The Great Burning: How Wildfires Are Threatening the West

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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.

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