By Jeffrey Ball | Build. Burn. Repeat. | Mother Jones | September/October 2019
Standing on Shingletown Ridge and gazing west toward the setting sun, Bruce Miller eyes a rainbow of colors. He sees pink: the dusky sky blanketing a postcard-perfect valley 3,000 feet below. He sees gray: distant snow-capped mountains. He sees brown: century-old pine and oak trunks towering more than 100 feet above him. And he sees green: the profit he hopes to make by turning this 274-acre patch of forest into a subdivision for buyers looking for jaw-dropping views.
“This would be your high-dollar lot here,” the hearty 68-year-old tells me, halting our hike through a tangle of manzanita and poison oak to unfurl a map and point out the boundaries of a future home site. A sheer drop at the property’s rear reveals a stunning panorama. It also invites flames. “Fire,” Miller says, “burns uphill.”
Wildfire’s lethal tendency to surge up slopes was driven home last summer, when an inferno called the Carr Fire ripped through Shasta County, a chunk of Northern California pocked by crests and canyons as gorgeous as they are combustible. Lit by a spark from the wheel rim of a flat tire scraping the ground, the fire raged for 39 days, destroying more than 1,000 homes, killing eight people, and requiring some 3,500 firefighters from around the world and more than a dozen planes dropping chemicals to finally quell it. In November came the Camp Fire, which incinerated the nearby town of Paradise, killing 85 people. Together, the fires caused at least $18 billion in damage; bankrupted California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric; and forced the liquidation of at least one insurer. For weeks, Northern Californians breathed smoky air.
The destruction ended any delusion that humans could keep Mother Nature in check. They were harbingers of a new kind of megafire being unleashed on a warming world.
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