Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Like a lot of small towns in the West, my town of Ashland, Ore., is nestled in a lovely valley surrounded by conifer forests. The forests grow on public lands managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and last year, as in many recent years, there were fires on those lands. The town of Ashland was not threatened, but our valley filled with thick, eye-burning smoke for weeks at a time.

It was miserable. Outdoor theater and music events were cancelled, drastically affecting the summer tourist season, which is critical for our economy. Folks who would usually be out hiking, camping, fishing, birding and rafting stayed indoors. Parents kept their kids inside. Everyone got cranky. We’ve never had a summer with smoke as bad as this.

Understandably, people don’t want to go through this again next summer—or ever. Southern Californians can relate thanks to all of the devastating fall fires in the area. And so the search is on for solutions.

Some are taking this opportunity to advocate for drastic changes in public-lands forest management. The primary vehicle for this effort is the “Resilient Federal Forests Act,” H.R. 2936, often called the Westerman bill for its primary sponsor, Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas. In the name of making forests “resilient” to fire, it would promote logging by sharply curtailing existing environmental laws.

Among other provisions, it would restrict citizen involvement in public-lands management by limiting legal challenges under the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws; greatly expand “categorical exclusions” in areas of up to 10,000 acres where logging and post-fire salvage could occur without any environmental assessment; and eliminate the “survey and manage” program which provides data essential for informed forest management. This truly radical bill has passed the House and awaits consideration by the Senate.

Let’s be generous for a moment. Let’s say that the Westerman bill is not a cynical attempt to exploit anxiety about fire to achieve otherwise unattainable amounts of logging, long sought by the timber industry. Let’s assume that it’s a genuine attempt to solve the problem of fire—which, of course, implies: (1) that fire is a problem; and (2) that it can be solved.

Most Western conifer forests, except those along the rain-drenched Pacific Coast, are adapted to frequent fires. That is true of Southern California, as well as my region of southern Oregon, where studies of tree rings have shown that fires historically returned to a piece of ground every 15-20 years or so. Most of those fires were relatively low intensity, and many were likely set deliberately by Native Americans, who made sophisticated use of fire as a land-management tool. These fires cleared out dense thickets and fallen limbs and maintained a relatively open forest structure in many areas.

Decades of fire suppression, coupled with logging that has replaced complex mixed-age forests with uniform-aged stands and tree plantations, has certainly made things worse, increasing the likelihood of severe, stand-replacing fires. But that is increasingly overshadowed by another factor affecting wildland fire frequency and severity: climate change. There is not a single mention of the role of climate change in the Westerman bill, so it looks like I was too generous to set aside that whole cynical-exploitation thing.

Much research now supports the correlation between climate change and fire seasons that start earlier and end later, with more days of extreme “fire weather.” Such fire weather led to the devastating fires of 2017 in Northern California. Those fires burned at least 245,000 acres, destroyed almost 9,000 buildings, and cost more than $3 billion. They were almost entirely on private land, not on national forests. The severity of those fires had nothing to do with a lack of logging. The same goes for the recent fires in Southern California—for which the damage is still being tallied.

We are kidding ourselves if we think we can find a “solution” to wildlands fire and the smoke that comes with it. Such thinking denies fire its place as a natural and inevitable part of this environment where we have chosen to live. Our forests need fire, and there is no way we can exclude it. Instead of trying to log our way out of fire danger, we need to adapt ourselves to the reality of living in this fire-adapted landscape. We can, and should, practice “fireproof” landscaping around our homes, and carry out larger fuels-reduction projects in high-risk areas like the wildland-urban interface at the edge of our towns.

But we can’t “solve” fire here in the West any more than Florida can “solve” hurricanes. Both are natural phenomena—and both are bound to get worse with unchecked climate change. Our best hope of a future with ecologically appropriate forest fires and tolerable levels of smoke is to take immediate action to limit climate change.

What do you say, Congress: Want to focus on a real problem for a change?

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer and forensic biologist in Oregon.

Published in Community Voices

Beyond the devastation and personal tragedy of the fires that have ravaged California in recent months, another disaster looms: an alarming uptick in unhealthy air—and the sudden release of the carbon dioxide that drives climate change.

As millions of acres burn in a cycle of longer and more-intense fire seasons, the extensive efforts of industry and regulators to protect the environment can be partly undone in one firestorm. In particular, as raging blazes pump more carbon into the atmosphere, state officials are grappling with the potential effect on California’s ability to adequately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The state’s environmental regulations are known to be stringent, but they have limits: They apply only to human-caused emissions. Pollution generated by wildfires is all outside the grasp of state law.

