I consider this question as I drive to Redding, California. I pass orchards, rice fields, farms, a billboard reading LOOK OUT CONGRESS! THE PEOPLE ARE COMING NOV. 7. The air in Redding, when I walk outside my hotel the morning after my arrival, feels thick and staticky, and though it's a hot, sunny day, a hazy scrim has been drawn over the sky, polluting the blue so it's more the color of a stepped-on eggshell, or a fading, grayish bruise. I can smell the smoke in the air, even though the fires are burning about 45 minutes away. It was 99 degrees in Sacramento yesterday. The woman sitting next to me on the plane told me that wasn't so hot for August.
More than 2,000 firefighters have been mobilized from all over the state. My hotel is packed with them, as is every restaurant I visit. ("One thing about these fires," a firefighter tells me, "they boost the local economy!") As I drive toward the base camp – it's actually the fairgrounds of a little town called Red Bluff – I see a couple of helicopters parked on the grassy shoulder of the freeway. The birds flying in the haze look confused, but that might just be my projecting. How would I know what a confused bird flies like?
Funnily enough, the firefighter assigned to show me around, Shawn Sternick, lives in Missoula. He knows who Tim O'Leary is, and loves his beer, and just got through making an annual rafting and camping trek on the Clark River with some buddies, which they refer to as their Lewis and Clark Trip. Sternick works in Los Angeles, though. He grew up in Orange County, but his wife is from Montana, and they wanted to raise their kids somewhere less hectic than L.A. Because firefighters must be on call at the firehouse 24-7, Sternick's schedule (5 days on, 13 days off) allows for such a commute, and he says he's not alone: Other guys in his firehouse commute as far as Idaho and Tennessee. "A lot of us can't afford to live in L.A.," he says.
Budget cuts have also hit California hard. One fire chief, coming off the front lines, where his men had been hiking up the side of a mountain (while wearing heavy fire gear) to lay thousands of feet of hose, explains that his team of 15 would have been 20 in prior years. Sternick says he and his colleagues have had pay cuts and lost vacation days. By far the best bang for the California taxpayers' (literal!) buck are the men in orange pants and ankle bracelets I spot near the fairgrounds' tent city, prepping food for the mess hall: prison inmates, who get paid "something like a dollar a day," according to Sternick. "They do some of the hardest work – on the front line, cutting brush. It looks good for the parole board, so they all want to do it. We're not really supposed to talk to them."
The Ponderosa fire in Lassen National Forest, finally contained, came close to destroying several towns, traveling seven miles in one night. Sternick drives me up to the front line, on top of a ridge. We pass hilly, yellow-grassed terrain dotted with short, gnarled trees and volcanic rock. As we approach the ridge, I see smoke pouring from the top of a not-so-distant mountain. It looks like a smoldering volcano we should be driving away from. Helicopters hauling buckets of retardant (a kind of reddish slime) fly over our heads to douse the fire.
At the ridge, I see an entire slope of freshly charred mountain. "We call that 'clean,'" Sternick explains. Meaning, there's nothing left to burn, so no risk of a fire restarting. (Firefighters comb the area, making sure every stick is cold, even cutting into tree stumps and roots, which can sometimes hide red-hot coals.) Another part of the ridge still has some living vegetation left. "We call that 'dirty,'" Sternick goes on. "We like it when the fire burns everything, so there's no chance of reignition."
The next morning, I drive up to another fire site, about an hour and a half north, to meet up with some smokejumpers. But by this point, there's not much else for me to learn. On my way home, I cut through a little valley, and the smoke is so thick, it's like mist. I switch my A/C to air-circulating mode, suddenly paranoid about choking or passing out. Then I pass a field of cows, chewing on grass, looking just fine. This makes me feel better. Then I begin to wonder if maybe the cows have powerful cow lungs, better equipped to breathe this stuff – who knows? – and I begin to panic again.
But less than before. You get used to these things.