By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
Imagine, for a moment, that the entirety of Yellowstone National Park had burned to cinders. That’s roughly the scale of the wildfire damage so far this summer in California, where hundreds of regional blazes have scorched more than two million acres of land since mid-August. What’s more, a series of overlapping crises—extreme heat, electrical storms, and the pandemic—have strained emergency response teams even as ravenous flames rip through residential areas, sometimes leaving whole communities in ashes.
Longtime National Geographic photo contributor Frans Lanting is among the California residents facing what he calls “really an unprecedented situation” in a state all too familiar with wildfires. Lanting, who lives north of Santa Cruz, says he woke up in the middle of the night on August 16 because of the onslaught of lightning strikes that triggered the first of this year’s blazes. He grabbed a camera and raced out to the coast to document the scene.
“In between lightning strikes there were mini-tornadoes that hit the area as well,” he says. “It really was like a biblical plague.”
On his way home, he heard the wail of the fire trucks, and he followed them out to see the flames beginning to build in a protected redwood forest. Soon enough, the fires had crept within a mile of his home. For the first week, Lanting and his neighbors didn’t see any of the official response teams in their area, so after a whirl of activity and discussion, they got down to business (above).
"Our neighbors organized themselves into a fire brigade,” he says, describing the “heroic effort” of about a dozen people who worked tirelessly to protect their homes. “Pickup trucks turned into improvised fire trucks. Two guys zipped around on electric motorbikes with walkie-talkies scouting the edge of the flames.” They established a fire break that kept the inferno at bay, ultimately coordinating their efforts with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Lanting admits that staying put rather than evacuating carries risks, and his neighborhood was able to do this work due to local circumstances that kept the flames moving slower than elsewhere. “We were lucky that this was not a fast-moving, hot-burning fire like what engulfed other neighborhoods nearby,” he says. Knowledge of the terrain, imparted by people who had lived there for decades, and access to tools such as a bulldozer and ATVs, also gave them a fighting chance that others may not have had.
But with the overwhelmed professionals trying to contain “super-megafires” across the region, he is grateful for what his community was able to accomplish under such challenging circumstances. “The end result is, we saved our neighborhood.”
Below, overmatched firefighters had little air support as they battled the Valley Fire near San Diego over the weekend. Some residents refused to evacuate, and photographer Stuart Palley witnessed homes burning with no firefighters present.
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Today in a minute
Plastics overtake cigarette butts: For the first time in 34 years, cigarette butts were not the most common item found in an annual worldwide beach cleanup by Ocean Conservancy. Plastic food wrapping—much of it for candy and snacks—was the biggest single category among the 32.5 million items picked up in 116 countries, Nat Geo’s Laura Parker writes. Only 13 percent of plastic containers and packaging was recycled in the United States in 2017, the EPA says.
What helps the planet best? Going veggie for a year, or purchasing bulk foods without packaging? A New York Times quiz answers this query and others about green-friendly best practices, such as how many hours you could leave an LED light on to equal the amount of energy used by a single load of laundry in the dryer.
2020 isn’t all bad: In her story showing how historically we overemphasize bad news in the present day and give the past a pass, writer Rebecca Renner offers up four items of cheer so far this year:
—Telemedicine is making healthcare more accessible
—Shelter pet adoptions are way up
—Anti-racist books are topping bestseller lists
—Way more people are washing their hands
Read here (and let us know if you have more items).
Your Instagram photo of the day
Barley in Iceland: This unexpected greenhouse in the lava fields of Iceland uses water enriched with nutrients and energy from a neighboring geothermal power plant to grow barley in volcanic pumice. The barley plants are genetically engineered to produce growth factor proteins, which are used in high-end cosmetics. A single gram of one type of those proteins, pure Epidermal Growth Factor, has a market value of $10,000. The creative thinking behind this greenhouse is part of a National Geographic magazine examination on reducing trash by thinking more broadly about usage.
Subscriber exclusive: Can we minimize trash with ‘a circular economy’?
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This week in the night sky
Stellar diamonds: You can use the moon as your guide to track down a stellar cluster this week. Late Thursday and Friday, you will be able to see the waning crescent moon beside the open star cluster Messier 35 low in the northeastern sky. The pair will appear separated by only five to seven degrees—about equal to the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length. Nestled at the feet of the Gemini constellation, M35 will be visible with the naked eye under dark skies as a faint patch of light. Astronomers estimate that nearly 500 stars make up this star cluster, which is 24 light-years wide and sits 3,000 light-years from Earth. —Andrew Fazekas
The big takeaway
Starting over: After his roof was destroyed a third time (above right) by a hurricane, Hurricane Thomas (above left)—that’s his real first name—is starting over in Iowa, Louisiana. That’s what he told Nat Geo’s Sarah Gibbens, reporting from the area battered by Hurricane Laura near Lake Charles. A few residents, facing other storms coming in, say they’ve had enough of it; one says he’s moving to Dallas. Others told Gibbens they would stick around the area for the people, the food, and the culture.
In a few words
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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.
The last glimpse
Fixing a shattered molar: Nat Geo’s Maya Wei-Haas couldn’t use COVID-19 fears as a reason not to go to the dentist, after discovering her mysteriously broken back tooth. She writes about the proper precautions for entering a dentist’s office—and reminds us that delaying routine care is a major health concern in its own right. Dentists note that many people’s dental hygiene has slipped with an increased intake of tooth-decaying foods at home. “People’s mouths, they just look dirtier, and it’s taking a little longer to get them clean,” dentist Jessica Hill says. “But that’s okay, we’re up for the challenge.”
Subscriber exclusive: What we can learn from past pandemics