“The kinds of fires we’re seeing now generate millions of tons of GHG emissions. This is significant,” said Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the state Air Resources Board, a regulatory body.

In less than one week, for example, October’s wine-country fires discharged harmful emissions equal to that of every car, truck and big rig on the state’s roads in a year. The calculations from the subsequent fires in Southern California are not yet available, but given the duration and scope of the multiple blazes, they could well exceed that level.

The greenhouse gases released when forests burn not only do immediate harm, discharging carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases; they also continue to inflict damage long after the fires are put out. In a state where emissions from nearly every industry are tightly regulated, if wildfires were treated like other carbon emitters, Mother Nature would be castigated, fined and shut down.

The air board estimates that between 2001 and 2010, wildfires generated approximately 120 million tons of carbon. But Clegern said a direct comparison with regulated emissions is difficult, in part because of limited monitoring data.

“Nature doesn’t follow the rules very well,” said Jim Branham, executive officer at the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that has created a plan to better harness California’s forests in reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

As is so often the case in environmental catastrophes, one thing leads to another, creating what Branham calls the double whammy: Burning trees not only release powerful pollutants known as black carbon; once a forest is gone, its prodigious ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it is lost, too.

Scientists estimate that in severely burned areas, only a fraction of a scorched tree’s emissions are released during the fire, perhaps as little as 15 percent. The bulk of greenhouse gases are released over months and years as the plant dies and decomposes.

And if a burned-out forest is replaced by chaparral or brush, that landscape loses more than 90 percent of its capacity to take in and retain carbon, according to the conservancy.

Severe fires have the capacity to inflict profound damage in a short span. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the 2013 Rim Fire in central California spewed out the equivalent of the carbon-dioxide emissions from 3 million cars. That is a setback to the state’s effort to get cars off the road, another critical tool for reducing greenhouse gases.

The role of wildfires as a major source of pollution was identified a decade ago, when a study conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that “a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state.”

It’s a measure of the dramatic ramping up of fires in the West that today, a single fire can meet that threshold.

The entire equation has been made worse by the state’s epidemic of tree death, caused by drought, disease and insect infestation. The U.S. Forest Service earlier this month updated its estimate of dead trees across California to 129 million. That loss alone could be a blow to the state’s vision of a low-carbon future.

“Dead trees don’t sequester carbon,” Branham said.

Forests as carbon-chewers are part of the state’s strategy for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions significantly by 2020 and beyond—a goal that could be undermined by nature’s caprice. The air board will direct state agencies to determine more precisely how much carbon can be absorbed by California’s variety of landscapes.

Air quality, too, is subject to state, local and federal regulations. But those standards go out the window in large fires, when soot and ash blanketing entire regions can be seen from space.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which sets air pollution standards nationally, has an “exceptional events” rule that exempts states from fines under certain extraordinary conditions.

California has invoked the rule during wildfires at least once before, in 2008, for fires in the Sacramento area. The request was accepted, according to the air board.

More recently, Sean Raffuse, an analyst at the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California at Davis, came up with the “back of the envelope” calculations for October’s Sonoma County fires.

Raffuse said he used federal emissions inventories from fires and calculated that five days of ashy spew from the northern California blazes equated to the annual air pollution from every vehicle in California.

Those kinds of computations are seldom replicated, largely for lack of the necessary instruments present at fire sites. But things are changing: Researchers have been attempting to better understand the full range of environmental damage wrought by wildfires. One tool is drones that can be flown through smoke plumes to collect samples for analysis.

“We don’t have the means to measure emissions from a wildfire like we do from a tailpipe,” Branham said. “We are lagging well behind in understanding and having hard data of the effects of these fires. And most of the data are chasing reality.” is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

At some point last August in Montana, Missoula County’s daily air quality updates—peppered with chatty jokes about the apocalyptic sky outside the windows and wry recommendations to avoid outdoor exercise—stopped being funny.

The gray miasma that had covered the city lost its novelty, though the fantastic sunscapes—the sharp evening shadows by early afternoon, and the ominous beauty that the poetically inclined find in destruction—lingered. Unfortunately, the blanket of gritty air did, too.

Many parts of Southern California have experienced similar air quality over the past few weeks … but you knew that already.

