Think about wildfire in the West and it’s hard to picture a rosy future, except for the sunsets bleeding through the smoke.
Climate change is creating longer, hotter, more explosive burning seasons, while more and more homes sprout on flammable ground. Meanwhile, the pool of firefighting talent keeps getting smaller: there are fewer trained crews, air tankers and helicopters available than there were 20 years ago. Complicated and sometimes contradictory federal policies make it difficult for the next generation of firefighters to get the training and experience they need.
And for those who do meet the requirements for this dirty and dangerous work, there’s a new specter searing the mind of fire bosses: criminal prosecution if something goes wrong and firefighters are hurt or killed.
While fire is increasingly – and properly – understood as a necessary part of many functioning ecosystems, controlled burning is a complicated and sometimes dangerous process. Fire managers often are reluctant to start fires or let natural fires burn, because an escape could leave their careers in ashes, or at least well toasted.
Those were some of the topics outlined this week at a four-day conference in Jackson, Wyoming, sponsored by the International Association of Wildland Fire and the National Park Service, an event that drew about 400 firefighters, scientists and officials from land management agencies. While most are from the United States, some came from as far as Australia, Japan and Portugal.
The focus of the conference was the 20th anniversary of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park, which many described as the onset of a new era in firefighting and fire management.
“Nature is not always a gentle hostess,” recalled Bob Barbee, the park’s superintendent at the time. He called the fires of that summer “unpredictable, unpreventable, uncontrollable and finally unimaginable.”
Fires that year scorched 1.4 million acres in and around the park, while torching another million acres in other places around the West.“It was the first time in my career I saw the world’s best firefighters get their butts kicked,” said Rex Mann, a planner in the Yellowstone firefighting efforts. The fires “were beasts the like of which we’d never seen before.”
But the beasts still roar. Fires of similar intensity have erupted across the West over the past two decades, from Colorado to California, from Arizona to Montana. Today’s rookie firefighters are seeing things that veterans of previous generations thought they’d never encounter. And the monsters could grow even bigger.
“We continue to exceed our previous standards, in terms of unbelievability, in fire behavior,” said Steve Frye, a former commander of an elite Type I firefighting team.
If the climate scientists are right – there were a number of them here, and they all had a similar message – future firefighting will require two times the muscle and machinery just to wrestle fires down to current levels, Frye said. If the tools and people materialize, they won’t be cheap. Firefighting has often cost the U.S. Forest Service more than $1 billion a season in recent years, draining money from other programs.
And some fires will escape no matter what people throw at them. It is “reasonable to consider” fires of three million acres to nine million acres in the northern Rockies if the right conditions arise, according to George Weldon, deputy regional director for fire for region one of the Forest Service, headquartered in Missoula.
He called for agencies and the public to learn to live with fire. “The fires are not the problem,” he said. “The problem is the effect of the fires on the people.” Those effects can include sick-making smoke, travel restrictions, lost property, injury and, occasionally, death.
So, what can be done?
Weldon predicted that land managers will rely increasingly on planned or “prescribed” fire as a tool that can sap the punch from inevitable wildfire. Chainsaws won’t do the trick, at least not everywhere. “The Forest Service will not log our way out of the issue we’re in,” he said. “Our primary tool is going to be fire.”
But using fire, instead of fighting it, won’t be easy, especially if the woods become even more flammable. There is resistance both from the public and from people inside government. This year, the federal government oversaw 211,000 acres of prescribed burns, according to Tom Nichols, chief of fire and aviation for the National Park Service. But there were 4.6 million acres of wildfires.
Aside from the technical challenges, there is even disagreement over what to label a fire you aren’t trying to put out. The “let burn” label still rankles many in the Park Service. A “wildland fire use fire” is unwieldy and confuses the public. And a new term, “appropriate management response,” while it has the support of some scientists and green groups, sounds even more bureaucratic.
At the simplest level, the latter term means officials will look a fire over, then decide whether to fight it or monitor it, relying on a set of preset parameters. The response will depend on circumstances like topography, weather and potential threats. But even that process can suffer from political interference.
This year, when thousands of fires erupted in California, “prescribed fire was out the window,” Nichols said.
Other areas of government harbor inconsistencies as well. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) interprets the law to mean everybody is warranted a safe workplace, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney and former firefighter Mike Johns. Yet the Forest Service grants firefighters hazard pay, which implies acceptance of danger.
Even the Department of Justice is divided. Lawyers working on civil cases see firefighting safety rules as “guidelines” while criminal lawyers cited those same rules when they filed manslaughter charges in the wake of the 2001 Thirtymile Fire in Washington. “There’s a huge disconnect in the legal environment we’re currently dealing with,” Johns said. The Thirtymile charges were later reduced to misdemeanors, but the incident cast a pall over the fire community.
“Firefighters are starting to wonder if their agencies are willing to back them up if something goes wrong,” Johns said.
Dick Mangan, past president of the wildland fire association and a firefighter for more than 30 years, said one third of that group’s members said they would be reluctant to take on some supervisory roles in the wake of the criminal charges.
“We’re having a hard time getting people to take crews out,” he said. “We’re on a dangerous path here. I don’t like the future, guys. I don’t think it’s that bright right now.”