Where There's Smoke: Perfume and California Wildfires

by Kitty Guo

art by Shideh Ghandeharizadeh

In the summer of 2008, California experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons since the turn of the century. At its height, 3,596 individual fires were burning, consuming large swathes of forests and chaparral across northern and central California. The governor at the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, called in reinforcements from the US military and the California National Guard to help bring the fires to heel. In total, 1,593,690 acres of land were burned; 32 people were killed.

But none of that was my concern. In the summer of 2008, I was nine years old, had just graduated from fourth grade, and was looking forward to my favorite activity in the whole world: going camping with my Girl Scout troop.

Our highly-anticipated annual summer camping trip was set to take place at O’Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon, about an hour south of where we lived. My mom and I loaded up the van with tents and sleeping bags, then drove down the I-5, away from the fires blazing in the north. In front of us, the sky was clear and blue and paradisiacal; behind us, the crescent of sky visible behind dense plumes of smoke was the color of copper.

At camp, we skipped rope and sang songs and played Uno, all while the acrid smell of smoke slithered into our noses and settled into our lungs. When my mom and I returned home, our entire backyard was powdered with a light dusting of ash — the closest approximation to snowfall I had ever seen.

Click to learn more about the materials that make up a smoke note!

Maybe it’s the fact that my childhood was very happy, and that wildfires were a regular aspect of my childhood — as mundane as ballet recitals and science fairs — that explains why I love the smell of wildfires.

It’s a curious predilection, and certainly not one that’s widely shared. In an interview with The Cut, singer and actress Cher declared forest fire as the “worst smell.” And a potential source I reached out to for this story, co-president of the California Native Plant Society’s Los Angeles chapter Snowdy Dodson, wrote back: “The entire concept you outline saddens me. I have nightmares surrounding waking up to the smells of a wildfire. I fail to see the point of your project.”

No hard feelings. Every Californian has been touched by wildfire, and the nature of their particular experience will color their emotional response. But for me, the smell of wildfire conjures up camping trips and family vacations in national parks, outdoor concerts and lazy post-supper strolls at the height of summer’s golden glow. Scent is closely linked with memory; these memories, already rendered soft and hazy by the gentle lens of nostalgia, are all braided through with a delicate filigree of smoke.

And, well, admittedly, the frisson of danger lurking below the warmth is thrilling as well. There’s a reason why the hair on the back of our necks prickle when the breeze carries a hint of smoke. The dual sensation of attraction and alarm, the instinctive flight response in conflict with the desire to draw closer, only heightens my emotional associations. Freelance journalist and fellow smoke enthusiast Gendy Alimurung puts it best: “When a wildfire is raging, it can smell positively cozy outside—smoky, toasty, a bit pungent with the essential oils of whatever tree species happens to be smoldering… It seems ghastly to enjoy the scent of wildfire (particularly from a human property damage and burnt critter perspective), but beauty and horror do sometimes go hand in hand.”

For years now I’ve been searching for a perfume that accurately captures the smell of a wildfire, to no avail. I suspect it is a fruitless endeavor. A good perfume is not a note-by-note recreation; its whole is greater than the sum of its parts, a mysterious witch’s brew that, when melted together, emerges with extraordinary transportative powers. There is no perfume that will whisk me back to fourth grade, to an idyllic southern Californian childhood conducted under titian skies.

In my quest, I’ve sniffed mass-market scents, artisanal offerings from indie perfume houses, and even scents from amateur perfumers. And though I’ve never captured my white whale, I’ve discovered three particular fragrances that are just as, if not more interesting. They do not remind me of wildfires. Instead, they remind me of the impact wildfires have on our environment and our lives, of the devastation they leave in their wake. They remind me of what we stand to lose when they rip across our ecosystems and upend our communities. And they remind me of the fact that wildfires, as powerful and dangerous as they are, are merely a symptom of a greater existential threat.


Click to learn more about what ingredients make up Tyrannosaurus Rex!
Fir is a balsamic, aromatic green fragrance. Camphorous pine needles add a sweet, fresh note to perfumess.
Civet is the byproduct of the anal glands of civet cats. This animalic ingredient smells very pungent but adds amazing radiance and warmth to fragrances.
Leather notes evoke cured hides and fine, expensive goods. Leathery fragrances are dark, smoky, and dangerous.
Roses are the king of flowers. A classic floral with powdery nuances. Traditional, feminine, intensely romantic.