All the commiserating small talk with grocery-store cashiers and detailed explanations of what we were breathing and where it came from could not lift the pall, figuratively or literally. Smoke—plumes of it streaking across satellite maps—became all too familiar, even as the fires that spouted it threatened evacuations and stressed budgets to breaking.

Edward Struzik’s new book, Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, describes so many North American conflagrations that they, too, begin to seem almost ordinary, as the fires seemingly burn bolder every day—just another of climate change’s many Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Struzik guides readers through the ecological, social and political factors that led to the major fires of recent decades, including the century of fire suppression that built up fuel; the changing conditions that spin fires into furies; and the inconsistent policy preparations across vast and varied fire-prone regions. The book is part prognosis, part play-by-play, and part resigned admission that as much as we know, or think we know, about how to live under perpetual threat of ever-greater disasters, nothing about future fires is guaranteed—except that they will come galloping.

The far-flung points on Struzik’s map deliver the book’s most searing message: No forest, no fire, is isolated. Story after story delivers a similar account: the lucky turns of weather versus unexpected fire behavior, and the constant complaints about inadequate resources. The research showing the global travels of smoke plumes makes the point on a molecular level, too. Mercury, arsenic, carbon, asbestos—what once was buried will be unearthed, and once it is unearthed, there is no wall to stop its spread.

Firestorm opens with the Horse River Fire, nicknamed “the Beast,” a 2016 runaway wildfire near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, that burned 2,800 homes and nearly 1.4 million acres. It consumed billions of dollars and surprised firefighters at nearly every turn, and the fact that almost everyone living nearby escaped was more miracle than management. Struzik compares the fire to a hurricane or a tornado—with the stark difference that people in a tornado’s path rarely think they can stop it.

The contrast between the extraordinary power of megafires and people’s belief in their own ability to contain them is striking. Arrogance, ignorance, careless chance—people start fires and underestimate them, ignore humbling lessons and moving closer to danger. Instead of being seen as a crucial part of integrated ecological cycles, wildfires become overwhelming, menacing, supernatural.

Struzik punctures much of the mystery by explaining soil cycles and water pollution, funding and smoke particulates. In chapters that connect science to history, he offers a clear view of what has happened and what’s at stake. But his elaborate retellings of what happened during specific fire events over the last century lose clarity in all the chaotic play-by-plays of phone calls, weather patterns and evacuation orders. Timelines get tangled; contextual asides intrude at key moments and are then left dangling. For a reader intimately familiar with these fires, the level of detail may offer some insight. But those more interested in the future, readers left to make the larger connections on their own.

The thread that weaves through every chapter is clear, however. Megafires—whether seen as natural disasters, nightmarish calamities or policy mismanagement in action—will continue. They will become worse and more frequent. The wildland-urban interface will be more threatened. That thick summer air (and, as we know in Southern California, the fall and winter air, too) will return to block out sunlight and push us back indoors to clutch our air filters and grouse about stolen blue-sky days. Struzik reminds his readers again and again that whatever has happened already, no matter how severe and stunning, isn’t done happening.

It’s clear how huge of a role humans have had in getting us here. The question left unanswered is how we might cope with what happens next.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future

By Edward Struzik

Island Press

272 pages, $30

Published in Literature

Over three months in 2016, the Soberanes fire burned 132,127 acres of central California’s coast, blazing through dry swaths of dense chaparral, mixed hardwood timber and redwoods. Costing $260 million to suppress, it became the most expensive fire in the country’s history. It wasn’t caused by lightning, which is relatively scarce in that part of the country—but by an illegal campfire in Garrapata State Park.

Human-caused climate change has meant more, and bigger, wildfires throughout the country. But as astute pyrologist Bruce Springsteen once wrote, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” According to new wildfire research, the source of that spark is, more often than not, a person.

What’s more, due to these human-caused ignitions, the country’s conflagrations have grown significantly larger and more frequent, while the overall fire season has tripled in length.

Jennifer Balch, assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado-Boulder, quantified just how significant humans’ role in providing that spark is. Balch and her colleagues investigated federal, state and local records provided by the Forest Service of wildfires on public and private lands from 1992 to 2012. They determined that 84 percent of the 1.5 million wildfires that burned nationally over those two decades were lit by humans, not including controlled burns intentionally lit for fire management. In total, humans started more than 1.2 million fires.

Even in parts of the country where lightning strikes cause the most fires—such as the Intermountain West—humans have increased the number, size and length of the season for wildfires overall.

