The Great Burning: How Wildfires Are Threatening the West

Terrifying blazes are the new normal in the West, where a mix of climate change and Tea Party politics has put an entire region at risk

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It was the sound of her neighbors' propane tanks exploding that convinced Nancy Myers she had run out of time. Twenty minutes earlier, the 57-year-old potter had been standing with some friends on a rock-strewn hillside above the village of Yarnell, Arizona, on a hot Sunday afternoon, watching the red coil of flames unspool in the distance, certain that everything was going to be OK – despite the "prepare to evacuate" order issued by the county sheriff's office earlier that day. "Then the storm came down the mountains," she remembers. "The wind shifted and it came straight into town. There was ash and smoke everywhere and big old flames. I went into panic mode."

It's been four days since Myers floored her old Corolla and headed north to safety, and the terror caused by the Yarnell Hill fire, which started on June 28th and overtook the town two days later, hasn't fully left her eyes. We're sitting outside a Red Cross shelter, as Myers puts on her sunglasses­ even though it's late afternoon and the sun is low.

"Today's the first day I haven't cried all day long," she says, but a hitch in her voice suggests she may start again. "The first day, I cried for my house," she explains. When she learned it had been spared, she cried for friends who lost their houses. But mostly she cried – and will continue crying for some time – "for all those beautiful young firefighters."

She's talking about the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Hotshots are the best-trained and best-equipped wildland firefighters, sometimes referred to as the Navy SEALs of their profession. The Granite Mountain Hotshots (one of about 110 elite units in the nation) are based in Prescott, 30 miles northeast of Yarnell, in the higher-altitude pine forests of the Bradshaw Mountains. All 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were summoned to fight the Yarnell Hill fire. Only one walked away: the lookout.

It was the deadliest day in wildland firefighting since 1933.

"The way I see it," Myers says, trying to choke back the tears, "those men died saving my house. Saving everybody's house."

That raises a couple of weighty questions. The most immediate, following the deaths on Yarnell Hill, concerns the wisdom of sending young men and women to risk death battling wildfires to protect private property. But the United States is facing an even more basic question: How should we manage fire, given the fact that, thanks to climate change, the destruction potential for wildfires across the nation has never been greater? In the past decade alone, at least 10 states – from Alaska to Florida – have been hit by the largest or most destructive wildfires in their respective histories. Nationally, the cost of fighting fires has increased from $1.1 billion in 1994 to $2.7 billion in 2011.

The line separating "fire season" from the rest of the year is becoming blurry. A wildfire that began in Colorado in early October continued smoldering into May of this year. Arizona's first wildfire of 2013 began in February, months ahead of the traditional firefighting season. A year-round fire season may be the new normal. The danger is particularly acute in the Intermountain West, but with drought and record-high temperatures in the Northwest, Midwest, South and Southeast over the past several years, the threat is spreading to the point that few regions can be considered safe.

At a Senate hearing in June, United States Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell testified that the average wildfire today burns twice as many acres as it did 40 years ago. "In 2012, over 9.3 million acres burned in the United States," he said – an area larger than New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware combined. Tidwell warned that the outlook for this year's fire season was particularly grave, with nearly 400 million acres – more than double the size of Texas – at a moderate-to-high risk of burning.

Tom Harbour has been fighting fires in one capacity or another for 44 years. For about a decade, he's directed the Forest Service's Fire and Aviation Management program. He describes the new wildfire reality this way: "The situation today is like taking a football field, soaking the bleachers with gasoline, lighting it on fire and then dropping a Hotshot crew in the middle and expecting them to put it out."

A week after the deadly fire, Rem Hawes, Bureau of Land Management field manager for a million acres of federal land in Arizona, surprised many when he said, "We always envisioned we'd face a catastrophic fire from the southeast of Yarnell." The number-one reason for this, explains Hawes, is the huge buildup of fuels – dead wood and dried grasses.

Like most land in the West, Yarnell is part of an ecosystem that evolved with fire. "The area has become unhealthy and unnatural," Hawes says, "because fires have been suppressed." Yarnell is in chaparral, a mix of small juniper, oak and manzanita trees, brush and grasses. For centuries, fires swept across the chaparral periodically, clearing out and resetting the "fuel load." But beginning in the early 1900s, U.S. wildfire policy was dominated by fire suppression, formalized in 1936 as "the 10 a.m. rule" – fires were to be extinguished by the morning after they were spotted; no exceptions. Back in the day, the logic behind the rule appeared sound: If you stop a fire when it's small, it won't become big. But wildland ecosystems need fire as much as they need rain, and it had been some 45 years since a large fire burned around Yarnell. Hawes estimates that there could have been up to five times more fuel to feed the Yarnell Hill fire than was natural.

