They can’t save us.

Maybe you’re waiting for the fire department, the Forest Service, the logging trucks.

Maybe you figure we’ll be all right because the Wallow Fire didn’t swallow us and the Rodeo-Chediski Fire spared Show Low and the Highline Fire veered away and the Dude Fire was a fluke of superheated air and the Yarnell Hill Fire killed 19 firefighters because someone miscalculated.

Maybe you figure after five years of confusion and delay, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative will kick in sometime soon.

But here’s the truth. They can’t save us.

We have to save ourselves.

Wallow Firefighter by Kari Greer

Consider, for instance, the Arizona Supreme Court’s rejection of a lawsuit brought by Yarnell homeowners who lost everything in the 2013 blaze that also killed 19 Prescott firefighters. The lawyers for the homeowners argued the state assumed legal responsibility for the town when it took on the job of fighting the wildfire in thick brush and trees that hadn’t burned in 50 years. The fire burst out of control in extreme weather conditions, confounding the predictions of the firefighters, consuming the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew and rushing on into Yarnell with barely time for an evacuation order.

The lawyers argued the fire commanders should have predicted the turn of the fire, should have prepared the town, should have ordered the evacuation sooner.

The Supreme Court disagreed — saying the state had no legal obligation to save the town.

Wallow Fire by Kari Greer

As one of the lawyers concluded, the decision means, “you’re on your own.”

But surely the enormous expertise and the $2 billion annual firefighting budget will stop the big fires and pro-tect our homes.

Don’t count on it.

The Wallow Fire demonstrated a terrible truth. In the current thicket of a forest — no one can stop a megafire when the temperature hits 100, the humidity drops into the single digits, the winds rise up. The fire will generate its own weather. It will consume a block of homes in a gulp. It will advance faster than a deer can run. It will consume everything in its path — trees, houses, hopes.

So in this final installment of Catastrophe, we look at the effort to restore forest health through thinning projects. Research and the hard lessons of wildfires has proven that thinned buffer zones can give firefighters a place to make a stand and save a com-munity and significantly reduce firefighting costs and severity. Research and the hard lessons of wildfire have also proven that tough, wildfire-adapted building codes can save houses from a rain of embers from a fire front still two miles distant.

But alas, we’ve had other, bitter, harder lessons as well.

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative was supposed to save the forest. Backers promised to revive the timber industry, restore forest health, prevent megafires and revive rural economies. We would create a new, sustainable economy creating wood pellets, biofuel for power plants, jet fuel, furniture, high-tech plywood and who knows what else.

But as we detail in today’s series, the contractors flimflammed the Forest Service with glittery mirrors and baffling smoke. The project has fallen five years and 150,000 acres behind schedule. Even if it recovers its footing and begins whipping through 50,000 acres a year, it will take 20 years to thin one-quarter of the sapling-choked forest in which we live. By the time they finish the first 300,000 acres, they’ll have to start re-thinning — unless they put fire back in the system.

But every year will bring the threat of another Yarnell Hill Fire, another Rodeo-Chediski, another Wallow, another Dude Fire. Every year, the firefighters will stand on the deadly line between the flames and mindless, unprepared communities like Payson and Show Low and every little cluster of houses in the thick forest in between.

Even if they can thin 2 million acres, they’ll still have to return fire to the system. We’ll still need to make our communities safe from the approach of a wildfire.

So we come back to where we started.

A century of mismanagement has turned a fire-adapted forest into a death trap.

We’ve built our homes in the danger zone.

We’ve ignored the need for fire-adapted building codes. We haven’t insisted the politicians and the federal, state and local agencies take action. We’re gambling with all we own and the lives of those dearest to us with every fresh fire season that comes around without a wildland-urban interface building code, without a Firewise brush pickup program, without a functional forest restoration and thinning program.

The White Mountain Independent and the Payson Roundup have spent five months and tens of thousands of words explaining the problem and documenting the failure to act at all levels.

And the message of this series comes down to this. They can’t save us.

We have to do it.

Spark by Pia Wyer

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