By mapping the Forest Service data, Balch’s team found that fires primarily ignite in areas of human-wildland interface: roads, urban encroachment into wild spaces and the edges of agricultural fields. Areas of high human population density and fewer lightning-caused fires experience more wildfires overall. These areas include central and southern California, where lightning is dry but rare, and the East Coast, where lightning is common but often accompanied by fuel-soaking storms.

In urbanizing areas of the Intermountain West, human-ignited wildfires are increasing. This pattern can be seen along Colorado’s Front Range, where human-caused wildfires cluster where people have moved into wildlands near cities such as Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs.

Fire, as Balch pointed out, is a normal part of life.

“From making breakfast on a gas-powered stove in the morning, to turning over the car’s combustion engine ignition, people use fire every day,” Balch said. The causes of wildfires often are part of daily life, too: a cigarette flung from a car window; a power line arcing when everyone runs the air conditioner at once; a spark hitting dried vegetation when a motorist on the side of the road starts her engine.

While lightning-caused fires typically occur during the summer, human-caused fires are spread out throughout the year. Nationally, the fire season has grown by three months on average.

Balch suggests her research points to the need to rethink current fire management practices.

“Over a hundred years of fire suppression hasn’t worked. We haven’t put fire out,” Balch said. “We need to think through how we sustainably live with fire and promote more prescribed burns.”

In the past, people have been resistant to controlled burns near communities. People don’t like living near the “patchwork patterns” of a burned landscape, Balch said.

And yet humans invite fire into their lives, sometimes just for the fun of it: The most common day for wildfire ignitions in the United States was July 4, with 7,762 fires burning more than 350,000 acres in 21 years.

“Things might have been different if Independence Day was in winter,” Balch said.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

On the morning of July 23, the city of Los Angeles was covered in a dusting of ash. An apocalyptic haze muted the sun, and the sky was an eerie, unnatural pink. Just a day before, a wildfire had broken out on private land 30 miles northwest, near Santa Clarita. Within 24 hours, the Sand Fire scorched 20,000 acres, and in a week, it burned another 21,000 acres. At least 10,000 people had to evacuate before it was contained by early August.

Every day seems to bring another fire. Today, the Blue Cut fire is ravaging the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County; as of 4 p.m. today, 6,500 acres have burned, with an unknown number of structures damaged.

The most volatile fire activity in the West this year has occurred in Central and Southern California—from Big Sur to Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Bernardino—causing the closure of the Pacific Coast Highway, the destruction of hundreds of homes, and the death of at least six people. According to experts, these blazes offer a glimpse into the West’s “new normal” wildfire season that has been intensified by climate change in recent years. Warmer temperatures, less snowfall and increased drought mean that fire seasonbegins earlier in Apriland lasts longer, until November or December.

Last winter, California breathed a sigh of relief during El Niño, expecting it to drench the parched landscape after four years of drought. Northern California got more rain and remains relatively wet, but El Niño didn’t deliver enough to prevent fires in the southern part of the state.

“It’s the legacy effect of the long-term drought: these large, volatile, fast-moving wildfires in California,” says Crystal Kolden, fire science professor at the University of Idaho. By the first week of June, firefighters in California had already tackled more than 1,500 fires that burned almost 28,000 acres—twice as many acres burned as in the first half of 2015.

Looking at the West as a whole, this fire season is similar to the last couple of years—longer, hotter and harder to control— except in the Pacific Northwest, where there’s been a near-average wet, cool summer. According to a recent report from the National Interagency Fire Center, that delays the region’s greatest fire risk until later in the season. However, it has been extremely dry and hot in the Great Basin and Rockies, leading to more fire starts. Those areas should return to normal fire risk by September.

The high fire potential in California will continue during the season’s peak and through November, though, perhaps even until the first snowfall.

Typically, when the Pacific Northwest is particularly active with wildfire, the Southwest is less so, and vice versa, Kolden says, due to large-scale climate dynamics. But because of climate change in the last five to 10 years, regional wildfire seasons now often overlap. Fires are also burning a wider range of ecosystems than in the past, Kolden says. The lower-elevation sagebrush steppe is fueling fires just as much as high-elevation ponderosa forests, Southern California’s chaparral, and Idaho’s rangelands—and often, all these ecosystems are experiencing fires at the same time.

“Climate change is starting to take over,” says Kolden, “so there’s a higher probability and incidence of fires all over the West every single year.”

