Contemplating Man and Fire

As wildfires blaze across the western states this summer, science commentator Ruth Levy Guyer reflects on humankind's uneasy relationship with fire, and she considers its amazing properties.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Wildfires are spreading across the parched American west. A blaze in South Dakota killed one person and destroyed homes near hot springs on the edge of the black hills. Another fire in northern Nevada forced the temporary evacuation of hundreds of people from the town of Winnemucca.

In Utah, the highway patrol had to shut down two interstates after a fire jumped the highways and filled the air with smoke, causing accidents. Authorities reopened the roads today. In California, fires have scorch thousands of acres in the Inyo National Forest.

Our science commentator Ruth Levy Guyer remembers the moment she learned what a tender box the California Country side can be.

RUTH LEVY GUYER: We once lived in a cottage below a stately house in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. One cool evening, home alone, I built a fire in the fireplace and settled down with a good book. I had not even read the presses when my landlady came shrieking down the hill. Fire. She'd smelled smoke. Her TV felt hot. She hadn't seen flames but she'd called 911.

I was pretty sure her smoke and my fire were related. It was humid and I pictured the smoke from my chimney barely climbing into the air before wafting across the yard and sailing into her back door.

Sirens screamed. We ran up the hill firemen were swarming over her lawn. I told them about my fireplace. They came down to the cottage and doused the flames to be sure this was what my landlady had smelled and that was that - a literal throwing of cold water on my cozy evening.

I didn't know until years later and long after we'd left L.A. how pernicious fires in the San Gabriel's can be. The local vegetation, the chaparral, is incredible combustible. In the wild, this brushed burns and renews itself every 30 years. But wherever people have built homes and suppress wildfires, the chaparral just keeps growing, becoming scrubbier and oilier. So when finally a fire starts, it burns fast, hot, long and explosively.

Rainstorms then inexplicably concentrate in burned out areas, triggering mudslides. The fires, the floods and the mud hurt people and structures in the foothills, the suburbs and the cities. In the wilderness, though, burning and renewal are part of a natural cycle. Forests need fires. Seedpods like those of large pole pines crack open only after they've been scourged.

In the epic Yellow Stone fire of 1988, pine fires spew forth a million seeds per acre. Root systems of aspens read fire as a sign to send out suckers and one burned aspen produce 500 new trees within a year. Yellow Stone firestorm burn from mid-July until winter snows doused the last ambers. Yet by spring, signs of rebirth were everywhere. Smoky the bear had been completely discredited.

Earth is sandwiched between two powerful fires, one blazing in the sun, the other boiling in the magma core. Bolts of lightning shoot down from clouds. Lava spits fire up on to earth. The sparks finding fuel and oxygen bursts into flames. Fire and earth evolve in concert, later humans join the mix. We learned to start, exploit and control fire and that changed everything about our way of life.

Today, we debate the merits of unrestrained wildfires, controlled burning and fire suppression, fantasizing that we are in control of nature. Yet, surely, when the smoke clears, we'll recognize how fully nature herself exerts control.

ELLIOTT: Ruth Levy Guyer is the author of "Baby At Risk: The Uncertain Legacies of Medical Miracles for Babies, Families and Society."

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