How America Is Wasting Money and Lives to Fight Wildfires

A firefighter pulls a hose in position while battling a wild fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California.
A firefighter pulls a hose in position while battling a wild fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California. David McNew / Getty Images

Over the last 15 years, the U.S. Forest Service has spent roughly a billion dollars a year fighting forest fires. In that time at least 127 on-duty wildland firefighters have lost their lives. With drought conditions seemingly becoming the norm and swelling suburbs increasingly encroaching on wilderness, massive blazes — so called megafires — are on the rise. Kyle Dickman's On the Burning Edge (Ballantine; $26) chronicles the destruction of one of those megafires, the now infamous Yarnell Hill blaze, which was responsible for the deaths of 19 hotshots from Prescott, Arizona, in 2013.

On the Burning Edge will no doubt get compared to Norman Mclean's seminal Young Men and Fire, about the deaths of 13 smoke jumpers in 1949, simply because of its topic. But it's an unfair comparison. Whereas Young Men and Fire was a study in on-the-ground decision-making and the often fickle reasons one man dies and another lives, On the Burning Edge is a thorough, unsparing portrait of the lives of the men who died at Yarnell Hill. Dickman, a former hotshot himself, offers a compelling narrative of why so many young men and women are drawn to the job — in part for the money, but also for the freedom of working long hours in the forests. But it's also a sober reminder that these firefighters are constantly risking their lives for us, and that maybe we shouldn't be sending so many of them out into a burning forest in the first place. We spoke to Dickman about why wildland firefighters are dying, how homeowners need to prepare, and how to fix our misguided fire policy.

Are megafires becoming the new norm?
Partially. Megafire is sort of a bullshit term. It basically means a fire that costs a lot of money. The reason that they cost a lot is because, after a century of extinguishing almost every fire in the forests, there are more trees to burn. Also, the West is hotter and drier, and that's taking moisture from the trees, so they burn more readily. But the real issue is that there are 140 million Americans living in fire-prone areas. The combination of more fuel in the forests, more persistent drought conditions, and more people living in fire-prone zones — that equals bigger, more expensive fires.

Why don't we just let the fires burn? If your home is in the way, tough luck.
Basically, a fire starts in Colorado Springs, and even though most people understand that fire is a natural part of the environment, when they see the flames, their reaction is pretty much what yours and mine would be, which is, "Put it out. I want to see helicopters. I want to see hotshot crews. I want this taken care of because that's my house."

So the responsibility for fire damage should be on the communities themselves?
There are 70,000 communities in the West, and less than 2 percent of those communities have done anything to prepare for wildfires. We are seeing more communities fund preparedness crews — Fuels Crews are what they're called, and Santa Fe has one, as well as the city of Boulder, Colorado — but unless we see more communities funding crews, we are going to see more disasters like Yarnell Hill. Homes are going to keep burning unless people start preparing for fires.

Should we be looking at this as more of a development issue rather than a fire suppression issue, and regulating housing?
I don't think we can say, "If there's likely to be a fire, you cannot build here," because there's always a chance that there is going to be a fire. What we need to be doing is regulating defensible space. The homeowner needs to proactively create defensible space. That means getting out chainsaws and clearing timber and brush in about a 100-foot perimeter around the house.

Does that mean we're wasting taxpayer money on fighting fires?
Between federal, state, and county agencies, a total of $4.78 billion a year is spent fighting fires. That's an astronomical sum. I think that the agencies understand that when people see fires start, they want them put out. They keep sending air tankers and hotshot crews, even though there's little evidence to support the fact that tankers and hotshot crews are doing anything to decrease fire size. Right now we're seeing that fires are burning at six times the rate they did 40 years ago.

So fighting fires isn't actually helping put out fires? 
I would never advocate that we would simply stop fighting fires. But we do need to be smart about the way we do it. There needs to be a tactical decision at some point to pull firefighters off the line and let the fire burn. You can't expect hotshot crews, engines, air tankers, or really anybody, to stand before a 60 to 80 foot flame wall and do anything to stop it. It's basically like asking the National Guard to stop a hurricane. We need to stop spending billions of dollars fighting fires and start spending millions of dollars preparing for them.

Does there need to be a system in place for determining when a fire is too dangerous, as in the case of Yarnell Hill? Had they known, maybe they wouldn't have been sent out?   
Everybody knew. That's the crazy thing about it. There had been forecasters on the fields that day and every firefighter on scene knew what they were dealing with. They had weather forecasters predicting that storms would come over the area, and, more or less, what the fire was going to do when that happened.

So why, when they were out, did they still try to protect the town of Yarnell.
I think the answer is that you have 19 or 20 guys sitting up on the ridgeline watching this fire go from relatively calm to absolutely explosive, and rushing headlong toward the town. They knew that an entire city was about to be erased. They also knew that many of those towns' people were still probably in there. The safest thing for them to do would've been to sit back and basically watch destruction. But that's a really hard thing to ask any firefighter to do.

Should homeowners who didn't create defensible space be held responsible for firefighting deaths?
What homeowners should be asking themselves is if a fire starts and they've done nothing to prepare their homes, would they ask firefighters to come in and protect their house at the cost of lives? If you're unwilling to prepare your homes for fires, then are you willing to ask firefighters to risk their lives to save your house?  

But there seems to be an understated policy of protect at all costs.
At a certain point, they're supposed to step back and let homes burn. In reality, that's a lot to ask of anybody. It's a hard thing to drill into firefighters' minds. By their very nature, they're inclined to act heroically. It's their job. If towns are more proactive in preparing for fires, that's not a decision that we'll have to ask firefighters to make. 

So unless there is some massive overhaul to our current system, there are still going to be massive fires out West, and more deaths? 
Currently, there are two proposals in front of Congress that would help. The first was put forth by Senator John McCain, and what it says is that for every dollar spent on forest suppression, 50 cents needs to be spent on forest restoration. That would come in the form of more natural fires, more wildfires allowed to burn and the thinning of overly dense forests. The second bill is about megafires, or the giant fires, which account for 2 percent of fires but 98 percent of the spending. Under that bill, the Forest Service would no longer have to pay for those fires. The bill would get picked up by FEMA, and then you have a lot more room in the Forest Service budget to put toward preparedness. But even if one or both of these bills are passed by Congress, it's going to take many decades to get our forests back on track.

It took 100 years of removing fire from the landscape to get to where we are today. It's going to take at least 100 and probably more to get our lands to where they are adapted, once again, to fires. In the meantime, we have to expect that if we continue to fight fires aggressively, young men and women are going to continue to die. The job is just too dangerous, and there are too many variables. So I think we have to prepare ourselves for another Yarnell Hill in the not too distant future.

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