Here is one recipe for disaster. It begins with hundreds of thousands of people descending on the western US for the August 21st event, cramming into a narrow, 70-mile wide band called the Path of Totality, looking for places to watch that ensure the highest probably of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. According to a cloud analysis by my colleagues, the interior west, including eastern Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming offer the best bet for cloud-free viewing. Most of these people are from the eastern US, the coastal regions, or Europe, and have never been to the area we refer to as the Intermountain West.
This region is flyover country for a reason. The path of totality over these remote areas crosses relatively few roads, with even fewer of them paved. Much of it is public land, managed by the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the states. Visitors will trickle in over several days, filling every bed and campground available, and then spilling into the wildlands to pitch tents and park cars wherever they can find room. They will ignore campfire bans and build fires on the open ground. Some will fail to put those fires dead out. These visitors are from places where wildfires are not a concern, and they don’t know how quickly one can start and grow.
Grasses and other vegetation will be waving serenely nearby, completely dry and dead and just waiting for an errant campfire spark or a hot carburetor. After a wet winter, many of these fuels are taller and denser than they have been in years. These remote areas usually see fire starts from dry lightning; this year, they may see more human ignitions on one weekend than they have over the last century.
Firefighters know it is coming. Every fire protection unit in the West is waiting tensely for August 21st, knowing that the number of humans and potential ignitions is unbalancing a protection equation in a way that means they can’t win. There aren’t enough firefighters, and many of them are already exhausted from battling fires throughout the west this summer. There isn’t enough equipment, after years of downsizing and outsourcing and reducing the aerial firefighting fleet. Most important, however, it’s just too hot and dry, the product of a changing climate that has yielded record-breaking heat waves nearly every year.
August 21st holds a special place in firefighting history. It is the date of the Big Blowup of 1910, when 87 people died across Idaho and Montana when massive winds fanned thousands of tiny fires in tinder dry forests (also after a wet, snowy winter). Primitive firefighting was no match for the flames, and most of the fatalities were firefighters caught in the inferno. Multiple towns were wiped completely off the map, and the then-booming metropolis of Wallace, Idaho, was evacuated among harrowing conditions that saw 2/3 of the town burn down.
As a fire scientist, I have been asked many times over the years if the Big Burn of 1910 could happened again; if we could see that many fatalities all at once. My answer, until this year, was always “probably not.”
In 2017, however, I fear the worst. I fear hundred to thousands of tiny fires started by eclipse-watchers being blown up by dry, hot winds that are common in the west this time of year. I fear people panicking and trying to evacuate, then getting into accidents that block narrow, single-lane mountain and rangeland roads. I fear hundreds of people trapped in their cars, overtaken by flames, and no way to rescue them or suppression resources to save them. I fear we will finally see the wildfire that kills over 100 people, or many, many more.
In short, I fear a disaster; an eclipse apocalypse. I really hope I’m wrong.
Horrible. Devastating. Disaster. Destruction. A monster.
These are all words regularly used to describe wildfires. In newspapers, on television, by broadcasters, by homeowners, and (most vocally) by politicians. Last week, a YouTube video of a family's harrowing nighttime escape from their home during the Valley Fire in California went viral. Smoke swirling in the dark, embers glowing on the hillside and blowing across the road, power lines swooping down in low arcs across the roadway, and the occasional ball of orange light that was obviously someone's home engulfed in flames all combined for an eerie effect that any Hollywood special effects specialist would be hard-pressed to replicate. The comments on the video and news sites described it as "Hell on Earth." Well, not really.
Here's what I saw through the lens of a fire scientist:
1. Fire behavior that was actually fairly moderate. Throughout the video, you can occasionally see the shadows of some taller pine tree against the backlit sky. None of these trees were on fire, and the mass of the canopy tells me they hadn't burned up yet. Most of the fire was on the ground, burning up grass and the low hanging oak trees that dot the valleys in this part of California. If the fire had been in the crowns and running, the videographers might not be alive to tell the tale. For an example of what a running crown fire looks like, here is a video taken by a camera set up by our research team back in 2003 in Montana, on the Black Mountain 2 Fire. At the time, I worked for the USFS Fire Behavior Assessment Team, and we set up equipment ahead of advancing flames Twister-style (although not quite so dramatic). You can tell that fire is incredibly powerful based on the roar (the sound of oxygen being sucked in at a very high rate) and the fire whirls - the fire was creating its own microweather.
2. The hottest burning elements of the landscape were the homes. Yes, the hillsides were glowing, but they are mostly covered with grass and leaves, which burns quickly and at lower temperatures. The balls of flame were square and stationary, indicating they were houses or other man-made structures. Tree don't burn like that. I don't know what the homeowners around Anderson Springs had done to make their homes more resistant to wildfire. Maybe they had implemented all the FireWise recommendations, like using fire-resistant roofing and siding materials, creating an area completely clear of vegetation in a 30-foot ring around their home and then thinning vegetation for 100 feet beyond that, and making sure woodpiles were set far away from the main structure. Maybe they did all that and their home still burned. But statistics suggest that most hadn't done those things, making their homes a roman candle waiting to be lit. Social science research on this topic has found that most homeowners in fire-prone areas are either in denial that they will ever see a wildfire, or they simply don't translate this understanding into effort. They truly believe firefighters will save their home. The owner of the Valley Fire escape video told one news agency that there was no aerial support, no firefighting effort at all. In a year when too many firefighters have already been killed trying to protect homes, this sort of statement makes me angry. It's just a house. And there was no aerial support because it was NIGHT, and it is incredibly unsafe for aerial support to try and do their already extremely dangerous job at night, when it is even tougher to see. Don't misplace a lack of preparedness on fire fighters.
