How to live with fire

Wildfire needs new narratives. The podcast ‘Fireline’ is a start.

Flames cascaded down hills, engulfing old oak trees as firefighter Lily Jane Clarke watched, transfixed. She was standing in the thick of the August Complex, a giant 2020 wildfire that burned over a million acres of Northern California forestland. “It’s beautiful,” she said, speaking into a recorder, her voice light and measured. It was also destructive: The blaze consumed nearly 1,000 structures and killed one firefighter. The August Complex was a stark reminder that wildfires are getting bigger, hotter and more devastating across the West. But even as she inhaled thick smoke beneath an orange sky, Clarke was riveted by the fire’s brilliance, its beauty and might.

Clarke’s reverence and awe captivated Justin Angle, a marketing professor at the University of Montana and the host and creator of the podcast Fireline, released this spring. A six-part series from Montana Public Radio, Fireline attempts to reconcile two seemingly incompatible views of wildfire: a catastrophe that amplifies climate anxiety, and a “part of the natural world, like the view from a mountaintop,” as Angle describes Clarke’s outlook. Combining illuminating histories of wildfire in the Western U.S. with details from the frontlines today, Angle finds room for both splendor and severity. At the same time, he explores how Westerners might live alongside fire in our inevitably entangled future.

The August Complex Fire burns in Mendocino National Forest, California, in 2020. Kari Greer.

For conveying a sense of what that future might feel like, Angle’s choice of medium is ideal: Sounds of fires crackling, boots crunching on gravel and wind rustling in trees punctuate the series, bringing the listener closer to its subject — the people and communities grappling with wildfire and climate change.

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