USA — Wildfire veterans with decades of experience have a different perspective than the Washington bureaucrats to whom they ultimately answer. But while the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, the people putting their lives on the line point to some simple, straightforward solutions to the dangers they confront.
Wage timely, forceful attacks on fires when they first materialize, they suggest. Schedule safer, more effective work shifts rather than sending crews into the fray in the afternoon, when theyre exhausted, the fire is burning hottest and winds pick up and shift flames in various directions.
Let fires that dont threaten lives or properties burn themselves out rather than attacking every fire in the middle of nowhere, they advise, as the ecology of many areas depends on occasional wildfires to burn out excess fuels. And perhaps most important: Stand down when danger looms.
Let it Burn
National wildfires policy was borne of the Big Blowup of Aug. 20-21, 1910, when forest fires killed 85 people, burned 3 million acres and destroyed several towns in Idaho, Montana and Washington.
But the push to suppress all wildfires may not be serving the nation well today practically, financially or environmentally, fire managers suggest.
The fire-prevention and -suppression approach held steady for more than 100 years, with one interlude in the 1970s, when the public heeded scientific findings that wildfires can help forest ecology.
That controlled let it burn approach came to a quick halt after the 1988 fires in Yellowstone the nations original national park and the crown jewel of its parks system.
The beloved icon of the West was ravaged by fires from that June until November, with more than 150,000 acres burned. The public was apoplectic.
Today, of course, visitors to Yellowstone can see the parks swift recovery. Reports of its death had been greatly exaggerated, Mark Twain might say.
The continued push to suppress virtually all fires could prove deadly itself in the long run, wildfire veterans say.
Fire fuels are flourishing. Various beetles have attacked many species of pine, leaving huge stands of dead trees clattering in high winds and toppling across the West. Prolonged droughts have provided plenty of tinder-dry brush and grasses.
Without fire to clear forests naturally, scientists fear, the fires of the future will burn bigger, hotter and more catastrophically than wildfires already do.
One thing happening much more now is the recognition we can make the fire situation worse by putting out every fire, notes Robert P. Pete Blume, who worked for 38 years in fire and natural resources and now is semi-retired in Colorado.
What can we do to reduce our risk in the future? Blume asked. It doesnt have a black-and-white answer, but now much more consideration is given to allowing some fires to burn or to drop back to a more defensive place, improve safety and let the fire do its job for the ecosystem. As a trend, this would be a huge change, but these things are emerging and being considered all over.
Extreme fire behavior has become obvious, he said. I dont know whether its global warming, but the result is exceptional change. While most of his career in Colorado since 1980 was spent dealing with 2,000- to 3,000-acre fires, he said, Now its 80,000 to 100,000 acres every year.
The scale of the job has changed so much; eventually its going to require a much bigger workforce, Blume said. We cant have fires 10 times as big as they used to be and manage them the same. … The fire behavior is off the charts.
Theres a lot of fuel out there, and for 40 to 50 years we didnt let that fuel burn, said Chris Cuoco, a meteorologist who teaches fire behavior classes in Grand Junction, Colo. The Forest Service, BLM, all are trying to increase prescribed burning.
Were not doing enough fuels treatments to keep up with Mother Nature, said Alex Robertson, deputy fire staff officer for a huge chunk of Oregon, working for the U.S. Forest Service and BLM.
We have a lot of opportunities to use fire to meet that objective, but it takes a lot of courage, Robertson said. Theres more smoke, you have to talk to the public, the fire has longer duration, and there are many more chances for a bad day with a weather event.
These are risks we have to take. Otherwise, we just put off the inevitable. I think technology could help a lot with that.
A lot of areas rely on fire. Thats part of the natural ecosystem, says Eric Hipke, a fire safety video specialist in Boise for the Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher. On small fires that dont threaten properties, let them do their thing.
Hitting it hard – early
Even if fire suppression is eased, and remote fires are managed and allowed to burn out, many wildfires still must be fought.
When a wildfire first is spotted, its usually burning 2 or 3 acres.