Out of all the fragrances produced by Zoologist, the niche perfume house known for its menagerie of animal-themed scents, only one is based on a creature gone extinct: Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The nose behind the scent, Antonio Gardoni, was interested in tackling a concept that was mythological and larger-than-life, for which there exists no basis of comparison.

“This was a very interesting project to do because we have no idea of [a T-Rex] compared to animals on Earth,” Gardoni said. “I imagine that there was a lot of nature that we will never know anything about.”

T-Rex, at first whiff, is much more floral than I’d expected. That would be attributed to the rose, ylang ylang, champaca, and jasmine notes, which Gardoni included to play with the stereotype of a lush, overgrown jungle, chock full of “gigantic flowers with super-thick petals covered with dripping nectar.” Leather and civet combine to elicit the musky tang of a powerful, menacing creature, ruler of this domain. And then, finally, the smoke comes in, dense and muddy, redolent of volcanic eruptions and viscous lava reshaping the terrain. It’s lusty, dynamic; most of all, it’s teeming with life.

“I had a vision of opulent nature, big trees, everything massive, scaled to the timespan that separates us from the dinosaurs,” Gardoni said. “I saw this vegetation as a very strong element, but at the same time very fragile compared to rocks and earth movements.”

California is home to more diverse species and biomes than anywhere in the U.S. If I were to take every ecosystem in the state and compress them together, it might smell something like T-Rex, a primordial soup swarming with all manner of flora and fauna. With its heady mix of vegetal and animalic elements, T-Rex is a reminder of how incredibly rich California’s biodiversity is — and how much we stand to lose when wildfires sweep across the state, exterminating everything in their path.

California’s balmy Mediterranean climate, characterized by dry summers and mild, wet winters, allows over 5,500 native plant species to flourish. The temperate weather gives rise to swaying palm trees and aromatic orange groves, but it also begets California’s chaparral biome — which is uniquely suited to burn, and burn viciously.

“The chaparral in southern California, it’s really thick and dense. You’ll drive through areas where it’s 6-8 feet tall,” said Don McKenzie, a professor of environmental and forest sciences at the University of Washington. “But it’s not as dense as a big block of wood, and as you know, you need some air space to start a fire. Chaparral also has some oils that make it super flammable, more so than just some other dry vegetation. So it’s quite volatile.”

Highly resilient and adaptable, chaparral is one of the most fire-prone plant communities in North America, having evolved to undergo a natural burn every 30-50 years. These high-intensity fires are stand-replacing, allowing dormant seed banks and root crowns to rapidly regenerate. However, in recent years, wildfires have become more and more frequent, leaving ecosystems fragile and unable to recover. When subjected to recurrent torchings, chaparral can convert from native shrubland to non-native annual grassland and drastically reduce species diversity.

And it’s not just plant life that suffers. When vegetation regrowth is disturbed, that in turn decreases cover for prey animals and less preferable kill-sites for predators. According to H. Bradley Shaffer, a distinguished professor in the department of ecology at UCLA, fires also impact the number of prey animals and create issues of crowding.

“Some animals hide underground during the fire and come out when it is finished. The higher intensity of the fire leads to higher temperature, which might be too hot for some small animals and they will die underground,” Shaffer told the Daily Bruin. “Sixty percent of the wildland… is burnt, so similar populations are now sharing much smaller habitat.”

Though much of California’s natural communities has evolved to tolerate the occasional blaze, they are unprepared to face the level of intensity and prevalence exhibited by modern-day wildfires. For threatened or endangered species struggling to adapt, wildfires may hasten along their decline. It would surely be an incalculable loss if any of the wildlife that make up California’s rich, vibrant biodiversity went the way of the dinosaurs.


Click to learn more about what ingredients make up A City on Fire!
Cade oil is naturally a rich, darkish brown colour. It has a strong, caustic smell, almost tar-like.
Cardamom is one of the world's ancient spices, used by Romans and Egyptians. It adds a sweet, spicy, earthy note with a bitter aftertaste.
Juniper is a coniferous plant that grows dark blue berries and is commonly used in gin. It is herbal, woody, and fresh-smelling.
There is no such thing as a "burnt match" essence. This is what perfumer Josh Meyer calls a "fantasy note," meant to spark the imagination.

Imagine this: two match-makers, Rupert and Frances, meet in the dead of night. Rupert literally fabricates matches in a factory on the waterfront, while Frances writes a dating column for the city’s newspaper. When they both witness the same high-profile murder, they’re forced to come together as an unlikely vigilante pair in order to save their own names.

Murder and romance, seedy alleyways and shadowy figures; this is the noir novel that Josh Meyer, the Portland-based perfumer behind indie line Imaginary Authors, envisioned for A City on Fire.

