Each year, millions of acres across the U.S. are burned in wildfires. Dry conditions, fierce winds, and human activity are often factors in the most dangerous blazes but fire season is also simply a part of nature's cycle. "Fire's not the enemy. We have to take care of fire, we have to manage fire, we have to be aware of wildfire but we don't want to demonize it," says Ken Frederick, former firefighter and public affairs specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center.
Even though California and eastern Oregon are currently in severe droughts, this year has been surprisingly tame. Only about one-third of the expected acreage has burned and 30 percent fewer fires have started than predicted by trends from the last decade. Still, this is no reason to ignore potential danger – the past has proven that late fire seasons can be just as deadly. A rule of thumb from Frederick: if pencil-sized sticks are cracking underfoot, conditions are primed for fiery destruction.
Yarnell Hill, 2013
Credit: Arizona State Forestry Division / Getty Images
The Place: Arizona
The Underlying Cause: Lightning
The Devastation: 8,400 acres burned, 19 lives lost from the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew
What Is Noteworthy about This Fire: Hotshot crews go through rigorous training to prepare them for the physical and mental challenges of aggressive fire suppression. The Yarnell Hill fire wasn't a particularly large fire but a line of thunderstorms approached the flames, whipping the blaze in multiple directions and trapping every member of Granite Mountain Hotshot crew except for the lookout. "To say it's unusual is an understatement," says Frederick. "It's tragic and wrenching." This event was the greatest loss of firefighters in a wildfire since 1933.