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Behind the Scenes: Off the Map

An introduction to our special issue on borders and boundaries.
Santa Barbara County Fire Department's Mike Eliason captured flames above a Montecito neighborhood on Bella Vista Drive on December 12th, 2017.

Santa Barbara County Fire Department's Mike Eliason captured flames above a Montecito neighborhood on Bella Vista Drive on December 12th, 2017.

Last December, the Pacific Standard office was closed for nearly two weeks, and our staff worked remotely as what had become the largest wildfire in California history made its way toward Santa Barbara, burning through chaparral at a steady pace, heavy winds driving the flames down canyons and then up them as conditions changed. Known as the Thomas Fire, it had already been burning for weeks.

Firefighters were finally able to contain the blaze by mid-January, three days after torrential rains sent mud streaming into and over, across and through Montecito's creek beds, which overflowed so quickly that a wave of mud-borne debris swept away people and homes. It took six months to extinguish the fire completely.

Fire is part of the natural cycle in these mountains, and the Thomas Fire could be described as a natural disaster. But some have alleged that malfunctioning power equipment started the blaze, and a six-year drought certainly exacerbated it, as well as hotter temperatures pushing into the typically cooler months of late fall. December had never before been considered fire season on California's Central Coast. So, what is "natural"?

Are the conditions in the national forest that rises above Santa Barbara natural, even if influenced by decades of fossil fuel burning? Are the neighborhoods that have pushed up into the foothills? Known as the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, this geographical boundary exemplifies the human desire to live at the edge of an undeveloped place, but also the risks involved in such living, particularly in landscapes that are prone to fire.

The lines between wild and settled, between an atmosphere with 400 parts per million of CO2 and one beyond that threshold, are fuzzy—as are the social and environmental justice implications of such divides. These dynamic zones of transition between one thing and not-quite-something-else inspired us to undertake this cover-to-cover Borders & Boundaries thematic issue, because lines on a map tell one story, but there is always more to that story. Who will lose their home and who won't, whose vote counts and whose doesn't, who has access to clean water and who will go without? Whether we speak of gender, property lines, social stratification, or geopolitics, there is always some exchange and intermingling, no matter how many walls we try to erect. Even the most guarded borders are permeable, and sometimes the lines do more damage than the realities they obscure, as the stories in this issue of Pacific Standard attest.

Meanwhile, new records continue to be set. By mid-August, the Ranch Fire in Mendocino County had surpassed the Thomas Fire in acreage burned, earning the designation of largest fire in California history mere months after the Thomas Fire was extinguished. Sea level keeps rising; arable land keeps shrinking. By the time you receive this issue, we're likely going to need a new set of maps.

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Pacific Standard.