“I really wanted [A City on Fire] to make [the wearer] feel dark and edgy and strong and glamorous,” Meyer said.

A City on Fire has notes of cade oil, spikenard, cardamom, clearwood, labdanum, and burnt match. When I asked about the burnt match note and how he achieved it, Meyer paused, before admitting it’s another sleight of hand: “So that’s a fantasy note. It’s sort of an amalgamation of all the ingredients, in order to give you an actual concept as to what the perfume will smell like. Like spikenard, cade oil, not a lot of people will know what you’re going to get, but everyone knows what a burnt match smells like.”

Meyer said that he wanted A City on Fire to be something you could wear “with a suit or a jean jacket,” and the Imaginary Authors website describes A City on Fire as an “austere and luxurious” scent perfect for “evenings on the town.” But I disagree — this is not a scent I’d wear on a date. It feels neither seductive nor sensuous.

A City on Fire is thick and corrosive, reminiscent of gasoline. It sits sticky on your skin, and projects such a powerful sillage that dabbing more than a drop or two on my wrist makes me queasy. The scent overwhelms your nose, cloying and suffocating. It smells like you’re trapped in a burning building and you can’t get out — a living nightmare that many Californians may find themselves mired in the near future.

In 2018, California saw its deadliest and most destructive wildfire season ever recorded. In mid-July to August, a series of large wildfires, including the Carr Fire and the Mendocino Complex Fire, broke out in northern California. Santa Ana winds further aggravated conditions in the fall, causing a new batch of fires to spring up. These included the Woolsey Fire and the Camp Fire, which has the distinction of being the worst fire in the state’s history in terms of lives lost and property damaged. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, 1,893,913 total acres were burned and 103 people were killed — 97 civilians, 6 firefighters.

In 2019, one year after Paradise was ravaged by the Camp Fire, photos of the wreckage began to emerge. There’s not much to see. Scattered among the rubble are occasional signs of life: a brick fireplace standing solo; a staircase leading to nowhere; a crisped-up school bus; a miraculously unscathed McDonald’s “M”. What was once a thriving community had been razed to the ground. The photos are bleak, gray and grisly. They look the way A City on Fire smells.

Between 1990 and 2000, 60 percent of all new housing units built in the U.S. were located in the wildland urban interface (WUI), a technical term for where wildlands and municipal areas meet. But the homes constructed in this zone are more vulnerable to fire, and more expensive to protect. In the last decade, several communities within the WUI, including Keswick Estates (Redding), The Trails (San Diego County), and Coffey Park (Santa Rosa) were all destroyed by fire.

Knowing the risks that come with communing so closely with nature, why are people still flocking to the hills? Dr. Hugh Safford, the regional ecologist for the US Forest Service in the Pacific Southwest region, thinks that because fire suppression techniques have been so effective in the past century, people have been lulled into a false sense of security.

“So many people have moved out into areas where 100 years ago, anyone local would have told you you were crazy to live there,” Safford said. “So now we can't get away from the fact that we've got millions of people living in highly risky habitats.”

McKenzie believes it’s a combination of willful ignorance, cost-benefit analysis, and wishful thinking.

“I think a lot of people are in denial,” McKenzie said. “Some people are just willing to accept the tradeoffs. Some people think that the fire department's going to come and rescue them.”

The fire department is an incredible and important resource, but not an unlimited one. For over 30 years, Lorenzo Armstead, a fire captain with the LA City Fire Department, has spent his livelihood trying to save other people’s livelihoods. His priority is protecting as many people’s homes as possible, but facing more frequent and ferocious fires, he’s sometimes forced to make strategic decisions — and that involves sacrifice.

“Our goal is to keep people's houses safe, but also to make our jobs a little bit easier. We’re putting our lives on the line and we want to do this as safely as possible,” Armstead said. “We look at homes and we look at the viability of how safe it is to stay there. So if a home has stucco walls and great brush clearance, then that's going to be a better home for us to try to save over the one that's overgrown and has hazards that are basically a fire draw.”

Almost ninety-five percent of wildfires are caused by people, whether deliberate or accidental. Anything from a stray cigarette to a car’s backfire could potentially ignite the next record-breaking blaze. Plus, people are voluntarily planting themselves right in the line of fire — literally. As new housing developments pop up and permissive zoning laws sail through county commissions, it seems more and more likely that the future conjured up by A City on Fire will come to pass: a smoking landscape of charred concrete, the skeletal carcasses of homes and schools and stores standing sentinel over nothing but ash and dust.


