California spends billions rebuilding burned towns. The case for calling it quits
The last two weeks have been brutal. On Aug. 28, a wildfire that has now burned more than 1.5 million acres erupted from Santa Rosa National Forest in Northern California. On the night of Aug. 28, another fire, the Camp Fire, destroyed more than 90 structures in Butte County, leaving dozens dead and thousands homeless. The Camp Fire is the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, and it’s the reason why I’ve become a fire scientist.
Two days later, on Aug. 30, a fire that had started in Alamo, San Diego County, continued to burn. As of Sunday morning, the fire had burned more than 6,600 homes, destroyed more than 3,000 more, and damaged more than 10,000 more. More than a week later, it continues to burn.
In the aftermath, I took the long road back to the Santa Rosa forest, where the wildfire I’d been fighting was burning. I spoke with Cal Fire, which is the fire agency that’s been fighting the Santa Rosa fire. I talked with officials from the county sheriff who, before the fire, had requested federal assistance. I talked to the head of the Alamo wildfire’s response team. I spoke with a team leader of the Camp Fire’s response team. And I visited the fire’s burn sites.
While visiting the burn site, I noticed something about the fire. Although the fire’s death toll is growing, the number of structures destroyed is declining. That’s because of firefighters’ efforts to contain the fire, which is why it’s also known as a contained wildfire.
To see both the Santa Rosa and Camp fires as contained wildfires, however, requires a level of confusion that’s hard to explain. After the fire destroyed thousands of homes, residents were left with nowhere