3. Next year, the vegetation burned by the Valley Fire will regrow green and healthy. Most of the oaks in this part of California are fire-sprouters, meaning that even though they look black and dead now, within a few weeks, new leaves will uncurl from their trunks and the tree will live on. Grasses will regrow from roots, and be excellent forage for wildlife. An ecosystem that evolved with frequent wildfire will rebound just fine.
In a couple of years, the only evidence that there was a large wildfire here will be some blackened tree stems, some cat faces on trunks, a bunch of brand new homes, and whatever remains of the homes not rebuilt. There will be memorials to the lives lost -- civilians who made tragic choices not to leave that we are hard-pressed to understand.
What I saw in that video was fire doing what it has ALWAYS done, particularly in this landscape: burn flammable vegetation that has evolved to burn as part of a regeneration and propagation evolutionary strategy. To me, it was normal, and at some points, an impressive demonstration of nature. The only thing horrendous and awful were the homes in flames, but that had little to do with the fire, and everything to do with homeowner choices. When will we finally begin to stop demonizing fire and start demonizing the homeowners who simply choose to ignore that they live in a fire-prone landscape? It's time to stop ignoring science and start taking responsibility.
Another day at PL5 for the National Interagency Coordination Center, which makes 23 days consecutive in 2015 at either PL4 or PL5. This may feel like a long time to those of us dealing with fires in our region (and in my case, several days in a row of being smoked in), it's actually still below the 10-year average and the long-term average (see figure above from NIFC). While most media and other resources tend to focus on either number of fires or total area burned, I tend to find that Preparedness Levels are a better measure of how "bad" fire season is. Why?
Number of fires is rarely a good indicator of fire season strength because it is so dependent upon highly variable human and lightning ignitions. Additionally, fire suppression is able to extinguish 99% of all ignitions. Fire size, or area burned, is also problematic because many of the largest fires occur in very remote areas and are often grassland or shrubland fires that can scorch 50,000 or even 100,000 acres in a single windy day. While these fires definitely have negative impacts, killing cattle and rendering rangelands un-grazeable for several years, they don't usually cost as much per acre to suppress because they impact fewer homes and less infrastructure.
Forest fires and fires primarily burning in the Wildland Urban-Interface require the most resources to fight, making them the most expensive per acre in terms of suppression costs. These fires become first priority for suppression resources because lives and homes are at risk. When enough of these types of fires are burning with extreme fire behavior at the same time, a larger proportion of national firefighting resources are committed to trying to stop them. Nationally, PL4 and PL5 are primarily reached when multiple Geographic Areas (GACCs) have multiple large fires that threaten homes and critical infrastructure. Today, for example, there are 4 GACCs at PL5 for the individual GACCs (Northwest, Northern Rockies, Northern California, and Great Basin), and the first three have all been at PL5 much of the month. So the national PL level is 5 as well.
2002 holds the current record (since 1990) in terms of number of days at PL4 or 5, due to an early fire season with large incidents in both the Southwest and the Rocky Mountains (including the Hayman Fire in Colorado). For NIFC to break that record this year, fire season in the west would have to stay severe well into September, with little to no rain and above normal temperatures. It is possible, but let's hope that's not the case.
This morning I am sitting in my living room, looking out my window to what can only be described as a toxic haze. The Air Quality Index that measures PM2.5 (particles that are big enough to negatively impact your lungs) is at 179 in Moscow, Idaho, right now. That is in the unhealthy range, and will be putting a damper on my plans to work outside in the yard today. More important to me, however, it means my 4-month old twin sons won't be going outside at all. Infants are particularly sensitive to smoke because their lungs are still developing, so today our windows will stay closed, and our daily walk is cancelled.
One of the challenges to wildfire acceptance is smoke. We have a natural aversion to smoke; understandably, our lungs suggest to our brains that we probably shouldn't breathe the toxic mix that includes carbon monoxide, ozone, and particulates. Public support for allowing some wildfires to burn naturally goes right out the window when it results in their own communities being socked in. If we had our way, we would never have to experience smoky air, except when roasting marshmallows around a campfire.
Unfortunately, smoke is a reality of living in western states. Much of the western US is covered by flammable vegetation in the form of forests and shrublands; this same vegetation is what many of us love about living in the West. We also experience dry summers, as climatologically, most of our precipitation comes during the winter months. This combination of vegetation and dry weather makes the West susceptible to wildfire every year, but some years are much worse than others due to even hotter and drier conditions, including long-term drought. The final ingredient for fire, of course, is ignition, and we have plenty of ignitions in the West due to dry lightning thunderstorms that pass through regularly in the summer.
