The Seduction of Fire

The crackle and pop, its sensuous mercurial dance, its shifting colors — red, orange, white, blue, purple, green — the mysterious glow of the embers, the impossibility of grasping it in your hand. Fire galvanizes our attention as few other natural forces do. I have been obsessed with fire since I was a young girl. When we had candles at the dinner table, I loved poking at the melting wax. I learned that I could pass my finger through the candle’s flame, and it would emerge unscathed. For my sixth grade, science project I made candles in different diameters using different wicks and wax, then I measured and compared the heat and light they gave off, an excuse to play with fire. At camp I was an eager student of fire-building, layering the wood into a structure that would maximize the burning, a skill I brought home to demonstrate in my family’s living room fireplace.

My fascination with fire had lasted into adulthood. Like a moth, I gravitate to any fire in my vicinity — a campfire, a beach fire, a fireplace fire — I can gaze into them all endlessly. They have, for most of my life, symbolized warmth and coziness, and community of family or friends.

In recent years, however, as megafires have devastated California and the Pacific Northwest, my view of fire has inevitably shifted. I am no less obsessed, but I have had to reframe my understanding of fire as no longer merely cozy and heat-giving, but as an often uncontrollable force of destruction.

Eight or nine ago, fire, always at the back of my obsessional mind, began appearing in my fiction, most notably in my 2018 novel Weather Woman, which features two large fires in Los Angeles that are threatening its residents. The protagonist of that novel, who has the ability to change the weather and alter natural forces, tries to stop the fires — and succeeds.

Weeks after Weather Woman was published in October of 2018, the Camp Fire, one of the biggest fires in California history, decimated the town of Paradise. I couldn’t get enough of reading about that fire, how quickly it grew and traveled, how much devastation it wrought, what the experience was like for those who went through it. An entire town lost — it was overwhelming to think about. I knew I had to visit Paradise and see the aftermath of the fire for myself.

In December of 2019 I stopped in Paradise on my way to a reading in Sausalito. It was a chilly rain-spitting day. I parked just off the main street and walked past plot after plot of land where nothing remained but chunks of crumbled foundations, blackened trees, and junk that had been gathered into piles. Billboards around the town announced that recovery was in full swing, but signs of recovery were not readily visible. I wanted to talk to people, but most businesses were still shuttered, and I felt too much like a rubbernecker to enter the few businesses that were active. I didn’t want to be preying on people’s losses. I left not knowing what I had come for. I was aware of being glad that I didn’t lived in Paradise, or anywhere in California.

Less than a year later, fire came arrived closer to home. I had thought I was safe in Oregon, but that was an illusion — I was not safe. The Holiday Farm Fire crashed through a swath of forest on the McKenzie River, where several of my friends have houses, approximately 50 miles from Eugene. Harrowing stories abounded of sudden escape in the middle of the night — OUT NOW! TAKE NOTHING! One friend broke her leg as she was fleeing. Another friend’s house was still standing after the fire receded, but uninhabitable due to smoke damage. Most of the town of Blue River was destroyed as much as Paradise was.

I happened to be out of town when the fire began. I watched from afar as the fire crept closer to town and the air quality became the worst in the world — worse than China and India. Everyone’s sense of safety has changed since then, not only for those who endured the fire close up, but also for the rest of us who could see it would only be a function of time and wind direction before we would be in harm’s way too. If not this year, maybe next year, or the year after that.

There have been more mega-fires in California and Oregon again this year. No surprise with the worsening drought. I was horrified, however, to read that several of the California fires were started by an arsonist (who has been taken into custody). As fascinated as I am with fire myself, it requires a colossal act of imagination for me to understand what would prompt someone to do something as sociopathic as setting a wildfire. I find it hard to generate empathy for such an individual, who is intentionally wreaking harm on so many people.

The development of advanced human civilization was made possible by humans learning to control fire, to start it at their convenience and use it for heat and light and cooking, which in turn enhanced the growth and development of the human brain. Innumerable other human activities have also been made possible by fire. Now, it isn’t a stretch, especially if you live in the west, to think that megafires may play a role in human extinction — or at the very least mass migrations. Fire is promising to make many of the western states uninhabitable within the next decade. How interesting that this important “tool” which enabled so much of human civilization to flourish millennia ago, maybe soon play a role in much of civilization’s demise. It is as if our Holy Grail has turned into our Kryptonite.

As for my own obsession with fire — it has not dissipated. As I’ve come to recognize fire’s serious dangers, I’ve come to respect it more. If anything, I am more obsessed with fire than ever. There is a new book out about the Paradise Fire (Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire) charting it on a moment-by-moment basis through the eyes of the people who lived through it. I have already read one book about that fire, and I will certainly be reading this new book too. I continue to admire the mysterious primal power of fire which (hopefully) forces human beings to behave more humbly. It is hard not to see these infernos as the roaring mouthpieces of a violated Earth, reminding us who’s in charge.

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.