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Two fires.

Then: Southern California burns, 2008 Even for the literal-minded, it was hard not to lump the conflagrations on Wall Street with those in Southern California. The meltdown of 401(k)s with the street signs at Sylmar. The frantic, ever-escalating press conferences and bailouts of any significant credit institution with the desperate deployment of ever-greater masses of engines and helitankers, all equally ineffective. Somehow the spark of a credit crunch managed to leap over fiscal firewalls and spread throughout the economic landscape, much as relatively small blazes blew over I-5 and threatened the power supply of Los Angeles. The general destruction has moved upscale, so that trophy homes burn along with trailer parks, and hedge funds with day traders. When the winds blew, they exposed any combustible object to embers, and threatened to incinerate anything vulnerable. The entire system, it seems, is vulnerable, and everyone knew that the winds always blow. It’s just been convenient to pretend otherwise. Now: Southern California burns, 2009 Another round, this time without the Santa Anas to drive them over and through the Transverse Range. More blowups. More houses burned. More evacuations. More declarations of disaster and states of emergency. More crews, more planes, more helicopters, more TV cameras. More posturing. Meanwhile, the Great Recession continues, refusing to be extinguished. Investors applaud each stock market rally as homeowners in Altadena do retardant drops by DC-10s. The fires continue for the same reason the economy continues to smolder, because the fundamentals have not changed. Until they do, we will be left with damaging breakouts and political theater. * * * Like economic transactions, fire is not a substance but a reaction – an exchange. It takes its character from its context. It synthesizes its surroundings. Its power derives from the power to propagate. To control fire, you control its setting, and you control wild fire by substituting tame fire. In fire-prone public lands, where the setting will not convert to shopping malls and sports arenas, some fire is inevitable and some necessary. From time to time a few fires will go feral. Without fire some biotas will only build up combustibles capable of stoking still-more savage outbreaks, and equally, some will cease to function. Fire is a force of “creative destruction” in nature’s economy. Without it, particularly in drier landscapes, nutrients no longer circulate freely but get hoarded. It’s as though organisms hid their valuables in secret caches dug in the backyard or in socks under the bed. The choice is not whether or not to have fire but what kind of fire we wish. When the big fires break out, or when the market crashes, the tendency is to blame external factors – a changing global climate, a changing global economy. Certainly if the weather were cold, wet, and calm rather than hot, dry, and windy, the fires would not spread, any more than an economy would overheat and fizz if money were tight rather than loose. But the real story would point to land use and fire management practices. Mixing houses and wildlands is the ecological equivalent of securitizing mortgages. Deciding that fires must be either fought or outsourced to nature to let burn denies the middle ground that historically allowed people to keep fire a servant, not a master. As the saying goes, it’s the best of friends and the worst of enemies. The American fire community has sought for several decades to reintroduce fire into public wildlands and private preserves (think The Nature Conservancy). It has had many successes; and it has had plenty of failures, not least the failure to do enough. The recent outbreaks and breakdowns present yet another opportunity to put reform where it will be most effective: on the land and on how we exercise our oversight as fire’s species monopolist. We can rely on emergency gestures and drop dollars like retardant, or we can undertake to remake the fundamentals – the structure, the way we regulate. Controlling fire, as with fiscal contagion, requires controlling the entire scene. Otherwise, at some point the money will run out completely, and it will no longer be possible to pretend that we can rebuild; everything will simply burn to ash. We’ll have too much of the wrong kind of fire and too little of the right. Stephen J. Pyne is a professor at Arizona State University and the author of Tending Fire: Coping with America’s Wildland Fires (Island Press, 2004).