, tell you to get at it. And that’s when you start get your pulaskis, your cambis, your shovels, whatever is a tool that you have and you start digging, what we call line around the fire.
Justin Angle This term – fireline – is the bread and butter of firefighting. Digging line means scratching out anything that can burn. Sticks, plants, grass, pine needles. Creating a barrier you hope fire won’t cross.
[Lily Clarke]: “So some of you are leading with these tools and you’re drinking in smoke and you are sweating from all the fire. And then others are ahead of you with their chainsaws and they’re clearing out the area for the brush, the compromised trees, anything that might either be in the way of the line or compromising the line by falling over it with fire.”
So you have those several very intense hours of being on the fire line and being hot and exhausted, but also so excited by the adrenaline and flames that you’re around. And once you have created this line and it looks like it’s not going to travel anywhere, then you watch to make sure there are not embers going over and creating what we call spot fires, which are the smaller fires that can be created and then blow up from those embers.
Justin Angle When a fire blows up, when it gets past those initial defenses, that’s when crews from all over the country swarm in. And that’s exactly what happened on the August Complex.
When Lily got to this fire, her crew drove 14 hours over two days to get here. When they arrived, they went straight to work on the night shift.
[Lily Clarke]: “So now we’ve been awake for 26 hours.”
Justin Angle Their first job was to do what’s called a “burnout,”. They lit their own fire, that they could control.
[Lily Clarke]: “We do a burnout so that we’ve burnt the fuels in an area so that when a fire does come it kinda just stops it in its tracks because there’s not enough fuel left.”
Justin Angle That saying, fighting fire with fire? That’s exactly what’s happening here.
Lily was on just one little corner of a massive blaze. The August Complex is the largest fire on record in California history. Colorado also saw its biggest fire ever last year. In fact, almost every state in the west has seen its biggest wildfire on record since the year 2000.
Lily sat with her phone one evening, under the smoky night sky, and talked about why burns are getting so out of control.
[Lily Clarke]: “The suppression of fire has given it fuel.”
Justin Angle As a country, we’ve been hellbent on putting out fires for a century. But smothering those flames left us a legacy we didn’t expect.
[Lily Clarke]: “Without fire, ground fuel such as leaves, sticks, pine boughs, gather. As do the small trees and other fuels that stack up and allow the fire to stack up and climb up the ladder into the canopies. And that’s when it runs.”
Justin Angle Runs means the fire takes off. It gets hotter, and the flames get bigger, and it starts to spread from tree to tree, faster and faster.
[Lily Clarke]: “And what happens when it runs? It gets closer to human values And then what? Then fire’s a problem. Fire in itself is not an issue. It is only an issue when it begins to threaten human values.”
Justin Angle Human values, those are things like homes and barns and property. The area where people live right up against trees that could burn is called the “Wildland Urban Interface” – or WUI. That includes about one out of every three homes across the country.
So these are two of the factors setting up worse fire seasons: more homes where fires burn, and fire suppression itself.
There’s something else making our fire seasons worse, too: climate change.
[Governor Gavin Newsom]: “Forgive me if I’m being a little long-winded, but I’m a little bit exhausted.”
Justin Angle That’s California Governor Gavin Newsom declaring a statewide emergency last September as more than 8,000 fires raged across California, including the August Complex. More than 30 people had died and nearly 10 thousand structures had been destroyed. He said the culprit was obvious.
[Governor Gavin Newsom]: “This is a climate damn emergency. This is real.”
Justin Angle Scientists say climate change means warmer, drier weather, and more intense fires. Federal reports say the fire season is nearly 80 days longer now than it was in 1970.
[Lily Clarke]: “California’s chronic drought, extended fire season from climate crisis, and the many fuels have brought us to a place where fire is almost beyond being managed.”
Justin Angle When those lightning strikes started the August Complex, it was in the midst of the second-hottest month of August on record in the Northern Hemisphere. September was the hottest we’d ever experienced.
[Lily Clarke]: “We no longer call it fire suppression, we call it fire management. Yet who’s being managed, us or the fire? Who needs to be managed?”
