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CHAPTER 14 - THEY DIED FOR OUR SINS BY PETER ALESHIRE

They died for our sins.

They died for our lives.

They died for our denial.

Every year, firefighters die in a flaming landscape unhinged by a century of mismanagement. This year, at least one firefighter died in California when a flaming branch dropped on him. We have big funerals, shake our heads and adjust to the steady patter of deaths in the ranks of the firefighters paying the ultimate price for decisions. We have tried to turn wild places into tree farms, built flammable homes in a sickly forest and ignored the piles of pine needles on our roofs.

When the Dude Fire’s 30,000-foot-high superheated plume of flame and debris collapsed and consumed six firefighters in 1990, we expressed horror, held funerals and rebuilt Bonita Creek Estates and Ellison Creek Estates. But we didn’t change the building codes.

Then the South Canyon Fire killed 14 firefighters in Colorado in 1994.

And the Thirtymile Fire killed four firefighters in Washington in 2001.

And the Hayman Fire in Colorado killed five firefighters in 2002.

And the Esperanza Fire killed five firefighters in California in 2006.

Every year, all across the West, people die in flame and terror, living in a once fire-adapted landscape now given to crown fires, desolation and mudflows off ravaged hillsides.

But the Yarnell Hill Fire finally caught our attention, swallowing up 19 brave, dedicated, intensely trained firefighters — shocking us for a moment out of our complacency. The “Catastrophe: A Forest in Flames” series grew out of a determination to honor those 19 firefighters by examining what we must do to avert such tragedies.

So here we offer an examination of the enormous expertise, vast rush of resources and accumulation of miscalculation that produced those deaths. Fighting wildfires now costs the nation $3 billion or more annually as we deploy 50,000 firefighters to confront violent fires that rampage across 10 million acres annually.

Once, fires raged all but unchecked across the landscape. The Peshtigo Fire in 1871 killed an astonishing 1,700 people in Wisconsin — consuming 1.2 million acres. Then the Big Burn in 1910 charred 3 million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington, killing 86 people — most of them firefighters. The Cloquet Fire in Minnesota killed between 400 and 500 people in 1918.

All those fires burned in drought-stricken, thickly wooded areas affected by logging, the spread of towns, sparks scattered by freight trains — all without the firefighting capacity to confront the roar of the flames. They didn’t much affect the fire-adapted forests of the West, where the regular pulse of low-intensity ground fires and deep adaptations to frequent drought had produced a fire-adapted ecosystem. In the West, far more acres burned — doing far less damage.

But the Big Burn prompted the federal government to declare war on fire, in large measure to prevent the flames from laying claim to millions of acres of saleable timber.

So for decades, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other state and federal agencies built a firefighting system of wondrous complexity and reach — what some researchers later called the “Firefighting Industrial Complex.”

The federal government built and maintained a network of 8,000 fire lookout towers throughout the nation and an army of firefighters supported by their own air force. The number of big fires plunged all across the country, especially in the West — as firefighters rushed to put out flames within 24 hours. The areas burned by wildfires dropped from about 30 million annually in the 1930s to about 2 million annually in the 1960s.

For 50 years, it worked wonderfully, aided by the effects of grazing that removed the fine fuels that had previously carried frequent, low-intensity ground fires.

But the temporary victory over the flames proved costly. Tree densities grew from 50 per acre to 1,000 per acre across millions of acres of Northern Arizona. In many places 100 tons of downed wood, brush and pine needles built up on every acre of ground.

Land managers eventually recognized the trap they’d built for themselves. The National Park Service in 1972 began letting more naturally set fires burn, dubbing them “prescribed natural fires.” The Forest Service also began pondering how to get fire back into the ecosystem.

Then came the Yellowstone fires of 1988, a host of small fires in June and July park managers let burn rather than rushing to suppress. Dry, windy conditions spun the fires out of control. They burned one-third of the park — drawing national attention and intense criticism. At one point 9,000 firefighters battled the blazes, which destroyed buildings and forced the closure of the park. The Yellowstone fires were among 72,000 fires reported that year.

Media accounts suggested the fires would “destroy” the iconic park — causing a backlash against “prescribed natural fires” across the country. Only much later did ecologists suggest that overall the fires probably helped the ecosystems in the park.

Fire ecologist and historian Stephen Pyne in his book “The Southwest: A Fire Survey,” charted the ebb and flow of firefighting efforts and fire management approaches in the Southwest, from the routine fire setting of the American Indians to the decades of suppression intended to save timber for the sawmills.

In the modern era, he charted the extraordinary difficulty of returning fire to its natural role in a deeply unnatural forest, with pine duff so thick on the ground even a low-intensity ground fire could cook the shallow roots of a 600-year-old ponderosa.

“The Southwest had become a miniature for the self-destructing Old West; its grasses eaten out, its springs dried up, its game gone, its indigenes diminished and sequestered, its fires lost,” Pyne wrote.

He said the view of fire as the enemy collapsed, replaced by a view of fire as natural and good.

“It became difficult to argue that natural fire did not belong in natural areas, and if good there, that its goodness should not be distributed widely through the proxy of prescribed burns. Very quickly, the intellectual opposition collapsed.”

He chronicled the various efforts to return fire to the system in places like Saguaro National Monument, Gila National Forest and the forests of the Mogollon Rim.

Some fire plans succeeded for decades, greatly diminishing the threat of major fires. But most eventually floundered politically when a controlled burn or a “natural prescribed fire” slipped the leash and raged out of control.

The Warm Fire on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in 2006 dealt a body blow to fire management programs when a shift in the weather turned small fires forest managers had loosely herded into a 58,000-acre inferno.

Pyne also chronicled the efforts of a band of Northern Arizona University researchers led by Wally Covington to advocate for a middle way, dubbed the Flagstaff Model. Covington and others insisted land managers must first dramatically thin the tree thickets before they could safely return fire to its ancient role in the system.

However, Covington found himself caught in the crossfire.

On one hand, Forest Service managers wanted to keep the massive fire suppression industry in place to ride herd on fires they decided to let burn.

On the other hand, environmentalists viewed the call for a reinvented timber industry as a back door effort to once more turn the forests into tree farms — the philosophy that had created the problem in the first place.

But as Covington remarked, “if you really want to destroy a ponderosa pine ecosystem, graze the hell out of it, suppress fire, cut old growth and then let wildfire run amok.”

Pyne concluded, “the classic preservationist solution is to leave the landscape to sort itself out, even if this takes decades and the outcome is unlike anything experienced before. When wildfires off the evolutionary charts are burning areas 100 times the size of the smallest legal wilderness, there may not be much resilience left.

“There is no way to keep out climate change, unhealthy biotas, invasive species, beetle and budworm swarms the size of states and the relocation of carbon from the Paleozoic to the Colorado Plateau there to burn again,” Pyne concluded. “To do nothing is to risk losing everything save the notion of the wild itself. To do something will guarantee errors.”

The Granite Mountain Hotshots and the hundreds of other firefighters who died in our names have underscored his point.

We can do nothing — and send the best among us forward to fight the flames.

And they’ll die.

Year after year.

They’ll die for our sins.

Contact the editor at paleshire@payson.com

Spark by Pia Wyer

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