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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

Gene Blevins/Reuters/Landov
August 1, 2013 10:00 AM ET

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."

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