Firefighter Deaths in Arizona Explosive wildfire just the proximate cause

Published on July 18th, 2013

The recent deaths of 19 elite firefighters – the "Granite Mountain Hotshots" – based in Prescott, Arizona, underscore the challenging demographic and climatic trends facing the American West.

The fallen firefighters were ambushed by the explosive, unpredictable Yarnell Hill Fire, which destroyed more than 100 homes and scorched 8,300 acres of wildland.  It was responsible for the single deadliest day for all firefighters since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and for wildland firefighters in many decades. [Yarnell Hill Fire: New Details Released in Summary, by JJ Hensley, The Republic, July 16, 2013]

Disturbingly, for the foreseeable future, underlying trends that helped turn this fire deadly will continue to exacerbate the threat posed by wildfires to life, limb, and property in the West. Only the brave firefighters on the front lines – or the fire lines – stand between us and the destructive, deadly flames.

The first trend is rapid population growth throughout the West. Almost all Western states are growing faster than the national average. Since the 1990s, some of this growth originated from Californians leaving behind their own state’s overpopulation-related woes for greener pastures in droves. In Utah's case, a high fertility rate compounds the problem, and throughout all of the states, overseas immigration is an increasing factor.

Coupled with this population growth is an ongoing exodus to the urban fringe, exurbs and countryside. All too frequently, the habitats in which new homes are being built are fire-adapted, like California’s chaparral. Wildland fires are an integral part of these ecosystems – a source of what fire ecologists call “disturbance” and renewal.

When landscapes become dotted with homes, it dictates fire managers’ efforts to suppress wildfires and inhibits their efforts to control “fuel loads,” that is, combustible woody mass or deadwood which furnishes fuel for fires. One of the most cost-effective methods fire managers have in their toolkit is prescribed fire, or “controlled burns.”  However, the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) complicates use of prescribed fire to reduce fuel loads. A prescribed fire might escape and go rogue, as did the 2000 catastrophic Cerro Grande fire, destroying 400 homes in Los Alamos, NM. Also, residents complain about the smoke from prescribed fires.

The fire hazard has also grown because for most of the 20th century federal agencies followed a misguided philosophy of trying to extinguish all fires. In an illustration of the law of unintended consequences, this allowed fuel to accumulate, both degrading and clogging forest habitats and making destructive conflagrations all but inevitable eventually.

Now the climate appears to be conspiring against us as well.  Much of the West is in the grip of a punishing drought, and trees are succumbing en masse to moisture stress and bark beetles. According to the Los Angeles Times, in recent years the computer models on which fire behavior analysts depend:

     “…have been rendered practically obsolete, unable to project how erratic Western fires have become, making tactical decisions more difficult for fire bosses and the fire lines less safe for crews….”

The average wildfire is now five times larger than in the 1980s. Testifying before Congress in June, the Forest Service chief observed that, “the last two decades have seen fires that are extraordinary in their size, intensity and impacts."

Sadly, as the West warms and dries because of changing climate, the continued survival of forest ecosystems across much of it is called into question. Forests, woodlands, and chaparral may be replaced by grasslands and scrub. To be sure, these have certain virtues as well, though their aesthetic qualities – and the shade they provide – are perhaps wanting.

Just as the growing multitudes would like to have more trees for shade, beauty, wildlife and wood, they may be in short supply.


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