The landscape is barren, burnt and black. The air is thick, dense and smokey. The frames of cars and foundations of homes are all that remain. Though there’s no military presence, this is America’s warzone.
“I mean, if someone had told me that a battle had been fought there, I probably would have believed them,” Sean Linneman said.
California is known for wonderful weather, as well as gorgeous state and national parks. But every year, one thing threatens those parks and drastically changes the weather: wildfires. For those who live in the mountains of the west coast, this flare of nature is inescapable.
“Unfortunately, I actually know a family friend of ours that was in Paradise and moved to Big Creek,” Linneman said. “They moved from their house that got burnt to another house that got burnt within 18 months.”
Linneman, a Tech freshman from California, has seen the unstoppable destruction of wildfires his entire life. His family’s cabin was less than 700 feet from the Big Creek fires of 2020. Many of his friends and neighbors whose cabins survived that fire decided to sell them and leave.
“The rest of the people that we really associated with there just left. They were like, ‘This cabin is gone. It’s going to burn down eventually,’ and they sold it to some poor soul from San Francisco,” Linneman said.
While the destruction is limited to the mountains, he explained that the entire region feels the effects of the fires. Even on the coast the air is thick and smokey, raining ash during and after many of the wildfires.
The explosion of wildfires on the west coast has been attributed to a variety of reasons such as: climate change, wind patterns and even Smokey the Bear. However, Linneman offers a different reason.
“This has been decades of forest mismanagement, since, like, the sixties,” Linneman said. “We’ve been saying it was going to get bad like this. My dad has been saying it for as long as I can remember.”
Dr. Bradley Cohen, assistant professor of biology at Tech, said that while there are many factors at play, a misunderstanding of forest ecology plays a large part in today’s forest fires.
“There’s been an effort, dating back really long in California, but even, you know, as recently as the invention of Smokey the Bear to remove fire from the land,” Cohen said. “It was a misunderstanding of forest ecology and how fire can play a crucial role in forest management. What we’ve learned is that a lot of systems throughout the United States need to be periodically burned.”
Cohen explained that many forests and other ecosystems need to be burned with prescribed fire, which is controlled burning of the brush, grass and leaves on the forest floor. This type of natural debris is typically dead and dry, which makes it fuel for many catastrophic wildfires.
Not only has this misunderstanding caused destruction of the landscape and displaced residents, it has also put a heavy burden on the soldiers of this battle: firefighters.
Lienneman explained that a friend of his, Nick Leech – who is a firefighter with Cal Fire – worked the Big Creek fires of 2020 and described it as “hell.” Sometimes working 24 hours straight, Leech struggled to breathe, even with a respirator. Despite this, Lienneman said that Leech wanted to fight the fires and try to protect his homeland from what feels like a losing battle.
“It’s hopeless. And, like, coming back afterward, it made me really angry, because we’ve known for years that this is something that probably was going to happen,” Lienneman said.
Though it may seem hopeless to those who have experienced the wildfires, Cohen believes that if the proper effort and resources are put towards it, these fires can be prevented and we can win this war.
“All of it is preventable if the effort and money is there. It’s a matter of how you can safely do prescribed fire in a lot of these areas,” Cohen said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”