Two of the largest are the Soberanes Fire in California, which has burned over 76,000 acres and is only about 60 percent contained; and the Pioneer Fire near Boise, which has burned more than 76,000 acres and is about half contained. The NIFC considers both these fires its top priority because they’re proving hard to contain and near highly populated areas. As peak fire seasons stretch and overlap, firefighting resources aregetting stretched thinner. The Pioneer Fire, for example, currently has about 1,800 firefighters working on it, while the Soberanes has a record-breaking 3,800, about 1,000 down from the peak.

It’s still unclear what caused the Pioneer Fire, but an illegal campfire ignited the Soberanes blaze, and faulty hot tub wiring caused the Sand Fire. A growing percentage of wildfires are started by humans, says Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, particularly in Southern California, where the population in fire-danger areas is increasing exponentially. That’s part of the reason that, even though that area’s fires aren’t necessarily more severe than usual, this year’s have resulted in morehomes lost and a high fatality rate in California.

By this point, Stephens says, it’s clear that Western communities and federal agencies need to be more proactive at planning for fire and drought when building homes and structures and managing land. According to his research, we should be restoring forests by thinning and using prescribed burns at five to 10 times the rate we are now.

“If we don’t start to change the trajectory of forest conditions in the Western U.S., we’re literally going to be running out of options,” he says. “The big fires will continue to come.”

This piece originally appeared at High Country News.

Published in Environment

On this week's politically active Independent comics page: Red Meat takes some swimming lessons; This Modern World discusses the fact that we tortured some folks; Jen Sorenson wonders why the GOP blocked emergency funding for wildfire fighting; and The K Chronicles looks at a violent show featuring the original blue man group.

Published in Comics

As I approached a crew of firefighters on the edge of smoldering redwoods, just west of Central California’s Big Sur River, it struck me that their uniforms were orange—not the yellow you usually see on firefighters.

It was just 12 hours after the Pfeiffer Fire broke out; it started on Dec. 16 and burned around 1,000 acres, destroying more than 30 homes in the process. I had arrived in the valley a few hours earlier, and was still getting a lay of the land.

I greeted the first crew member I encountered, and asked if he would answer some questions; he just shook his head with a grin and didn’t say anything. Then a whole bunch of other heads turned my way.

“I’ll answer some questions!”

Four of them came to my side and told me of a redwood tree falling in the night and almost hitting a member of their crew. They’d been out since 2 a.m., they said, and a tree seems to fall every five minutes. They were effusive, excitable. I asked where they were from.

“We’re from Gabilan Camp, in Soledad,” one said, pointing to the decal on his helmet. “You heard of Gabilan Camp?”

Gabilan Conservation Camp was formed in 1986 as part of the California Conservation Camp program, administered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The program’s aim is to allow able-bodied (and willing) inmates to perform meaningful work for the public. And since 1947, after teaming up with Cal Fire, much of that work is firefighting.

“For the Department of Corrections, it’s the one ray of sunshine,” Gabilan Conservation Camp Commander Steve Pate said. “It’s a great program.”

There are camps closer to the Coachella Valley, too. For example, the Bautista Conservation Camp, in Hemet, is home to 107 inmates, as of Oct. 31, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation website. (Two crewmembers, Victor Ferrara and Aaron Perry, actually died while battling a fire in 1990, according to the camp website.) 

Pate spoke to me on Dec. 18 from Big Sur, as he oversaw 374 inmate firefighters from throughout the state’s conservation camps, including those from Gabilan, where 134 inmate-firefighters had been assigned.

At the time we spoke, inmates made up more than 42 percent of the fire suppression personnel. “We’re the largest force out here,” Pate said.

Each of their 11 strike teams on site in Big Sur consisted of 34 inmate firefighters, and two each of correctional officers, corrections supervisors, Cal Fire captains and Cal Fire strike team leaders.

Gabilan’s inmate firefighters are convicts who have met a list of qualifications including good behavior, being medically fit, and having no convictions for sex offenses or arson. Their training begins at a prison, the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown. After passing tests for fitness and skills, they are assigned to a camp, where their lives change markedly.

“There’s a lot of freedom in the camp,” Pate said. “They’re not in cells; they have an open dorm. The doors are not locked, and they can go to the yard anytime.” He added that the food is much better than regular prison food. “Probably better than I eat every day,” he said.

When Gabilan’s inmate firefighters are not fighting fires around the state, they’re out in Monterey County, performing public-works duties. They sandbag in Carmel when a flood hits, or clear brush in the forests of Pebble Beach.

“Our crews account for $280,000 a month in labor saved by community,” Pate said. That number is conservative, he added, since it assumes minimum wage; inmate firefighters are paid $1 per hour.

