A New Podcast Explores How Fire Shaped the West—and How We Can Live with It Moving Forward

Historian and host Bill Deverell says he hopes the new series encourages people ”to become more attentive students of fire”
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On the night of August 31, in a move to mitigate the impact of potential fires, the USDA Forest Service temporarily closed California National Forests. The following day, Bill Deverell, historian and host of the podcast Western Edition: The West On Fire, seems stunned by the development. “I can see the reason, but that’s a remarkable turn of events. It’s beyond a wakeup call. It’s a very powerful statement,” he says by phone from Pasadena.

He adds, “We’re in an amazing moment right now and it requires us all to think hard about these issues.”

Deverell is the director of Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the research center behind the new podcast, which premiered on September 7. The first season of the series, which will air on Tuesdays through October 19, is all about fire and is based on a multi-year, interdisciplinary research project of the same name.

“We built the first season of the podcast around this project and some of our investigations with partner institutions and individuals about western wildfires,” says Deverell. “Everything has fallen into place in the most exciting, but also troubling, ways, in the sense that we’re getting the word out now when things look so dire.”

While Californians are accustomed to wildfire, the size, scope, and frequency of them in recent years has made the topic all the more relevant. “There is an appreciation of the wildfire landscape here in California and the West, but we’re seeing that landscape change right before our very eyes,” says Deverell.

He suspects that the public wants more knowledge on the subject, including how we can prepare for what’s becoming inevitable. “Fire is not going away, by any stretch, and we do have some ways in which we think that we can live with fire better,” says Deverell. “We have to understand that it is a natural part of the landscape and that feature of fire is one that we need to address and understand across historical time and look at ways in which all of can better understand fire and think about fire even beyond the periods in which it is so emergent and dangerous.”

Yet, for many Californians, specific fire events might seem to be a bit distant. “I think that we are increasingly and appropriately concerned about them. Part of the challenge always in California is that California is so big,” says Deverell.

Take, for example, the Caldor fire, which had already burned upward of 200,000 acres in more than two weeks at the time of our interview. “We might read in the paper about the Caldor Fire and understand the imminent threat to the lives and property and landscape up by Lake Tahoe, but it is very far away from here,” he says. “ I think, with people, sometimes, there’s a dissonance there and that’s a mistake.”

The reality is that wildfires throughout California and the West impact all of us, whether or not we can see the flames from our windows. “Wildfire is moving all around our landscapes. There’s no telling where it will pop up next,” says Deverell. “We’re deep into drought and the impacts of climate change. So, part of what I think the podcast is hopefully going to do is encourage people to become more attentive students of fire.”

black firefighters
Group of African American firefighters, part of Engine Company #14, pose in front of their station on the corner of S. Central Avenue and 34th Street, 1936.

Legacy Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The first episode, “Black Firefighters in L.A.,” looks at the legacy of racism in firefighting and the efforts to combat it in Los Angeles, where firehouses were segregated until the 1950s. From there, “The West on Fire” will dig into pop culture icon Smokey Bear, the devastation that continues in the aftermath of a blaze, the controlled burn practices of indigenous people, the impact of smoke on farmworkers, and the experiences of incarcerated firefighters. It’s a series that aims to look at fire from many different angles.

“Fire is one of these subjects where we may have started with this as historians, looking at the ways in which the past can be useful in thinking about these things, but, immediately, you can just add dozens of disciplines to your study of fire,” says Deverell.

As destructive as wildfires are, though, there’s a bit of a silver lining to Deverell’s message. “I do think that there’s a resilience and a potential for community building in all that, so I’m not so doom and gloom, although it is a dire time,” he says. “I do see a thread of possibility to learn together, to pay attention to historical sources, pay attention to different constituencies. I do see some hope in there, but it’s a challenge.”


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