The Birth Of The Mega-Fire

A fire burns out of control near homes October 23, 2007 in Running Springs, California.
Getty Images/Justin Sullivan
With hundreds of thousands of acres burning in Southern California, these are fires on a scale once unknown. We are now in the age of the mega-fire - a threat that has been building for a century, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports.

"We always knew this day would come - this is the day of reckoning," said state Assemblyman Todd Spitzer.

That reckoning isn't only in California, it's throughout the West where fires have been burning bigger, hotter and faster.

"The nature of the fires is changing," said Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne. "In many of the areas we are approaching 10 years of drought. So the trees are stressed."

A trouble that is gets more frequent as the earth gets warmer. Fire Ecologist Tom Swetnam has a collection of tree rings that reveals thousands of years of climate history. He told Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes that global warming means a longer fire season.

"The fire season in the last 15 years or so has increased more than two months over the whole western U.S.," Swetnam said.

Add to that a whole lot more fuel to burn - the result of a hundred years of fighting fires.

"Ninety-nine percent of the fires are put out, but there's that 1 percent that ... gets away," said fire historian Richard Minnich.

But putting out almost every fire is not what nature intended, said Minnich.

"The fire-suppression management over the 100 years in fact generated more severe fires than would otherwise occur," Minnich said.

In 1988, Yellowstone National Park went up in a firestorm. After decades of putting out every fire as soon as possible, the park had grown unnaturally thick with trees and debris. The first mega-fire.

But the realization it's often good to let fires burn has met a big obstacle: more houses in forests and wildlands.

"The idea of just a massive 'let it burn,' we don't do that," Kempthorne said.

It leaves firefighters with an often impossible task: trying to protect homes surrounded by vegetation that is ready to explode. It's why the California fires are largely being fought from the air.

This air war is essential in neighborhoods like this where homes are backed right up against a rugged hillside.

Firefighters are trying to keep up with the mega-fire threat, a threat that won't go away in a warming world and growing West.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.