Click to learn more about what ingredients make up IO!
Pepper provides a hot and bracing note, a bright yet short-lived accent in fragrances. It is typically used as a top note, as it has poor longevity.
Labdanum is a rich brown resin sourced from cistus shrubs of the species rockrose. It adds a deep, powerful, leathery and ambery note.
Cedar was one of the first natural odorants used by man for aromatization and perfume creation. It gives off a soft, dry, woody aroma.
Spicy, balsamic frankincense is revered for its dark, ambery qualities. It is collected as a congealed, resinous sap from a specific variety of frankincense trees.

Smelling Chris Rusak’s IO was a revelation. It was the closest I’d come to finding the wildfire fragrance I was searching for — a rich, heady, smoky fragrance that instantly summoned the towering pines of Yosemite at the height of summer.

Rusak first conceived of the scent when he was briefly homeless, living in the campgrounds of California’s national parks.

“I was staying at Kings Canyon National Forest, and part of the park had burned down. Everything was black and had that ashy, dead smell to it,” Rusak said. “I was living on the campgrounds in my car. I spent a lot of time sitting beside a campfire making lists, like, ‘Here are the options that I have. What do I need to do? How do I get back to a place where I can survive?’”

A pet project that underwent several iterations, Rusak spent years tinkering with IO’s ingredients, until he settled on his current blend: frankincense, labdanum, cedar, dried peppers, peat, labdanum, cypress, resins. The result is raw, earthy, and dry. More than dry — dehydrated. All perfumes contain ethyl alcohol and are therefore flammable (that’s why the USPS won’t ship perfume overseas), but IO feels like a phoenix perched in the palm of my hand, poised to alight. The raw ingredients give the juice a color I’ve never seen before, gorgeous tawny amber glow. Even the bottle, a Rothko-esque red square, emanates heat.

“IO brings together the experience of a really hot hike on a desert hiking trail. I was staying at Kings Canyon and the park had burned down,” Rusak said. “Everything was black and had that ashy, dead smell to it. After wildfires, there's a burnt patina to everything. I wanted to mimic that dusty, dried, dead, felled wood.”

There are several culprits behind the conditions that contributed to 2018 becoming as calamitous as it did. For one, forest mismanagement is a principal factor. According to Dr. Safford, the state began putting out fires at the start of the 20th century, rather than letting them burn and renew the cycles of the land.

“In many places we've now gone a century or more with no fire at all,” Safford said. “That means forest fuels that would usually be getting burned up every 10 to 15 years have now accumulated for 100 to 120 years.”

And then, of course, there is climate change. Global warming has resulted in higher temperatures and less rain, and scientists have witnessed the landscape becoming dryer. This creates the perfect condition for fires to burn longer and stronger.

“The fuels are getting drier, the fire season is getting longer, and trees are more stressed and more likely to die from fire because they're having so much trouble getting water,” Safford said.

As a result, there’s plenty of kindling to go around; in December 2017, there were 129 million dead trees in California. As San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kurtis Alexander wrote, “Years of drought and bark beetle infestation have left millions of lifeless trunks languishing across the state.” As dead trees catch fire, they topple and slide down hills, starting new fires and setting in motion a snowball effect. At this point, California’s forests are a tinder box.

“It's getting warmer on average across the globe and we're having droughts. And you've got the fuel, the vegetation, to make some big fires,” McKenzie said. “You've got the perfect storm.”

IO is sweet and sublime: soft footfalls on a bed of pine needles, a soaring forest cathedral, a night spent under the stars. But it is also seeded with threat and precarity, a sense of teetering just on the verge of disaster. By perfectly capturing the state of California's forests, IO has captured the state of our existence as well. Inundated by grim forecasts and dire warnings of the point of no return, it’s impossible not to be plagued by uneasy anticipation, the feeling that catastrophe is right around the corner.

“IO is a perfume that’s more about survival than anything else,” Rusak said. “It's about this idea how in California, we’re constantly surrounded by wildfires and death and burning, but at the end of the day, we're all just trying to live and get to tomorrow.”

IO is a long hike under the blazing midday sun, but you’ve left your hat in the car and your Hydroflask is already empty and the dust kicked up from the trail is getting in your eyes. IO is the heat-baked forest fuel blanketing the landscape, dead branches and brush desiccated by drought, waiting for one stray spark to set off an eruption. IO is watching the news ticker scroll and scroll and scroll, haunted by the knowledge that everything you know and love is balanced on a knife’s edge.

“It will definitely get worse,” Safford said. “It’s not a prediction. It will, for sure.”