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Tessa Love

California Burning

Illustration by Wenjia Tang

Tessa Love | Longreads | November 2019 | 15 minutes (4,384 words)

The way a fire starts is simple. When a flammable material is exposed to a high enough temperature and fed by an oxidizer, you get flame. It’s called the fire triangle, the chemical combination of oxygen, fuel, and heat, which generates the first wisp of burning. Take one of these elements away, and the fire goes out, or doesn’t ignite in the first place. 

Then there’s fire behavior, or the way it moves. By nature, fire seeks to keep itself alive. It unfurls from the center of its own heat and consumes a forest or structure or city by way of the trinity of fuel, weather, and topography. If more combustible material can be licked by flame, and wind can direct and feed its heat, a fire can rage. It can burn so hot it melts aluminum. It can move so fast that it destroys a town in minutes. It can clog the air with so much smoke, there is nothing left to breathe.

Fire cannot exist or move without all of these elements in place and in the right proportions. Like anything, fire is a set of conditions ignited by chance. It fuels change. 

This is where it stops being simple. Read more…