Canada/USA An American journalist and prize-winning author says wildfires that turn deadly tend to have a few things in common.
John MacLean wrote the book Fire on the Mountain about the July 6, 1994, Colorado South Canyon Fire, which claimed the lives of 14 firefighters.
He has been investigating wildfires for decades, and is currently working on the 2013 Yarnell Hill fire, in which 19 Arizona firefighters died.
Why did 19 hotshots, with a very experienced safety-minded leader, leave a perfectly safe ‘black area’ when they could see the fire coming their way and march into a box canyon where they lost sight of the fire, entirely against all reckoning, and wound up dead. Why did they do that?
MacLean spoke to a room full of wildfire experts in Kelowna at last week’s Wildland Fire Conference.
Is there something easy, simple that can prevent or at least lessen the chance of more multiple-fatality wildland fires?
MacLean said ‘tragedy fires’ always include five pieces homes nearby, extreme weather, dangerous terrain, time of day and overhead in transition.
You fight harder when homes are at stake, said MacLean. When homes are at risk, the stakes go up.
While he said fires can’t directly be linked to climate change, experienced firefighters are stating, unequivocally, that fires are behaving in a more aggressive way than they ever have before.
Climate change has something to do with this, said MacLean. Predicted weather and fire events have unexpected and severe consequences.
Finally, the ‘three Ts’ time of day, terrain and transition.
Is there a drought? What is the time of day? Is it between 3:30 and 5:30 in the afternoon, because that is when people die in large bunches the hottest, driest time of the day, said MacLean.
At Yarnell, they were caught in box canyon, South Canyon they were caught in a narrow canyon. Finally, transition, when the wildland fire structure is going from initial attack to extended attack, nobody is in charge.
With those five pieces in mind, MacLean said there is a simple answer to save lives.
When those big five things are happening, quit for a while. You can’t tell that to firefighters, you can’t tell them to quit, they are heroes, they go in when everybody else is going out but, that is the solution.