The speed and intensity of a fire in overgrown chaparral is a wildland firefighter's nightmare, according to Rick Heron, part of another Arizona crew that worked on the Yarnell Hill fire. Volatile resins and waxy leaves make manzanita "gasoline in plant form," says Heron. He's worked chaparral fires where five-foot-tall manzanitas produced 25-foot-high flames. Then there are the decades of dried-up grasses, easily ignitable, and the quick-burning material known as "fine" or "flash" fuels. "That's the stuff that gets you," says Heron. "The fine, flashy fuels are just insane. It doesn't look like it's going to be a problem. But when the fire turns on you, man, you can't outdrive it. Let alone outrun it."

Beginning with the Forest Service in 1978, the 10 a.m. rule was gradually replaced by a plan that gave federal agencies the discretion to allow fires to burn where appropriate. But putting fire back in the landscape has proved harder to do in practice, where political pressures often trump science and best-management practices. That was the case last year when the Forest Service once again made fire suppression its default position. Fire managers were ordered to wage an "aggressive initial attack" on fires, and had to seek permission to deviate from this practice. The change was made for financial reasons. Faced with skyrocketing costs of battling major blazes and simultaneous cuts to the Forest Service firefighting budget, earlier suppression would, it was hoped, keep wildfires small and thus reduce the cost of battling big fires.

Some critics think election-year politics may have played a role in the decision. "The political liability of a house burning down is greater than the political liability of having a firefighter die," says Kierán Suckling, head of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. "If they die, you just hope that the public narrative is that they were American heroes."

The problem will only get worse as extremist Republicans and conservative Democrats foster a climate of malign neglect. Even before President Obama unveiled a new climate-change initiative days before the fire, House Speaker John Boehner dismissed the reported proposal as "absolutely crazy." Before he was elected to the Senate last November, Jeff Flake, then an Arizona congressman, fought to prohibit the National Science Foundation from funding research on developing a new model for international climate-change analysis, part of a program he called "meritless." The biggest contributor to Flake's Senate campaign was the Club for Growth, whose founder, Stephen Moore, called global warming "the biggest myth of the last one hundred years."

For wildland firefighters, the debate about global warming was over years ago. "On the fire lines, it is clear," fire geographer Michael Medler told a House committee in 2007. "Global warming is changing fire behavior, creating longer fire seasons and causing more frequent, large-scale, high-severity wildfires."

The problem is especially acute in Arizona, where average annual temperatures have risen nearly three-quarters of a degree Fahrenheit each decade since 1970, making it the fastest­-warming state in the nation. Over the same period, the average annual number of Arizona wildfires on more than 1,000 acres has nearly quadrupled, a record unsurpassed by any other state and matched only by Idaho. One-quarter of Arizona's signature ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests have burned in just the past decade.

Lower nighttime temperatures and higher humidity once slowed fires, giving crews time to get a handle on a blaze. Not anymore. "Fires just don't lay down at night now," says Heron. "They actually grow four, five hundred acres. That should not happen." In Yarnell, the fire tripled in size the night before the 19 men died.

Scientists have cited climate change as a major contributor in some of the biggest wildfires in recent years, including the massive Siberian fires during a record heat wave in 2010 and the bushfires that killed 173 people in Australia in 2009.

Changes in precipitation can also compound the problems, says Stewart Turner, a fire-behavior analyst from Indiana, brought in to work the Yarnell Hill fire. Standing at a sheriff's department roadblock outside the still-smoldering village, Turner reminds me that this part of Arizona has been suffering extreme drought conditions for nearly a decade. When it's this dry, he says, even green plants aren't a barrier to fire. In fact, they can be just the opposite. Arizona had a brief respite from its drought last January, when unusually heavy rains soaked the area around Phoenix, leading to a spectacular display of desert wildflowers. Which, ironically, only increased the potential dangers. "When I see those rains," Turner says, "all I see is fine fuels growing."

And then there's the issue of rabid development in fire-prone areas. "People want to live in a natural setting," says Hawes, the BLM field manager. "In Yarnell, you have houses plunked down in the middle of chaparral and grasslands. Of course, it's pretty. I understand that. But if fuel is part of your home, it behooves you to manage it."

The problem, say fire experts, is that decades of fire suppression have fooled many who live in what's known as the "wildland-urban interface" into believing that fire is a stranger to the landscape they inhabit instead of the co-resident it actually is. According to a new analysis of 2010 census data out of Western Washington University, one in three housing units in the West are now in this fire-prone zone. In Arizona, 45 percent of homes are in the WUI. It may be a coincidence, but if so, it's a poignant and cautionary one that the section of Yarnell nearest to where the firefighters died – a subdivision named Glen Ilah – was where many newer homes had been added to the mining community founded in the late 1800s.

"I'm an old fire chief who's seen too many people die," Harbour of the Forest Service tells me. But it doesn't have to be this way. We could, he says, ensure that communities and homes in the WUI are constructed to let fire pass through, leaving buildings unscathed and firefighters safe. It wouldn't take much. Metal roofs instead of wood. Fuels like trees and bushes kept at least 100 feet from buildings. Instead, he laments, "We build with an expectation that if a fire comes, you can just call 911, and firefighters will come and rescue your home."

