Crystal A. Kolden, a fire ecologist and former U.S. Forest Service firefighter, is an assistant professor of geography at the University of Idaho, where she heads the pyrogeography lab.
No one should ever die to save a house.
The 19 firefighters killed in Arizona this past week should be honored as the fallen heroes they are. Members of an elite unit, they were trained to hike for miles across remote, difficult terrain with 40 pounds of gear and clear vegetation to keep fires from spreading. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were caught by an advancing wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., the town they were trying to save, when they were overrun by flames.
They should never have been put in that position. Since Yarnell had already been evacuated, these men were lost trying to save not lives but houses. Homeowners who live in wildfire-prone areas shouldn’t expect their highly flammable property to be rescued during extreme fires.
Wildland firefighters — those who fight vegetation fires instead of house fires — are trained to protect human life, property and natural resources, in that order. For most of the 20th century, the amount of property that needed protection from wildfires was fairly limited, and wildland firefighters focused mostly on protecting natural resources, particularly timber.
But since 1970, there has been an expansion of more than 50 percent in the rural and low-density housing communities that border state and federally owned wildlands. These communities are more concentrated in the western United States, where steep terrain and long, dry summers compound the problem. For example, more than a million new homes were built in high fire danger areas in California, Oregon and Washington since 1990. But homes are built amid dense, flammable vegetation everywhere from Florida to Michigan to Texas to New Jersey.
In parts of the country prone to earthquakes and flooding, owners and developers must purchase expensive hazard insurance — homeowners in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, for instance, have seen a 25 percent increase in rates. New construction often must meet specialized codes designed to mitigate potential catastrophe, such as requirements that homes in coastal areas be built on stilts.
Yet, for those who face wildfire, mitigation measures such as building with burn-resistant materials and clearing nearby vegetation are usually optional, making it nearly impossible for firefighters to safely defend communities. Meanwhile, since the federal government picks up most of the tab for firefighting, there’s not much incentive for state and local agencies to regulate development.
This needs to change. We need to stop seeing wildfire as an enemy to be exterminated forever and instead accept it as inevitable. We need to recognize that communities built without wildfire-mitigation measures are tinderboxes waiting to burn and stop incentivizing homeowners to rebuild with kindling.We also need to ensure that our national fire policies, such as the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy, reflect the best, most current science.
Over the past century, we have learned a lot about wildfire. We’ve learned that climate change is producing more extreme weather, such as stronger storms and longer droughts, increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Fire ecology has taught us that many ecosystems need fire, and that we can make forests healthier and reduce future risk by allowing some remote wildfires to burn. We can also improve forests and clear flammable vegetation around communities using thinning and prescribed burning, reducing the chance that fires will make the leap from wildlands to homes.
Most important, however, we’ve learned how powerless we truly are when it comes to wildfires. Despite impressive technological advances in firefighting, we are still at the mercy of weather, such as the thunderstorm and lightning strike that brought tragedy to Yarnell. Firefighters with decades of experience tell me that they have never seen fire behavior as extreme as what they are seeing now. We simply cannot stop high-intensity, wind-driven wildfires, and we need to quit asking firefighters to place themselves in harm’s way.
Over the next few months, there will be an inquiry into why the Granite Mountain Hotshots died. Like previous investigations, it will probably unfairly blame “poor decision-making” by the firefighters, who can no longer defend their actions. Parallels are already being drawn to the 1994 South Canyon Fire in Colorado, when 14 elite firefighters died and investigators pointed to errors in the way the fire was fought. The firefighting community will come up with a new set of safety standards and go through more training, and the public will mourn the dead and then move on to the next tragedy. Meanwhile, the people of Yarnell and other Western communities where wildfires have consumed homes this summer will receive their insurance checks and rebuild. Things will go back to business as usual for everyone — except the loved ones of those lost.
This cycle must end. Fighting the symptoms of our national fire problem without addressing its underlying causes is like trying to stop the obesity epidemic without launching an exercise campaign. Yarnell and communities like it must rebuild with fire-resistant materials and landscaping. Insurance companies must either charge more to insure highly flammable homes in wildfire-prone areas or abandon such areas entirely to reflect the true dangers homeowners face. Fire agencies need to stop using outdated suppression tactics that are too dangerous for more intense fires that burn in more extreme weather amid more houses. And towns reluctant to support vegetation-reduction projects must reverse course and become fire-adapted communities.
Wildfires are not preventable. Like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, they are inevitable. Unless we fundamentally change the way we view wildfires, brave men and women will continue to put themselves in harm’s way to protect our homes. And we will have to explain to the families and loved ones of those lost why we thought our houses were more important than their lives.