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.