You have a golden 48 hours, notes James R. Jim Cook, a 37-year wildfire veteran who recently retired in Boise. On almost all fires, youve got two days where if you can get ahead of it, youve got it.
Any delay can result in big, deadly blazes such as the South Canyon and Yarnell Hill fires. Such fires require more manpower, air resources and, usually, millions of dollars. They also heighten the risks to fire crews.
Ive had cases where they didnt want to give us retardant because the fire wasnt off to the races, said Hipke, who narrowly escaped the South Canyon Fire. But if you can get in in the morning before it blows out, you can put out a fire.
A sensible schedule
Most important, delayed attacks on wildfires can result in fatalities almost all of which occur between 3 and 6 p.m.
As long as we keep putting people out on these fires in the hottest part of the day, this is going to keep happening, Hipke said. Theres that 3 to 6 p.m. range with 4:30 being the bulls eye. Thats when everybody is dying on these fires.
Mid-afternoon is not only the hottest part of the day, but also the time when winds kick up and change direction. And its the period when firefighters are most exhausted and least alert.
Hipke suggests bi-modal shifts. Get out early, fight while you can, then stand down and get back on it at 6 p.m. when it dies down. Youre way more effective, and youre not in danger.
If crews set up camp in the safest spot near the fire, they can have food, water and fuel for their chainsaws, and theyre already there. They wake up at 5 and at 6 (a.m.) start work.
Larry Edwards, a veteran hotshot now retired in Montana, recalls the 10 a.m. rule of the 1970s and 80s. The fire had to be put out or reduced to less than 10 acres by 10 a.m.
If you had to work all night, thats what you did. The people above me were always trying to do a decent job of saying, Lets go put this danged thing out. They didnt fiddle around so much, Edwards said. In recent years, theres been a reluctance to hit things hard and put em out.
Every year, hundreds of times, crews pull out and say, We cant be here at 2 in the afternoon, said Chris Cuoco, the Grand Junction, Colo., meteorologist whose Red Flag Warning of high winds wasnt transmitted to the South Canyon firefighters.
Sit back and watch the show, advises Ted Putnam, Ph.D., a psychologist and veteran smokejumper. I did that with my smokejumper crew in Utah once. I felt bad about it, but I thought, Theres not enough time to build the fire line.
I walked out behind the hotshot crew; I said, Its not worth risking my men. When I left, because the fires rolling up the hill and burning where we were, its the most sickening feeling there is to think: Did he take his people in?
Pretty soon, Putnam said, here came the hotshot crew, and he (the supervisor) said, Good call, Putnam. When you have other crews in there, there is tremendous pressure to go in. You dont want to look like cowards.
Tapping Technology for Better Communication
Another lesson that needs to be learned, several say, is to exploit technologies that can reduce risks and heighten awareness of fire behavior.
Some survivors of the Yarnell Hill Fire victims have been loudly lamenting the lack of GPS devices among the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. Aircraft above couldnt see the men for the smoke, or they could have dropped retardant and saved lives, the theory goes.
For wildfire supervisors, smart tablets, such as iPads, are invaluable, says Robertson.
On fires that escape initial attack, such as South Canyon, Thirtymile, Cramer and Yarnell, Somebodys making decisions. But the only information they get is a perimeter on a map, he said.
As incident commander, I want to be able to get videos and photos and fire behavior and send that back in. I think we miss opportunities where we dont have to just throw all the resources at it we can, Robertson said.
A key factor in the South Canyon deaths was a dispatchers failure to transmit a Red Flag Warning of a cold front bringing high, shifting winds that would inflate the fire.
Robertson, who survived the South Canyon Fire, has good reason to push for better communication.
Those weather reports are all on our website now, he said. My phone alerts me for a high wind warning. My phone beeps at me and tells me.
Where I live, every high school freshman is getting an iPad at school. And we have four in the state of Oregon, the BLM does, he said. If you eliminate the need for information to be passed, take away the potential for people to not talk, youd expect instances of communicating poorly would be reduced.
Incident commanders with tablets can transmit in real time the exact shape and direction of the fire, the weather, any information a firefighter or decision-maker miles away would need.