I met three of them at the Pfeiffer Fire incident base on Dec. 19, after they’d come off a 24-hour shift. Pate indicated that the three prisons they came from—New Folsom, Santa Nella and Corcoran—are a far cry from Gabilan Camp.

“They’re the three hardest prisons in the state,” he said.

Melvin Gray, 47, was in prison for 11 years before coming to Gabilan, where he’s spent the last two. “It changed my whole life,” he said, adding that he plans to apply for a job with Cal Fire when his sentence is up, just four months from now. “I have something to go home to.”

Patrick Meyer, 59, voices a sentiment they all share: It’s great to be part of a team, to work together and help the community. “We’re more than a crew,” Meyer said. “We’re a family.”

Mark Nunez, 40, relays tales of locals cheering them on, driving by them on Highway 1 and saying, “We love you!”

“They don’t treat you like an inmate,” Nunez said. “It makes you feel good.”

A version of this story appeared in the Monterey County Weekly. Below: Inmate Charles Jones takes a brief break while battling the Pfeiffer Fire. Photo by Nic Coury.

Published in Environment

The Rim Fire started small enough, on Aug. 17—a 200-acre blaze burning toward a place called Jawbone Ridge from a north-facing slope in the rugged Clavey River canyon, west of California’s Yosemite National Park.

The area was isolated, and no structures were immediately threatened.

By the 19th, local news sites were reporting 2,500 acres burned with evacuations advised for some neighboring communities. By the 22nd, the fire had exploded to more than 53,000 acres, and then it doubled in size the following day as it roared into Yosemite itself, making national headlines.

A video shot from a Channel Islands Air National Guard plane on Aug. 22 shows a towering mushroom cloud of smoke leaning all the way to the horizon, lit gold by flame and low-angle sun, and casting a dark shadow across forested hills. The pilots point out El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall off to the right, then more gravely observe how impressive the fire looks. As they bank towards the blaze, one says, “Wow… that’s kind of creepy.” As they close in to drop a load of fire retardant, with awe: “That is unreal.”

The word is apt for the dramatic flag of smoke and flame unfurling before the pilots’ eyes. And it certainly fits as of Tuesday afternoon (Aug. 27), with the Rim Fire’s footprint now at nearly 180,000 acres, at least 23 structures destroyed, various evacuations in effect, 3,752 people involved with fighting the blaze, well more than $20 million spent, and smoke billowing across the state line into Reno. And despite some progress towards containment (20 percent at last glance), Inciweb predicts continued “very large fire growth due to extremely dry fuels, strong winds and inaccessible terrain. Rapid fire growth and extreme fire behavior are hampering suppression efforts.”

“This fire is burning unlike anything we've seen in this area historically,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Ashley Taylor told the Los Angeles Times. In the neighboring community of Groveland, the Times reported, people gathered in the middle of the two-lane highway to watch the smoke rise. Nearly all the businesses in town were closed due to the fire, save for the Iron Door Saloon, in operation since 1852, where, “on Friday afternoon, every bar stool was taken. Maps showing the perimeter of the fire were laid out like place mats. People jabbed their fingers at the maps, swapping updates: ‘His shed is gone. But the house is still there.’”

The damage has indirectly reached all the way to San Francisco, nearly 200 miles away. The fire is burning towards the city’s drinking water in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and has already disrupted its supply of hydroelectricity, reports the San Francisco Chronicle:

Two of three power production plants downriver from the reservoir had to shut down before the fire swept through, prompting the city to rely on reciprocal agreements with other utilities and to spend about $600,000 buying supplemental power to make up the shortfall. One of the closed plants was still too dangerous to reach, while crews assessed the damage on the other Sunday afternoon and hoped to have repairs completed Monday. It will not be brought online until transmission lines in the fire zone can be inspected.

So far, though, “Despite ash falling like snowflakes on the reservoir and a thick haze of smoke limiting visibility to 100 feet, the quality of the water (itself) is still good,” reports The Associated Press.

The news of the blaze comes as the U.S. Forest Service grapples with paying for firefighting efforts across the nation in a tight budget year. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than $1 billion has been spent so far on suppression efforts in 2013 (last year’s tab was $1.9 billion). And for the first time since 2008, on Aug. 20, the NIFC raised the nation’s fire preparedness to level 5, meaning that the vast majority of firefighting resources are already committed to blazes—and that additional help may be needed from the National Guard and others.