John Maclean “I find that an enormous amount of simple, plain American wisdom comes right from that level of people who have to do the job. You talk to the people who have to do the job. And they can tell you a lot about what’s really going on.”
Justin Angle John Maclean has been writing about tragic wildfires for 25 years. When I hear him talk about that “simple, plain American wisdom,” I think about Lily, and about firefighters like her. On the fireline, they see fires blow up and fizzle out. They see them run towards private property, or out into the wilderness. They risk their lives. There’s nobody more connected to the fate of fires.
John Zoomed with me from his home in Washington, D.C. And even though he’s spent decades listening to the wisdom of firefighters, he spent the bulk of his career in a big city, doing another kind of writing.
John Maclean I worked for the Chicago Tribune for thirty years.
Justin Angle He wrote about international intrigue, diplomacy.
John Maclean And I quit when I was in my early 50s.
Justin Angle Ever since, he’s turned his attention to writing about wildfires across the west.
John Maclean And the reason I went from being the diplomatic correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, flying around the world with Henry Kissinger, to flying around the west, writing about fatal wildland fires, is a book called Young Men and Fire.
Justin Angle His dad – Norman MacLean – wrote that book. After Norman published his famous novella, A River Runs Through It, he became fascinated by fire.
John Maclean And he was increasingly confounded by the story of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949.
Justin Angle That fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters near the banks of the upper Missouri River in Central Montana. He spent decades figuring out how to tell the story.
John Maclean He did not live long enough to finish the book or to see it to publication. He had had a very difficult time with it.
Justin Angle Young Men and Fire was published after Norman’s death. It made waves in the literary world. It gave wildland firefighting and the risk associated with it a new audience across the country.
And it tethered John McLean to the world of firefighting. He became entranced by fire. Over the years, John had the opportunity to go back to Mann Gulch, and to write about a bunch of other burns. He’s published five books about wildfire since. But his relationship with fire started with his father.
John Maclean When I was growing up, we were all scared of fire, but we never thought that there would actually be one to come down and burn everything out.
Justin Angle The more he wrote about fire, the more that relationship with fire shifted. His ideas about it became concrete, even intimate. A few years ago, he realized how real the possibility was of a nearby fire consuming his family’s cabin in northwest Montana. He told the local forest ranger:
John Maclean I don’t want anybody backing up my cabin to try to save it. The cabin is part of the woods. It’s actually built from logs that were cut right along there, the lodgepole around Seeley Lake. It has been part of Seeley Lake for nearly 100 years. If Seeley Lake goes, you know, these giant larches that we have torch up, and it starts threatening the cabin, I’m going to let the cabin go.
That isn’t what I wanted. If the whole thing went, I think we should have accepted that we were part of that. That fire is not some strange foreign creature. It is part of the soul of man.
Justin Angle Fire is part of the soul of man. To me, that one sentence captures so much about wildfire and John’s relationship with it. Fire went from something nearby, but foreign and unwelcome when he was a kid, to something inseparable from existence itself. That ethic leads to another idea, too: if we can’t escape wildfire, if it’s part of us — then we have to learn to live with it — and at times, to welcome it.
I hear echoes of John’s evolving relationship with fire in firefighter Lily Clarke’s story, too. In fact, she grew up only about 25 miles north of John’s cabin in Montana. Fire was a reality for her then, too — but in a very different way than it is now, when she’s on an assignment.
Lily Clarke As a kid, it was something that was different and exciting in the sense that I saw my mom be worried and I saw my community be concerned. But it was something for me that was exciting in the sense I didn’t know was what would happen next, it was a great unknown.
Justin Angle But when Lily was in college, a fire burned about a mile and a half from her home. It could have run right through her family’s property – it was more or less a coin flip.
Lily Clarke It was a real reckoning with knowing that I lived in a fire prone area. My home was not well prepared for fire. We let the trees grow as they would. And I remember having a conversation with my mom and her just saying, you know what? If a fire takes our home, that’s OK, because that means that we didn’t necessarily put firefighters in there and their lives are worth more. And we will rebuild or we’ll find a way.
But it was a fear of mine to lose my childhood home, but also know that it was more important for that area to be left alone. Let the fire do what it needs to do than put firefighters in there.