In the end, what may be the greatest impediment to a rational forest-management policy is a purely human factor: a political culture that labels any effort by the federal government to bring sanity to land management as a tyrannical plot by Big Government. Even before the Yarnell Hill fire was fully contained, Republicans in Congress were using the tragedy as an excuse to attack the federal government's fire policies and further their anti-regulation, pro-logging agenda – despite that only one-half of one percent of the Yarnell Hill fire was on federal land. Such low percentages are consistent nationally: In 2012, wildfires on all federal lands accounted for just 10 percent of the total acres burned. The first to chime in was Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn, a prominent Tea Partier named the "most conservative" member of Congress in 2010 by the National Journal. On July 3rd, he placed blame for blazes like Yarnell's on "federal bureaucrats, heavily influenced by environmentalists," who "have failed to actively manage our national forests, which can lead to out-of-control wildfires, and threaten life and property in our Western states."

The following week, on July 11th, at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, another Tea Partier, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, called the Forest Service's handling of fire threats "woefully inadequate," adding that "much of this federal inaction is caused by the Forest Service's fear of lawsuits by environmental groups, using the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act."

Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton piled on, saying, "The failure to address responsible forest management for the health of the natural environment and for the safety of our communities simply defies logic." Tipton also took a dig at the president, who, he said, "spends a fair amount of his time speaking on the need to reduce carbon emissions." Tipton added that "if the president is truly interested in reducing carbon emissions, without handcuffing our nation's economy, his administration should take meaningful action to prevent the catastrophic wildfires that are burning in Colorado, Arizona and other parts of the West."

A member of Arizona's congressional delegation, Rep. Paul Gosar, joined the anti-regulation drumbeat as well, claiming that "the National Environmental Policy Act has become the third rail in natural-resources policy." He added, "But nearly every expert in the field will tell you we have to cut red tape if we are going to seriously address our forest-health situation." In fact, very few fire experts see environmental regulations as a primary driver of wildfires. And critics say that legislation sponsored by Gosar – which would allow more logging and grazing on federal land – could increase the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires.

An April 11th letter signed by several environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, to a House committee described a group of bills, including Gosar's (which is sponsored by two Democrats, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona and Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, among others), as "essentially Trojan horses for mandating or incentivizing damaging logging and grazing across vast swaths of our public lands with limited or no public input and few environmental protections, and for handing over unprecedented control of federal-lands management to the states in the name of county payments and fire prevention."

Suckling, from the Center for Biological Diversity, thinks that a large part of the problem is politicians on the far right who stoke fear and loathing of the government – especially in the West, where environmentalists and the Forest Service are frequent­ targets of Tea Party vitriol. "That's utter horseshit, and they know it," Suckling said when I asked him about allegations of a government/green conspiracy. "Environmentalists have been trying to get fire back in the landscape for decades. In fact, it's those very Republicans who oppose the burns."

Besides, say experts like Dugger Hughes, thinning alone simply won't work. A wildfire battalion chief based in Tucson, Arizona, Hughes told a reporter in the wake of the Yarnell disaster, "If I had a magic wand, I'd be burning 100,000 acres a year in Arizona. Until we do that, we will never get out of this problem."

There is probably no one with a better grasp of our "fire problem" than Stephen J. Pyne, an environmental historian at Arizona State University. Pyne doesn't lay the blame on specific policies.­ He despairs that the political system itself is failing. People don't want to be told what to do on their own land, he points out. "But they want government there when a fire breaks out. What responsibilities do communities have to prepare for fire? Who pays for it? I think those are fair questions."

William deBuys, a bestselling author who has written extensively on land and water policy in Arizona, agrees. I asked if he saw a link between the tragedy in Yarnell and the anti-government sentiment. He did, saying that the "political climate" makes dealing with fire in a land pushed to the limit by climate change nearly impossible.

Granite Mountain was the only hotshot crew in the nation that was attached to a city fire department. Heron, who worked mopping up the Yarnell Hill fire, says that may be why the Granite Mountain Hotshots had a unique reputation. "They were the most family-oriented crew I've ever met," he says. Perhaps, Heron speculates, those very ties caused them to continue battling the blaze when bad weather was moving in. "If you're talking about houses that belong to your neighbors or cousins or to your Uncle Jimmy," he says, "it makes it harder to leave."

If that is what happened, then the saddest irony of the tragedy on Yarnell Hill may be that the Granite Mountain Hotshots lived their lives and met their deaths out of a sense of communal responsibility – the very opposite of the culture that has gotten us into such a fatal situation in the first place. It seems reasonable to wonder: If America behaved more like the Granite Mountain crew, perhaps our fire problem wouldn't be so intractable.

This story is from the August 15th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1189: August 15, 2013
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