Just a few days before, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell had ordered an immediate Forest Service spending freeze for restoration programs, employee travel, and other personnel costs to help funnel an additional $600 million into the agency’s suppression account, which had been bled down to a mere $50 million—about half of what’s typically needed to cover a single week at Level 5, reports E&E News (sub required). Such borrowing has happened six other times in the last decade, totaling $2.7 billion. Of that Congress eventually restored $2.3 billion, “but not without disruptions to important agency programs”—many of them the kind that could help lessen fire risks in the future.

The FLAME Act of 2009 was supposed to help head off that dynamic by creating a reserve fund for firefighting, but it doesn’t appear to be working, perhaps because of fluctuating appropriations.

Meanwhile, Tidwell also announced last week that, to meet the terms of the federal sequester, the Forest Service will withhold $18 million in Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act funds for habitat and restoration work, some of which could also potentially make ecosystems more resilient and resistant to megafires in the long run, reports the Associated Press:

Oregon stands to lose the most in the move, with nearly $4 million in reductions, (leaving) the state with about $3.4 million. (Those of us here in) California would lose nearly $2.2 million, leaving it with about $1 million. Idaho is set to lose $1.7 million, Montana nearly $1.3 million and Alaska, about $930,000—nearly half (its) allotment.

"This is a mess, as forecast," Chris Topik, who directs the Nature Conservancy's Restoring America's Forests program, told E&E News in response to the spending freeze. "It shows that we need to get serious about investing in the restoration work that reduces fire risk. We need to get serious about a new way of funding suppression.”

Sarah Gilman is the associate editor at High Country News, from which this was cross-posted.

Published in Environment

A modest metal building sits behind a chain-link fence in the industrial quarter of Prescott, Ariz., with only a small sign to identify it: Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew.

By now, the story is well known: 19 of 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were fighting to save the town of Yarnell, Ariz., when they were hit by what might best be called a fire hurricane on June 30

Just a week and a half earlier, these men had inserted themselves between hundreds of homes north of Prescott and a ferocious wildfire that swept over the very mountain for which the hotshot crew takes its name. Thanks to their efforts and the help of additional firefighters, ground and aerial equipment, homes and citizens were spared.

Many of us who live in Prescott have had numerous occasions across the years to offer thanks to the men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as well as to other city, county and federal firefighters. That’s why, when they drive back through town, we line the streets and cheer. We shake their hands when we meet them in local supermarkets. We write letters to the editor in praise of their heroic efforts.

But after all the kudos, we return to our homes, safe and secure, and seldom think about how these men routinely put their lives on the line, placing themselves in jeopardy for our collective well-being.

As investigations continue into how the tragedy occurred, there’s another search that needs to occur: We Westerners need to look into ourselves for honest answers about what we can reasonably expect of our firefighters and what we must expect of ourselves.

We carry a burden of responsibility that needs to be acknowledged and met. As those who live in the Coachella Valley and Idyllwild areas know thanks to the Mountain Fire: We live in arid lands, a characteristic likely to become more pronounced with the onset of climate change effects. Wallace Stegner eloquently expressed the nature of this challenge when he wrote that “adaptation is the covenant that all successful organisms sign with the dry country.”

Living where I do, I have woven into my daily routine some fire-resistant, adaptive actions and hereby offer them up as suggestions for other residents of the region.

First: It’s our job to add less fuel to the (prospective) fire: At home, we’ve pruned lots of vegetation on our property, which meant striking a delicate balance between conserving sufficient native wildflowers and trees for wildlife habitat and trimming trees that overhang the roof or grew too close. We also cleared gutters of fallen leaves and needles and pruned dead branches from surrounding shrubs, all to reduce fuel load on the lot. See for useful tips.

Second: We packed “fire bags” to be prepared to evacuate. Yes, this is tough psychologically, but crucial to our own and firefighter safety. We filled several suitcases with family photos, necessary meds, lists of contacts and other household contents that we’d need later. We checked to ensure we’re properly insured in the event of a wildfire. We scouted the route of our escape vehicle.

Third: We all need to work to reduce the carbon emissions that worsen drought and increase wildfire severity throughout the West. Some actions are simple, such as installing LED lights, conserving water inside and planting drought-resistant native species outside to reduce water use. We try to drive less, and we do cooperative errands, labor and tool-sharing with our neighbors—all small ways to make a cumulative difference. See the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web page:

Fourth: We must encourage decision-makers at local and state levels to create disincentives so developers build fewer homes on the edges of national forests and other public lands—in the place called the wildland-urban interface. See “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection,” by Headwaters Economics:

Fifth: We should demand that our congressional representatives restore and increase funding for our wildland firefighters. See, as example, this petition on the White House website:

Sixth: Find your local or regional headquarters for wildland firefighters and offer a “thank-you” donation for their training or scholarship funds. Ongoing appreciation to the people who risk their lives for us is perhaps as important as expressing grief after a tragedy.

