We recently experienced a scary forest fire within just a few miles of where I sit right now. The so-called McKinney Fire burned some 65,000 acres or about 100 square miles. Think about that—one hundred square miles is a square ten miles on a side. Ten times ten is a hundred.
A useful fact of North American geographical history is that one square mile of surveyed land is equal to 640 acres. Multiply that by one hundred. You can see now that a 65,000 acre fire is a little bit more than 100 square miles.
Try to imagine a quadrilateral of open land ten miles in length and ten miles in width. Ten miles is a real hike. Over flat ground and at a relaxed walking pace of two miles per hour that’s a five-hour excursion. To walk the entire boundary of the parcel is a forty-mile expedition. That’s a lot of ground.
Now imagine those one hundred square miles are not flat but steep, and even worse, rocky, and cut with numerous gulches and canyons. Add a covering of timber and heavy brush and you have the setting for the McKinney Fire.
The firefighters did an amazing job and with help from the weather gods they got the big blaze under control. Later they sent in the post-fire teams and called it over and went on to the next assignment. The professionalism and skill of the entire firefighting apparatus was a thing to behold. They are getting scarily good at this stuff. Lately they’ve had more than enough practice and it looks like that’s going to continue. That’s what happens when summers are hotter and winters are drier.
I can see remnants of the McKinney Fire out my window as I type. Big, new bulldozer tracks have been carved into the scrubby woodlands that cover the flanks of the ridge. They’ve been cleaned up nicely and look like real roads. They will be excellent firebreaks if anything ever comes down that hillside, and they will serve as access and escape routes.
These bare-dirt swaths mark up the wildland with a fierce urgency. They aren’t put in for looks but for emergency utility. They radiate a no-nonsense vibe.
But I have come to appreciate their artistry. Every town should have these moats around them. Fire season is year-round now. Every wildland interface needs at least a nip and a tuck if not full-on plastic surgery. We need a new aesthetic. One that adapts to a new vision for natural landscapes. These landscapes need open stretches of bare ground. They need trees removed. They need brush cleared. They need the obvious hand of humankind managing them.
We have a great love of wildness. And we like to see unspoiled nature. But that is an increasingly impractical notion. We are too vulnerable to fire. We have to re-imagine where we live to include stuff that says, loud and clear, “this is for the next big one.” I really like those ribbons of new road criss-crossing in my viewshed. It makes me feel like the folks who put them in were indeed thinking about “next time.”
Two more fires, the Mill Fire and the Mountain Fire, have hit nearby since McKinney. They are both still active incidents. Ash and cinders from both fires were blown into our yard. It has been a painful summer around here. Let’s hope it gets better soon. And let’s hope we can be more resilient in the future.