Wildfires are a natural and even necessary phase of the eco-cycle in parts of the American West.
Dense scrub brush and chaparral grow up, leaving a dense carpet of dry detritus on the forest floor. Periodic fires clear it away, opening the landscape to regeneration.
Mankind disrupts this cycle, and Americans in particular seem determined to live – on unprotected beaches, floodplains, tinder-dry hillsides – where Mother Nature would prefer them not to.
The West is undergoing its annual spate of wildfires. California is battling eight of the blazes, including a massive fire just outside Los Angeles that has killed two, burned dozens of homes and forced the evacuation of thousands.
That fire is being battled by 3,600 firefighters on a 80-kilometre front in triple-digit heat.
The fires are a cruel spectacle – the hellish flames at night and the great billowing clouds of smoke during the day, the pall that obscures the sun and the acrid residue that has reached as far as Denver.
Cruel, too, is the agonizing choices of what to take and what to leave that evacuees forced to depart their homes in a hurry must make. Angelenos – at least those interviewed in the newspapers and on TV – seem admirably resilient and even stoic about the fiery natural disaster.
One woman knew her home was gone when TV showed the charred remains of a house and there in the ashes was her favourite dishware.
“It’s just stuff,” she told a reporter.
The technology of fighting wildfires has improved – bulldozers, backfires, airdropped flame retardants, sophisticated forecasting – but the job of containing them still comes down to the brutal physical labour of the firefighters themselves.
Once the fires are out there will be renewed efforts at preventing the next one – houses that are more fire-resistant, brush-clearing, forest-thinning, new firebreaks. But the wildfires prove defiantly resistant to our attempts to prevent and extinguish them. As they incinerate the hillsides it is almost as if they are saying, “We were here first.”
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.