The American West is on fire. Across successive summers, wildfires in the far West, in the Northwest, in western Canada, in the Southwest, in the Great Basin and in the Rockies keep getting bigger, hotter and more catastrophic. We all know this. But the sheer level of destruction is hard to grasp and to fathom.
For some, fire in California and the West is a series of breaking news clips of red skies and cars of families rushing to escape flames. For others, fire is closer to home and heart. For those whose lives have been directly touched by it, fire reorders life in unimaginable and devastating ways. Fire is also at the center of careers; firefighters, climate scientists, politicians or fire-spotters in outlook towers spend their lives observing and responding to fire. It is a critically important element of cultural life and ecological necessity. It has been and will always be with us. So how can we learn to live better with fire?
"The West on Fire", the first season of the new podcast "Western Edition" from the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW), explores these issues, looking at the ways in which fire shaped and continues to shape the American West. As westerners and students of history, we felt compelled to study western fire through the kinds of publicly-engaged scholarship we’ve been doing for nearly two decades at the Institute.
ICW has been working on a large humanities-based research project called The West on Fire, funded by USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. As the scale of fire increases exponentially, it challenges us to think differently, even fundamentally differently, about the region. We explore big questions like: How do fire patterns challenge conventional boundaries of counties and states across the West? How should fire fit into larger discussions about climate change, drought and post-fire flooding and debris flow? Does our growing understanding of fire’s impact change the way we divide up western historical periods? How do those living in the West experience fire as good versus catastrophic?
Thinking about answers to these questions demands attention to those experiencing, using and fighting fire. We’re also looking for creative ways to connect the public with the evolving conversation and most current knowledge on fire. This podcast is part of that effort.
"The West on Fire" podcast covers a lot of territory, figuratively and literally, ranging from the long history of institutional discrimination against Black firefighters in Los Angeles to the solitary and reflective experience of serving as a fire season lookout in the Gila National Forest. We hear from a resident who lost their home to post-fire debris flow in Montecito, California; Indigenous practitioners of fire who use fire as part of cultural practice and land stewardship; and doctors and activists helping us understand the effects of smoke exposure. We also explore the cultural and environmental impact of Smokey Bear and learn how much western communities owe to the resilience and determination of incarcerated firefighters who constitute a key force in fighting wildfires.
One of the ways in which we examine fire across this season of "Western Edition" is from the margins: how have those communities traditionally marginalized in the American West (and the nation) experienced fire? When we collectively consider the impact of catastrophic fires, we, rightfully, often think first of those who lose homes, livelihoods and communities to the flames and the aftermath of blazes in the West. As many of the episodes in this season make clear, not everyone in the West experiences fire in the same way. Indigenous communities, for example, strategically have used prescribed burns for centuries as a tool to clear overgrowth and debris buildup, thereby eliminating the accumulation of the natural fuel that creates today’s mega fires. American conquest and settler colonialism, however, brought over a century of fire suppression tactics, restricting or eliminating cultural and prescribed burns, or “good fire,” in favor of aggressive fire suppression. Exploring how Indigenous practices of "good fire" might transform the broadest conversations about fire in the West in productive, even hopeful, ways is at the core of the podcast.
Another episode, “Wildfire Smoke,” considers those most vulnerable to the serious health consequences of one of the far-reaching byproducts of massive fires: smoke. California’s enormous agricultural industry relies on the outdoor labor of thousands of migrant farmworkers, many of them from Indigenous communities in Mexico. The location of California agribusinesses, often in the valleys and basins below fire-prone mountain ranges, and the nature of farm work make laborers in the industry particularly vulnerable to smoke exposure. Many of California’s farm workers are also undocumented and speak Indigenous languages. Language barriers leave public health messaging in English and Spanish inadequate. And some employers leverage the vulnerabilities created by immigration status to force workers to remain in fire and smoke evacuation zones to harvest the produce we find in our grocery stores and place on our tables. The podcast starts with these conversations with the hope of moving toward systemic change and healthier communities. Ultimately, the view and experience of fire varies as much as the diversity of western communities.
KCET and ICW have historically partnered on projects that dive into the stories of Southern California, from our Emmy Award-winning four-part documentary series about the aerospace industry in Southern California to our work together through USC Libraries on “Lost L.A.” hosted by Nathan Masters. With this new project, we partner on the release of "Western Edition" with an exclusive series of essays written by our partners on each week’s topic. We hope that you enjoy our first season of "Western Edition" and we look forward to bringing you season two before long.
"Western Edition" is produced by audio producer Avishay Artsy, media consultant Katie Dunham, Cal State Northridge Associate Professor of History Jessica Kim and ICW Associate Director Elizabeth Logan.