When Fighting Wildfires Costs Too Much

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Tough questions are being raised about the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots in Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30. They were physically fit, highly trained young men, and they deployed emergency tent-like "shelters" in hellish temperatures that likely topped 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Burns and suffocation killed them, but were mistakes and bad policy also at fault?

Could the fire have been tackled earlier, when it was smaller and easier to control? Were weather reports of squirrely monsoon winds radioed promptly enough? Did the firefighters make good decisions that were trumped by nature? This deadly fire will be studied for years to come, like all the previous deadly fires.

But that's not enough.

Three days after the hotshots died, the headquarters for the war on wildfires—in bureaucratic lingo, the National Multi Agency Coordinating Group—declared a temporary "stand down" and "Operational Pause in Remembrance" for all U.S. wildland fire personnel. It's become a standard response after deaths—a requirement that firefighters stop work for a few minutes to mourn and reflect. That's also not enough.

It's time for a more lasting and meaningful stand-down in this war, which mostly rages in the West. The cost in lives and treasure is just too high, and the battle has lost its focus; the national vision for fighting wildland fire has not kept up with reality.

As wildfires grow in size and severity, driven by climate change and other factors, we send tens of thousands of young men and women out every year with the implicit understanding that they will fight harder, and take greater risks, when homes are threatened. And millions more houses are threatened than ever before. Recent surveys show that about 9 percent of the nation's land area, containing 39 percent of all houses—44.8 million units—is now part of the flammable wildland-urban interface. That's what the Yarnell firefighters were doing—protecting houses.

We need to encourage firefighters to exercise more caution, even when homes are at stake. Let the fires that are riskiest for firefighters burn. And assure the firefighters that the nation will have their backs when the inevitable complaints pour in.

We have entered a new world of wildland fire, and it's going to get worse. It's hotter and drier; fire seasons begin earlier and last longer. Again and again, we hear firefighters say, as they did after the Arizona deaths, "These are the most extreme fire conditions we've ever seen." For those on the fire lines, climate change is a visible reality, not a Sunday morning talk-show debate by people who spend their time in air-conditioned homes and offices.

Even with everything we hurl at the flames, Western states keep setting new records for homes lost and acreage burned. The federal government alone, not counting the state governments and other entities, has spent more than $3 billion per year on this war, on average since 2002, according to the Congressional Research Service. The U.S. Forest Service has tilted its budget toward preparedness and suppression, and the president's 2014 budget calls for a 27 percent increase in the firefighting funding.

Meanwhile, budgets for fuels reduction—fire prevention—are cut, robbing the future to pay for the present. In the 2014 budget, for instance, fuels-reduction programs take a 37 percent hit, down to $201 million. The funding shift also reduces support for campground services, research projects, trail maintenance and other worthy—and popular—endeavors.

The prescribed burning and forest-thinning projects that fit within the budget are often stymied by environmental activists and locals complaining about smoke. Or severe fire risk interferes, as the prescribed-burning season grows ever shorter. Government agencies cannot catch up to the problem: There isn't enough money or political will.

Even though safety practices have improved, each year between eight and 30 wildland firefighters are killed in the war (download one report here and another here covering a longer period.) It might not sound like a large number, but it takes a terrible toll in the families and the close-knit firefighting community. No one would be surprised if the toll rises. And regardless of the numbers, there's a principle of homeowners taking responsibility.

It's great that many homeowners are trying to make their homes more fire-resistant, but we need to tell them, we can no longer commit to saving their homes if their efforts fall short. They chose to live out there, and they—and their insurance companies—must accept the consequences. We must also urge our politicians to accept reality when more homes are lost. The courts should take extreme conditions into account, too, when homeowners file lawsuits charging more should have been done to save their property.

The decisions about when to fight, and when not to, should be made by the firefighters, on the front lines as well as the incident commanders and the top brass who set strategy. Of course, most fires would still be fought, most houses saved, and heroic action would still be taken to save human life. But when there are extreme conditions—record heat and drought, the most challenging winds and topography, all factors in previous deadly fires like Colorado's Storm King Mountain in 1994 (14 killed), Montana's 1949 Mann Gulch (13 killed) and now Yarnell Hill—it would become a shout: Stand down!

A friend just wrote me about the time she tried to stand down: "About a month after Storm King, I had a 20-person interagency crew in Idaho. At a briefing in the morning I refused my crew's assignment and tried to reason why: same set up as Mann Gulch, Storm King, et cetera. I was told, 'Fine, we'll have another crew take it.' I very boldly said, 'Either way, it's 20 dead people.'" Her stand triggered a long discussion and a safer way was found. Every firefighter like her who just says "No" needs support from the fire community and the public.

My family has a northwestern Montana cabin that was nearly destroyed by wildfire in 2007. The cabin was built by my grandfather and his sons and has been a source of joy for five generations, but it's not worth the life of a single firefighter. I told my Forest Service district ranger that no firefighters should defend it. Fortunately, a wind change saved us in 2007. If the woods around here blaze up again this year, I am prepared to let the cabin go. Consider it the most effective insurance I can buy for the fire crews

This essay first appeared in High Country News.