Siberian Smoke — the Power of Zooming Out

[This was the featured article in the 2021 Spring Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Erik Apland, Field Operations Specialist (Acting), Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

As the 2021 western fire season begins, have you had the chance zoom out and put 2020 into its full context? Have you been able to revisit what happened, and with some distance, make sense of it?

The summer of my first fire season in 2005, I went on a road trip to visit Crater Lake National Park, located just a few hours from my station on the Lassen National Forest. On the way, I took a Forest road off Highway 97 that wound up to the Herd Peak Fire Lookout, hoping to break-up my drive and stretch my legs.

At the summit, I climbed the lookout stairs and stood with the lookout herself, taking in a stunning, unobstructed view of the north face of Mount Shasta, 15 miles due south. Most of the conversation that we had I have forgotten in the intervening 16 years. But I do remember her saying this, in my mind, almost verbatim: “The storms here always build to the west. But as they come closer, they split, and this area doesn’t really get much lightning. Except in August 1987. They didn’t split in 1987.”

The senior captains and chief officers on the Lassen talked about 1987. My trip to Herd Peak was just a few years before the 2008 fire season blew 1987 out of the water. For years, 2008 was the marker, the big siege. But then came 2020 and the North Complex, a new fire siege nearly triple the size of 2008—and almost seven times the size of 1987. A nearly 30-mile fire run in the Sierras, and across the Central Valley, the first one-million-acre fire in California history.

The Black Dragon Fire – That I Never Knew Existed

But there was a single fire, back in 1987, almost twice as large as the entire 2020 U.S. fire season. The Black Dragon Fire, allegedly started by a worker refueling a brush cutter, ripped through three million acres of forest in Northeast China before jumping the Black Dragon River and burning an additional 15 million acres in the then-Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of volunteers, forestry workers, and soldiers worked for 26 days to contain the fire. A total of 211 people were killed.

Scrolling back through the decades of Landsat 5 satellite data, you can find a few clear shots that show the fire actively burning. (A continuation of the Landsat Program, Landsat 5 was jointly managed by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.)

Two flaming fronts converging on the Black Dragon Fire in Northeast China on May 23, 1987. Image from NASA/USGS Landsat 5.

Between the broken clouds and patchy smoke, snakes of orange fire are visible everywhere—flaming fronts miles wide looping around, converging, marching across seas of green. You can see a vast interior island burning out in a lake of continuous fire half-a-mile deep and two-miles wide.

Here, in the aftermath of the foehn North Wind event of September 8-9 in 2020, I thought that there hadn’t been a fire season like this since 1910.

In my little world—southwestern North America—there really hadn’t been fires like this for a while. But it was only my ignorance and focus on this tiny world that made 2020 seem such a departure from the norm.

Fire is a natural process native to nearly every (non-ice) landscape on earth. What happened in Heilongjiang on May 6, 1987, could happen in Northern California on September 8, 2020.

The fact that an 18-million-acre wildfire burned Northern Hemisphere conifer forests (about the same latitude as central British Columbia) within my lifetime gives me pause. Not the fluke, almost mythical fire season of the distant past like 1910, Black Dragon was there my entire career, not commemorated but just as contemporary as my captain’s Siege of ‘87 lapel pin. Not a factor because I didn’t even know it existed.

‘The Fate of the Earth’

Reading a Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC) blog post titled “Writing Wrongs,” I was intrigued to learn of a large tragedy fire that occurred in China at the end of March 2020 that killed 18 firefighters and a local who was acting as a guide. In the few media reports I then found on this 2020 burnover, another larger incident in China the previous year is also mentioned. That fire, burning at 13,000 feet elevation (!) trapped 30 firefighters, including an official of the region’s forestry bureau.

Even though Black Dragon ravaged far eastern Siberia at the very end of the Soviet era, the Cold War and internal politics meant that information was scarce on this disaster (think Chernobyl). In the journalist Harrison Salisbury’s account of the Black Dragon Fire, he describes surveying the burned area in the months afterward with “deep foreboding. I feIt I was participating in an inquest on the fate of the earth.”

I admit to feeling something like this, myself, in the aftermath of the North Complex.

The 2020 North Complex fire siege that, among other milestones, made an almost 30-mile run in less than 24 hours. Photo by Kari Greer.

We Can’t Stay Myopic for Long

We have a lot on our plates, with the impacts of climate change and effects of past wildland management in the American West. So, what is my point here?

Some of it is just the natural empathy I have with anyone who goes into the woods to fight a fire. As Norman Maclean says in Young Men and Fire: “. . . I can express my gratitude for still being around on the oxygen-side of the earth’s crust only by not standing pat on what I have hitherto known and loved. While oxygen lasts, there are still new things to love, especially if compassion is a form of love.”

But beyond the sentimental, you can’t learn from what you never even knew existed or transpired. The Missoula smokejumpers who jumped into Mann Gulch 72 years ago are surely further removed from us than 18 firefighters in another country last year. Yet Dodge and his crew have been with me—to the extent I can conjure them—every year when I think about hiking into a lightning fire with thunderstorms overhead.

Zooming out like Landsat, and scrolling through the years, you can imagine a globe, with swirling clouds and sweeps of fire appearing and propagating at random, as it spins on its axis. These flashes of orange cross political boundaries at will, they jump rivers and imaginary map lines with nearly equal facility.

Like climate, fire is global. No matter the country, the effects on human societies of unwanted fires are the same—the destruction of homes and farms and forests; and the injuries and deaths to animals and humans, including firefighters, be they federal or local, paid or volunteer.

There are times we need to zoom in to the task at hand, sometimes all the way down to the next swing of the tool because it is simply all we are capable of for a variety of reasons. But we can’t stay myopic for long. We must always remember to take a tactical pause, gain some elevation, and assess our scenario relative to the available scale.

There are pieces of line you never tie-in because you work to the top of the ridge only to find new smokes on every horizon. What you do in that moment matters. You can bury your head in the minutia and get back to digging while fervently whispering “Two More Chains!” as a way to avoid the enormity of the situation. Or you can embrace the vastness of your plight and take a moment to recalibrate. There will always be two more chains to go, but perspective is required to advance with the right compliment of tools.

What’s happening in California and the West is a brushstroke that increasingly I had come to confuse for the entire painting. I don’t even know what lessons there are in the “planet of fire”, as Stephen Pyne has called our world. But the first one for me is that there is a big world out there with stories that can be uncovered and shared. No doubt if Herd Peak was staffed in May 1987, there were beautiful sunsets coloring a sky full of Siberian smoke.

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