Seeing the Same Fire

 To cite this article: Adriana Petryna (2021) Seeing the Same Fire, Anthropology Now, 13:1, 106-109, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2021.1903579

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Adriana Petryn

An almost vertical line showing an increase of atmospheric CO2 emissions captures the urgency of a changing climate like no other line. Yet lines are also insufficient for grasping what might come next. The year 2020 was the worst wildfire-fighting year on record in the western U.S. Wild- fires consumed more than 10 million acres, and the country’s so-called war on wildfire has cost billions of dollars. Fire seasons are lasting, on average, over 80 days longer than they did five decades ago.

It is hard to find stability in these numbers. As the future unfolds, acres burned or costs accrued for any given year become distant benchmarks of runaway climate change. In mid-November 2018, the Camp Fire in Northern California claimed at least 86 lives, becoming the deadliest fire in the state’s history. By mid-September 2020, entire towns were up in flames across California, Oregon and Washington.1

Yet, in an effort to discount the changing impacts of wildfires, the former U.S. president, touring Paradise, California after the Camp Fire, made the suggestion that raking forest floors is the secret to wildfire control. In a tweet, he blamed the fires on poor management and threatened to withhold federal aid from victims. Amid the charred rubble, Trump telegraphed a false sense of containment, taking away attention from the actual work of containing fires and the struggles of those who were displaced, camping out in parking lots, forced to find another home or getting sick from smoke.2

As the vertical emissions curve heads past the Trump years, those years will become a distant memory in a larger history of obstruction as it relates to environmental concerns,4 and in which issues of scientific accountability and political doublespeak are intertwined. In the first, projection cannot keep up with changing baselines to meet conditions where they are (or where they are headed). In the second, political actors can exploit the gap between expectation and reality to advance spurious claims. Indeed, in a warming world, the very concept of  “managing”  wildfires is becoming a bit of a misnomer today be- cause it assumes that the traditional tool of management—suppression—is fit to contain wildfire. The concept further assumes that contemporary wildfires can be contained at all. Beyond questioning the limits of traditional management tools and expectations, I want to raise larger questions about how to mobilize collectively to maintain livable futures when the means of control that were once considered effective lose that status and require other modes of knowledge and support.

The philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard was onto something almost a century ago when he pointed out that certain physical entities, such as fire, can outrun the techniques used to apprehend them: “Fire is no longer a reality for science.”6 But this is not to suggest that fire is real only in the eye of the beholder, or to propose that there is anything “unreal” about it. Indeed, when firefighters cannot see fire (having discarded their mental slides), one can imagine how much latitude political actors can have in promoting wild claims (about the efficacy of rakes, for example). The irony is that with all its grim consequences on display, wildfire can some- how be low-hanging fruit for run-of-the-mill climate denial.

Seeing different fires—that is, holding different assumptions about what causes them and how they can be contained poses problems for advancing the operations of wildfire management. Such operations must rely on some ideal that consistency between perception and reality can be achieved. Inconsistency, as I have been suggesting, isn’t just a by-product of abrupt or surprising behaviors linked to climate change and the burning of fossil fuels; it is produced in the gap between perception and reality, where operations need to be reimagined as expectations about how environments “should” act are upended.

Yet this type of inconsistency hasn’t quite sunk in to models of learned intuition and expertise, which can privilege single decision- makers and allow “unwarranted confidence” (Calkin & Mentis 2015). In what is a standard anecdote about expert intuition in extreme circumstances, a firefighting commander leads a crew into a burning house. The crew points a water hose at a fire in the back of the house. The commander can reasonably expect that the temperature inside will drop. Instead, it gets hotter, so he orders crewmembers to evacuate. Within seconds, the floor they had been standing on collapses (from a fire that, unbeknown to the crew, was burning in the basement). The commander was able to “think fast” (or make that split-second evacuation call) because his experience with fire patterns allowed him to sense the anomaly. In other words, the gap between what was thought to be happening and what was happening was kept as small as possible.7

Now imagine that the basement fire is hotter and faster growing than any the crew has experienced before. What if a different crew leader doesn’t have the means or experience to act on a similar intuition—to make the right split-second call to protect the crew? In any large wildfire, there will be plenty of things that can’t be seen or anticipated: the random gust of wind carrying a burning ember across a highway and into a nearby suburb, sparking a new fire; or the one that takes it into a neighboring mountain range, igniting drought-parched vegetation in one of its canyons.