Justin Angle Lily’s seen firsthand the legacy of fire suppression across the country — all the built up fuels that in part contribute to our devastating fire seasons. But she’s also been on the other side. She’s experienced the immediate threat of losing her home.
So as a firefighter, she feels these two competing forces. She understands that we put out too much fire. But on the ground, she’s one of the people doing her best to stop the flames.
Lily Clarke I absolutely struggle with that. I absolutely struggle with seeing decisions made to put out wildfires in our wilderness areas, to put out wildfires in areas that have been adapted to fire, that are often that can be far away from communities and should be let burn those areas. But I’m going to say that I’m not a firefighter to tell. I’m here to learn. Yes, as an ecologist, we can say those fires should have been let burn. But it’s also true, as a firefighter decision maker, you are tasked with that responsibility. And if that fire does go out of control, if that one ember does travel into a community and burns them down, you will be given direct responsibility for that fire going that way.
Justin Angle Firefighting means straddling a thin line. While our understanding of fire and weather has gotten more and more precise over the years, there’s always a degree of unpredictability in how a fire will burn. A strong wind or cruel spark could send things into chaos.
But Lily says for her the reality of firefighting tends not to be all that dramatic. On the August Complex, there’s snacking —
[Lily Clarke]: “Let’s see – ham and cheese sandwich, orange, bag of carrots oat bars, peanut bars, more peanut bars. So fire lunch is actually good!”
Justin Angle There’s a lot of the dirty work and cleanup.
[Lily Clarke]: “We are mopping up. Mop up is when the glory of the fire has passed through and now it’s the burnt land and you get on your hands and knees and crawl over it, walk over it, put your hands down, feel any warmth. And, to be clear, it is not fun to do at night. So it is a very unglorious job.”
Justin Angle The bottom line isn’t heroics; it’s hard work. And working that close to fire makes Lily feel alive.
[Lily Clarke]: “Night 7 was well. We mopped up. We watched for trees to fall on us. We slept a little bit. The night sky was blazing with a crescent moon. It was cold, and wet. And off we go.”
Justin Angle Lily was on the August Complex for 14 days. In her little corner of the fire, things were under control but the work wasn’t done.
[Lily Clarke]: “Last night we had our last half-shift of mopping up in the dark, saying goodbye to the flames and the stars have been our companions the last 13 nights.”
Justin Angle As Lily left the August Complex, the fire season wasn’t over across the country. By the end of 2020, the federal government had spent more than 2 billion dollars suppressing the flames. The fires had scorched a bigger area than in any year since we started keeping track. More than 10 million acres. That’s a land mass almost five times the size of Yellowstone National Park.
[Lily Clarke]: “Getting ready to be sent home is both filled with excitement and hesitation. The transition between being a firefighter and a present member of family and society is not easy. For two weeks you’re with a group of people living, eating, and going through an incredibly intense experience of being on the fireline. You go home to a group of people and a culture that are not of fire.”
Justin Angle When I hear this, a culture of fire, I think back to writer John Maclean.
[John Maclean]: “Fire is not some strange, foreign creature. It is part of the soul of man.”
Justin Angle The rest of this series is about that fire in our soul: how it got there, how we’ve lost sight of it, and how to find it again.
[Lily Clarke]: :When the question becomes, ‘why is it this and not how it was?’ Well then the question that must follow is, ‘what has happened in between?’ ”
[Voice 1]: So if we date the origins of modern fire, American fire history from 1910, half of that history has been spent trying to take fire out of the landscape. And the last half has been trying to put it back in. It turns out, however, that it’s a lot easier to take it out than to put it in.
Justin Angle That’s next time, on Fireline.
Fireline is hosted by Justin Angle. Writing, editing, and production is by Nick Mott and Victor Yvellez. Our fact checking is by Aj Williams. Original theme music is by Travis Yost with additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. Our cover art is by Jessy Stevenson.
Additional support for this program comes from Montana Public Radio, United Way of Missoula County, and the Trailhead. Narration recorded at Studio 49 at the University of Montana’s College of Business.
Special thanks to Lily Clarke, John Maclean, and Jeff Hull. If you like our show, please subscribe and share it with your friends.