That the scene has become familiar makes it no less wrenching: A distraught couple searches through the ash, char, and melted metal of what was once their home. Only the concrete pad and the occasional fireplace remain.

What is also in that tableau—but hardly noticed—are trees. A few are killed and many are scorched, but most are alive and green. The house vaporized because it could not cope with fire; the forest survived because it could. And paradoxically, it was the house fire that killed the trees.

Those early-kindled houses then cast fire to neighbors. What began as a wildland fire amplified into an urban conflagration. It’s the sort of scene that was common in the American frontier over a century ago. Watching it burn through Paradise or Berry Creek, California, today is like watching smallpox or polio return.

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