The gulf between what is predicted and what actually occurs can grow too large, even for the seasoned expert. Now picture crew members who happen to be in the neighboring mountain canyon, assessing structures and properties that may be at risk. Scouting missions like these can be tricky: what if the canyon turns into a wind tunnel, in which a creeping little fire is just one wind gust away from becoming a fireball? Members may not see the fireball coming; they might just hear a roar and not know where the sound is coming from; and each might react differently. The point is that firefighting crews routinely face complex danger, and sometimes they rewrite the rules of their own expertise. They must do so while also pushing back on increased demands for public protection as well as the risks, both seen and unseen, that these demands carry.

Wildfire is mired in unrealistic assumptions about control and how, as one wildfire research scientist put it to me, “the planet that we live on works.” Inasmuch as public expectations remain at odds with physics, they can be stirred in ways that allow political and economic actors to promote certain features about wildfire’s control while downplaying others. In this sense, a `subjective’ space of fire affords too much leeway to shape perception—in the worst case, it allows these actors to foster apathy to a future of environ- mental extremes.

Feeding unrealistic assumptions about wildfires, their causes and how they can be “contained”—presuming, against evidence, that tomorrow will look like today—will only cost more  lives  down the road. It cuts off what I have been calling “horizoning work,” a mode of thinking that considers imminent, unnatural disasters against a horizon of expectation in which publics can still intervene. Horizoning involves ethical imperatives of maintaining responsive capacity relative to a seemingly narrowing object—the future—and of creating and sustaining spaces for collective mobilization and responsibility that take on different forms. Anthropology has a role in conjuring catastrophe, not in ways that reinforce nihil- ism or apocalypse narratives but that can turn the “rubble” (of distortions, unrealistic expectations, dangerous inconsistencies, and political exploits) into wanted configurations of the world.

As heat and drought guarantee extended burning and forest die-offs, tools and mental slides will be ever more ill-fitted to circumstances that exceed available course-corrections. There are other “slides” and ways of thinking with fire that offer a path and a chance of not exacerbating the damage. They also call for confrontation with misguided policies and settler-colonial legacies that have shaped the natures of wildfire today. In the aftermath of the Castle fire that consumed a mountain ridge top in California in 2020, Bill Tripp, the director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe, noted that it “cost $100 million to fight the Castle fire. What if we dedicated that $ to restoring our forests to reduce fires in the first place?”8 While the urgency and stakes of the climate crisis are undisputed, exposing the operational limits of wildfire containment, Tripp—an Indigenous fire and environmental stewardship practitioner— suggests that fire can be made real in other terms: not just as costly rubble, a quasi-military adversary, or an unstoppable force of nature, but as the stuff of reimagined responses and shared objectives. Until we can do that, we haven’t yet learned to see the same fire.


  1. Blacki Migliozzi, Scott Reinhard, Nadja Popovich, Tim Wallace, and Allison McCann, “Record Wildfires on the West Coast Are Capping a Disastrous Decade,” New York Times, September 24, 2020, tive/2020/09/24/climate/fires-worst-year-califor-nia-oregon-washington.html.
  2. Peter Wade, “Wildfire Evacuees Not Im- pressed With Trump’s Rake Remarks During California Visit,” Rolling Stone, November 18, 2018, news/trump-tours-wildfire-757956/.
  3. Timothy Ingalsbee, “Guest View: The Definition of Insanity,” The Register-Guard, May 31, 2020, ion/20200531/guest-view-definition-of-insanity.
  4. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Mer- chants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).
  5. Kyle Rempfer, “Could the Air Force Bomb Wildfires into Submission?” Air Force Times, Au- gust 10, 2018, news/your-air-force/2018/08/10/could-the-air- force-bomb-wildfires-into-submission/.
  6. Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964). Also see Adriana Petryna, “Wildfires at the Edges of Science: Horizoning Work amid Runaway Change,” Cultural Anthropology 339, no. 4 (2018): 570–95.
  7. Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein, “Conditions  for  Intuitive  Expertise:  A  Failure to Disagree,” American Psychologist 64, no. 6 (2009): 515–26.
  8. Bill Tripp@CulturalFire. December 2 , 2020, 5:53 p.m. tus/1334269600234491904

Adriana Petryna is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of award-winning books, including Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl and When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects, and she is coeditor of Global Pharmaceuticals: Ethics, Markets, Practices and When People Come First: Critical Studies in Global Health.

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