We think of earth, wind and fire as elements. Or we used to. For the possibility of separating them is called into question in the Bay Area, as wind sweeps the smoke of five to seven fires, or fire complexes, across the skies, we are increasingly likely to see them as layers, which interact in a puzzle we have trouble figuring out. Indeed, the weirdly haunting daily and hourly maps of air quality map the atmospheric presence of particulate matter by isochrones brought late summer blues to the Bay Area. Blue skies of the Bay Area were colored grey, burnt orange, and grey again as cartoon plumes of soot flooded the skies in a new sort of pyrocumulus clouds that turned the sun red, offering a disembodied traffic sign telling us to stop.
Fire season began by remapping the town in terrifying red that registered “unhealthful,” but almost verging on the “hazardous” level of brown, based on local sensors monitoring of ozone, but is also registering a deeper history defined by an absence of rain, the lack of groundwater, the hotter temperatures of the region and the dry air. The map is both existential, and ephemeral, but also the substrate of deep climate trends.
Is fire an element we had never before tracked so attentively in maps? We did not think it could travel, or had feet. But wildfire smoke had blanketed the region, in ways that were not nearly as visible as it would be, but that the real-time map registers at the sort of pace we have become accustomed in real-time fire maps that we consult with regularity to track the containment and perimeters of fires that are now spreading faster and faster than they ever have in previous years. And soon after we worried increasingly about risks of airborne transmission of COVID-19, this fire season the intensity of particulate pollutants in the atmosphere contributed intense panic to the tangibility of mapping the pyrocumulus plumes that made their way over the Bay Area in late August. As the danger of droplets four micrometers in diameter remaining airborne seemed a factor of large-scale clusters, the waves of black carbon mapped in the Bay Area became a second sort of airborne pathogen made acutely material in layers of real-time Air Quality charts.
The boundaries of fire risk charts and indeed fire perimeters seemed suddenly far more fluid than we had been accustomed. When we make our fire maps with clear edges, however, it is striking that almost we stop registering the built environment, or inhabited world. As if by the magic of cartographical selectivity, we bracket the city–the sprawling agglomeration of the Bay Area–from the maps tracking the destructiveness and progress we call advancing wildfires, and from the isochronal variations of air quality that we can watch reflecting wind patterns and air movements in accelerated animated maps, showing the bad air that migrates and pool over the area I life. The even more ephemeral nature of these maps–they record but one instant, but are outdated as they are produced, in ways that fit the ecoystem of the Internet if also the extremes of the new ecosystem of global warming–the isochrones seem somewhat fatalistic, as they are both removed from human agency–as we found out in the weeks after the Lightning Siege of 2020 that seemed a spectacle of the natural world that rivaled the art of Walter de Maria in their grandiosity of time-lapse photography–
–the horizontal line of artificial light from Santa Cruz, unlike the images that De Maria created from The Lighting Field, remind us of the overlap between inhabited spaces where conflagrations in the dry wildlands that spread as the fires struck, and in way far less difficult to aestheticize than The Lightning Field set in a desert removed from human population, but was built as an isolated field for time-stop photography.
The CZU complex brought widespread devastation across areas of extra urban expansion in the Santa Cruz Mountains was almost a map that registered the expansion of residences to the very borders of forests. We haven’t ever faced the problem of maintaining and clearing in weather this dry, even if we have mapped the clustering of fires in the wild land-urban interface: but the strikes ignited underbrush lain like kindling, on the boundaries of the raging fire complexes. If the burning of underbrush by fire mitigation squads seeks to create fire lines in the mountainous landscape to create new perimeters to forestall the advance of major fires, working along a new fire line even as what is still called wildfier smoke travels across the nation, far beyond the Bay Area.
While watching the movement of fires that them in inhabited areas like shifting jigsaw pieces that destroy the landscape across which they move. These marked the start of megafires, that spread across state boundaries and counties, but tried to be parsed by state authorities and jurisdictions, even if, as Jay Inslee noted, this is a multi-state crisis of climate change that has rendered the forests as fuel by 2017–for combined drought and higher temperatures set “bombs, waiting to go off” in our forests, in ways unable to be measured by fire risk that continues to be assessed in pointillist terms by “fuel load” and past history of fires known as the “fire rotation frequency.” When these bombs go off, it is hard to say what state boundary lines mean.
If San Francisco famously lies close to natural beauty, the Bay Area, where I live, lies amidst of a high risk zone, where daily updates on fire risk is displayed prominent and with regularity in all regional parks. These maps made over a decade ago setfire standards for building construction in a time of massive extra-urban expansion. But risk has recently been something we struggled to calculate as we followed the real-time updates of the spread of fires, smoke, and ash on tenterhooks and with readiness and high sense of contingency, anxiety already elevated by rates of coronaviurs that depended on good numbers: fire risk was seen as an objective calculation fifteen years ago, but was now not easy to determine or two rank so crisply by three different shades.
When thunderstorms from mid-August brought the meteorological curiosity of nearly 12,000 dry lightening dry strikes from mid to late August 2020, they hit desiccated forests with a shock. The strikes became as siege as they set over three hundred and fifty-seven fires across the state, that rapidly were communicated into expansive “complexes” of brush fires.
We map these fires by state jurisdictions, and have cast them as such in policy, by borders or the perimeters we hope to contain barely grasp the consequences of how three quarters of a million acres burned up suddenly, and smoke from the cluster of fires rose in columns that spread across state boundary lines as far as Nebraska, and how fire complexes that spread across three million acres that would soon create a layer of soot across the west, eerily materialized in layers of GIS ESRI maps of environmental pollutants, while toxic particulate mater released in plumes of black carbon by the fires cover the state, rendering the sun opaque where I live, in the Bay Area, now Pompeii by the Bay as smoke at toxic levels blanketed much of the state.
They even more serious map, to be sure, was of fire spread: but the maps of air quality set the entire western seaboard apart from the nation, as if threatening to have it fall into the ocean and split off from the United States,–even if the burning of its open lands was more of a portent of things to come, they were a historical anomaly, lying outside the record of fire burns or air quality, if the poor air quality traced the origin of black carbon columns of smoke that would rise into the nation’s atmosphere.Continue reading