On October 21st, 2007, a boy was at his home along Rocking Horse Road—a ranch near Agua Dulce, a small community on the northeast outskirts of Santa Clarita, California—when he decided to play with matches. Describing his actions as misusing fire is more appropriate, but from his perspective "playing" is probably accurate. He found matches in his home, took them outside and began lighting them, either understanding how to do it already or experimenting long enough to figure out how to rub the match head against the striker panel to create a flame. At some point in his play around one o'clock in the afternoon, he ignited a brush fire that would become known as the Buckweed Fire.
A ridge of high pressure over the Pacific Ocean had created another day of high temperature and low humidity. Warm, dry Santa Ana winds blew between 20 and 40 miles per hour from the ocean across southern California, gusting twice as fast through valleys and down slopes. Buckweed was one of nine large wildfires that ignited in the region that day, starting what would be known as the 2007 California Fire Siege.
Empowered by the gusting wind and fueled by dry chaparral, mixed brush and grass, flames roared out of control, quickly threatening hundreds of homes and causing emergency managers to begin evacuations. Firefighters responded by road and by air, crisscrossing the region as wildfires ignited and expanded, threatening lives and property. The Buckweed Fire burned 10,000 acres by evening and continued churning over the landscape the following days threatening transmission lines, a theme park and thousands of structures. Wind-borne embers sparked spot fires a half mile in front of the fire, leap-frogging containment efforts by firefighters.
Three days after it started, 28 handcrews (each consisting of 20 firefighters), 144 engines (staffed with an average of three firefighters), 13 bulldozers, several helicopters and a management team numbering 130 had contained the wildfire. The boy, through his match and the Buckweed Fire it produced, destroyed 21 homes and 42 other structures and burned over 38,300 acres. Approximately 15,000 people evacuated their communities in advance of the fire.
Less than a month after it ignited, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office announced it would not file charges against the boy because there was no evidence of intent. A Los Angeles Times reporter said the boy was "distraught" about the wildfire's consequences. That unsatisfying end to the Buckweed Fire is but one reason why I wrote this manual.
We teach children about the Fire Triangle, but that symbol is only a simple gateway for a complicated topic. Understanding the physical and chemical properties of ﬁre are the topics for Chapter 2. Chapter 3 considers the significance of youth ﬁresetting and what should be done about this growing problem as half of all arson arrests across the country are juveniles. Additional resources for youth misuse of ﬁre are contained in Appendix. Chapter 4 explains the negative consequences of ﬁre, applying the ideas from the previous chapters with concrete examples of destruction. The boy who ignited the Buckweed Fire has a much better understanding of ﬁre's darker side, but he escaped the incident with few consequences.
Destruction is one consequence of fire, and certainly the one that gets the most media time, but its compliment—creation—is equally powerful and lasting. Fire's creative capacity is the topic of Chapter 5. If we humans expect to use such a powerful phenomenon safely, we need to know and follow rules, which is a discussion found in Chapter 6. As the Buddhist quotation that leads this prologue states, fire has sacred meanings that transcend our physical world. Chapter 7 examines spiritual aspects of fire from around the world.
Our unhealthy relationships with fire often spring from how we perceive risk. I address that complicated topic in Chapter 8. If we can understand risk perception better, we can begin making peace with fire. Peace will come from harmony as I explain in Chapter 9. In Chapter 10 I consider consequences of continuing along our current trajectory of burning, injuring and dying. It's an unsustainable trajectory that I hope we change.
Most chapters include excerpts of ancient stories from diverse cultures regarding fire to illustrate historical roots and connections of ideas. The complete stories, which provide a richer context for understanding fire culturally, are in the Origins of Fire: Ancient Myths section, following the chapters.
Paul Gleason, an extraordinary wildland firefighter, implored the rest of us in the fire service to become students of fire. Learning about fire has improved my safety and my understanding of our world, but the lessons aren't simple as Colleen Morton Busch noted in her book, Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire:
Learning to live with fire is tricky, because there isn't one kind of fire. There are crown fires, slow creeping fires, wind-driven fires, stand-replacement fires, smoldering fires. There are fires in chaparral, fires in pines, fires in oak savannas, fires in buildings made of wood, clay, and stone. There is fire in the center of each human heart. Knowing what kind of fire you live with, a Zen student knows, is an endless, constantly changing, moment-by-moment process.
If we don't change our understanding of fire, our rules of engagement, or our cultural values, we should expect more tragedies and be willing to pay for them in ever-increasing volumes of dollars, blood, sweat and tears. I'm committed to preventing these tragedies, and I hope to bring more members into my prevention cadre.
- Einar Jensen