My air attack sends me photos from the air, and I can look at it as hes flying around. Its unreal how valuable that kind of information is, Robertson said. Its trying to be smarter, developing good strategy and tactics. Eventually, its less exposure to the firefighter.
He said all his firefighters carry their own smart phones, as the government only issues them basic cell phones.
Its funny how administrators work, too. Guess who they gave the Blackberries to? To the (older) people who say, The buttons are too small; I dont know how to use it.
They dont need the technology as much as the guy on the ground does. Thats my goal right now.
Homes where they dont belong
Another key advancement in fighting wildfires, however, rests with the people who build homes in wildlands.
If youre living in the middle of the woods, you need to take it upon yourself to make sure your house is defensible, Hipke said. Once the wind starts blowing, its Game Over. But if you cut stuff from around your home, you can wet it down, and it can survive.
Fire records for Colorado show averages of 80 fires a year at 2,000 acres each into the 1950s, said semi-retired Winslow Robertson, who worked as the No. 2 fire official for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Grand Junction, Colo.
Now were seeing (enormous fires) every year. A lot is due to the housing boom. In the late 90s, people were building wealth and bought a second home in the mountains, Winslow Robertson said.
Thats one of the factors contributing to dangerous fires, he said. A lot of things are colliding fast. Youre there to protect lives and property. Thats the priority.
Blume also cites the human part of it and development of the urban interface as a key factor in fire danger.
The insurance companies have never been particularly engaged in raising rates (on wildland homes), Blume notes. Its definitely on their radar now.
As insurance rates start to climb, theres going to be more emphasis on city and county planning and zoning officials taking a role in building materials and design. Its been a free-for-all in the past. But governments are starting to say, Youre going to have these roads, fire hydrants, these building materials.
Says McCall Smokejumper Base Manager Joe Brinkley:
The wildland-urban interface starts steering, too, toward taking bigger risks simply because you want to protect life and property. Theres no doubt weve improved (safety) radically since 94. But then when you see 19 folks killed on a mountain (in Yarnell, Ariz.) …
The public has some ownership in how these things are fought, Hipke said.
He and Wade Ward, public information officer for the Prescott Fire Department, explained how wildfire firefighters triage properties.
A house with cedar shakes for a roof, surrounded by flammable foliage, probably wont command much attention from crews trying to save what they can. And even if a house is defensible, if the other houses on the block arent, the fire crews likely will move on, Ward and Hipke both said.
So homeowners in the wildlands might want to think twice, not only about saving firefighters who feel greater urgency when properties are at risk, but also about the state of their home and the homes of their neighbors.
Making it Happen
All of these changes will require federal approval, which never comes swiftly or easily. Whether the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management can let some fires burn without challenge, wage timely initial attacks on other wildfires, change fire crews schedules to heighten safety and find a way to provide secure, topnotch technology to save lives among the boots on the ground is the question that remains unanswered.
Whether mountain and forest homeowners will create defensible spaces in conjunction with their neighbors also is questionable.
But one thing wildfire fighters can do for themselves is to step back when danger looms. Wildland firefighters men and women are gutsy, hardworking, determined professionals. And they are subject to public criticism whenever they do stand down.
On the South Canyon Fire, Hipke asked, What if wed heard about the wind, wed all gone up and sat on that ridge? What if it had burned up Glenwood Springs?
People complain all the time, said Randy Skelton, deputy fire staff officer on the Payette National Forest. They see us sitting there, and a lot of the public is second-guessing. They send letters to Congress, the forest supervisor or the chief of the Forest Service. In todays environment, theres a lot of pressure to do something.
As the Yarnell Hill hotshots deaths clearly showed June 30, however, sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.
How do you change 34 firefighter deaths? asked Joe Brinkley, whose triplet brother Levi died in the South Canyon Fire. Maybe this is really callous, especially from someone who lost a loved one … but to a certain extent, its a dynamic environment. It really comes down to human factors. When its 112 degrees, 9 percent relative humidity theres not a firefighter out there whos not going to know (the dangers).