Terril L. Shorb is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He teaches community sustainability at Prescott College in Prescott, Ariz.

Published in Community Voices

A good friend of mine who is a wildfire medic was at the airport, en route to his next assignment, when I called to ask him, in that helpless way we do, to be safe, and to see how he was handling the tragic news from Arizona, where 19 hotshots lost their lives on June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.

He didn't know any of the Granite Mountain Hotshots personally. But on-the-job loss of life hits everyone in the fire community hard. It's a reminder of their own mortality, and of the calculated risks their own fire families take every day.

"On my last fire, the whole division had to run to the safety zone," he told me. Safety zones are clearings firefighters can escape to if fire behavior changes and threatens the welfare of those on the fire line. Such escapes happen "more than people think," he told me. "It's an accepted part of the job. You're just not supposed to die."

His voice was angry, baffled, sad. Like all of us, he was turning over the things that might have gone wrong. "My instinct is that they were overcommitted to those houses," he told me. "We have rules. You're supposed to never put (the value of anything) above your life. Safety is the No. 1 thing. There's no fucking house that's worth it. That town was getting burned over, and those guys went in and did their job and got fucked."

This is just speculation, of course, but it raises an important question. As Outside editor and a former hotshot himself, Kyle Dickman, put it: "In wildland firefighting, as with all firefighting, there’s nothing more important than protecting homes from destruction, but in the past decade, more than 20 million people have moved into the lands that will eventually be threatened by wildfire. Was Granite Mountain’s supervisor, the field general in charge of making calls on the ground, more willing to expose his crew to risk because houses were at stake?"

Thankfully, incidents of mass death by burning are rare, and seem to have become less common over time, despite the fact that fires have grown larger and more intense, and more manhours are annually spent fighting wildfire. A briefing paper posted this winter by the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center reported that since 1995, fire entrapment or burnovers—being overtaken by flames—caused 11 percent of wildland firefighter fatalities. Since 1926, entrapment or burnovers accounted for 38 percent of deaths. (There are flaws to this data, however, because of inconsistent fatality-reporting practices over time, so it's hard to say if there's a true statistical trend.) The chart here shows all such incidents since 1910 when five or more lives were lost to fire itself, as opposed to falling trees or rocks, plane or car crashes, or heart attacks or other medical issues. (Note the large number of fatalities here in California.)

"The one common denominator with burnovers is unpredictability," says Larry Sutton, a U.S. Forest Service risk-management officer with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "The fire did something that you weren’t expecting. (Beyond that), we’ve kind of trained ourselves not to speculate. There’s always more to it than meets the eye. It takes a lot of investigation and a lot of analysis to figure out the whys behind (these incidents)."

A look back at the investigation of the 1994 South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo.—the last incident of this magnitude, where 14 firefighters died—is instructive, however, as to the probing that should be done into the human factors that contributed to the Yarnell Hill disaster. Rarely can such tragedies be explained by fire behavior alone.

The South Canyon Fire blew up rapidly the afternoon of July 6, 1994, as an arid cold front with winds gusting up to 45 mph moved in, and dry oak ignited. Flames 200 to 300 feet high spread suddenly at up to 18 mph. It was, no doubt, a difficult situation to manage. But a joint Bureau of Land Management-U.S. Forest Service investigation found that inadequate escape routes and safety zones, fire line construction, and the failure to brief hotshots of fuel conditions or weather forecasts were also "direct causes" of the accident.

"The fire behavior on July 6 could have been predicted on the basis of fuels, weather and topography, but fire behavior information was not requested or provided," the report concluded. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration's investigation found that "plain indifference" to employee safety caused the deaths.

We should not assume that the same was true at Yarnell Hill before an investigation is complete. By most accounts, there is a much greater emphasis on safety in firefighting operations today. Sutton says leadership-development programs have been stepped up since then, to improve decision-making on the ground, as has "fatigue management"—that is, keeping close watch of shift and assignment lengths. But if there is any lesson in the past, it is that people always play a role.

Cally Carswell is the assistant editor of High Country News (the site from which this was cross-posted). The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

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