Wildfire has occurred in the Western US for much longer than humans have been recording it; it has shaped this landscape over the millenia. Despite our very best efforts over the last century to try and stop it from spreading, wildfires continue to do exactly what they have always done: burn any fuel in their path. This includes the vegetation that has always burned, but now it also includes our homes and the infrastructure that supports modern civilization. All of this burning produces an enormous quantity of smoke and poor air quality, which is one of the primary reasons we fight fires (along with protecting homes and resources, of course).
Not ever seeing smoke is simply not an option. We cannot stop wildfires in the West; the last century of trying to do so has taught us it is impossible, and very, very expensive to keep trying. The question for all of us who live in the West is not whether we want smoke at all, but, rather, how do we want it? During wildfire season, we have no control over when smoke occurs and how much of it it produced. If many large wildfires are burning throughout a region simultaneously, and a high pressure ridge sets up (as often happens during summer in the temperate latitudes), we could have heavy smoke and poor air quality for days or even weeks on end. We wait impatiently for a storm to come in and blow all the smoke out. We have no control over anything, and the people most sensitive smoke, including the elderly, children, asthmatics, and others, are sitting ducks, desperate for relief.
But what if there was an alternative? What if we could dictate when and how much smoke we would receive? Instead of getting it all at once during a particularly bad fire year (which is going to become more frequent according to the latest research and model projections), we could be getting our smoke in smaller doses, spread out across the year, and at lower PM2.5 and PM10 levels. We could plan for when the smoke will occur by not scheduling outdoor activities. The most sensitive lung owners could plan to get out of town when the smoke is forecast. Wouldn't that be great?
We already have that option. It's called Prescribed Fire. Federal and state land management agencies use prescribed fire to remove vegetation at times when fires won't rage out of control. They primarily set prescribed fires in spring and fall, when transitional weather patterns bring winds every few days that help clear smoke out quickly. They also notify the public in advance, so that those who are most affected by smoke can take precautions.
The public tends to dislike prescribed fire because they see it as intentional smoke. And remember, our bodies are averse to smoke. But we need to overcome this aversion and use our brains to recognize that the smoke that comes with prescribed fires is far preferable to the smoke that comes with wildfires. There's less of it, it's more controlled, and you can plan around it. The more prescribed fire smoke we are willing to put up with the less wildfire smoke we will have to deal with down the road.
Think of it this way: if I told you I would give you ten dollars per day for the next ten years (a total of $36,520 over the 10-year period), OR at some point in the next 10 years, on one day (which you won't know in advance), I will give you $36,520 dollars all at once, which option would you choose? Small increments you can plan on, or a lump sum you can't? That's the choice between prescribed fire and wildfire.
If you live in the West, you're going to get smoke. The question we need to grapple with is: how do you want it?
The cemetery in St. Maries, Idaho, is full of the ghosts of 1910. That summer, lightning and the railroads ignited hundreds of small wildfires across the tinder-dry forests of the northwest. Without the benefit of the modern firefighting machine, the fires continued to burn, slowly gaining in size. But on August 20 and 21, a strong dry cold front hit the region, bringing winds that were estimated to exceed 60 miles an hour in places. These winds fanned the flames into a conflagration, and the fires blew up. 85 men were killed, and it is estimated that over 3 million acres burned. Many of the heroes and victims are buried in the cemetery at St. Maries where a memorial also stands, a reminder of how powerless we truly are against wildfires.
In the century since the Great Fires of 1910, science, technology, and ecology have taught us a few things about wildfire. We now understand that wildfire is a critical component of most western ecosystems, crucial to renewing grasslands and thinning forests to keep them healthy. We also understand that no matter how many men and women are sent to fight it, our best efforts will never be able to stop wildfire from occurring. A century of fire suppression taught us that we can also make the problem worse by increasing the density of trees and vegetation through fire exclusion, only to ultimately see them burn even hotter when a fire finally does occur.
We have also expanded human settlement throughout the rural west over the last 100 years, building homes and communities in the mountains, where the forests are beautiful and peaceful, a welcome respite from the cities. Until they ignite.
Today, many of our wildland fires are fought not because they threaten lives (though there are quite a few of those), but because they threaten homes. Wildfire is usually slow enough moving and provides enough warning for people to evacuate; only a handful of civilians have been killed by wildfires in the last half-century.
Firefighters have not been so lucky. Each year between one and three dozen wildland firefighters are killed in the line of duty. They have heart attacks, crash in aircraft, are struck by falling trees, and are overrun by advancing flames. Rather than saving lives, most of the time wildland firefighters are killed trying to protect inanimate things that can be rebuilt or regrow: homes, outbuildings, trees, shrubs, and grass. Lost lives cannot be reclaimed. Everything else can. So why are fire fighters still dying trying to save homes?
On the 105th anniversary of the Big Blowup of 1910, a dry cold front that promises strong winds is again advancing on the northwest. Forests and rangelands are tinder dry on the back of a year-long drought and the hottest summer on record so far. Hundreds of fires, small and large, are already burning and promise to test containment lines and the firefighters trying to hold them.
The similarities to 1910 are eerie.
When the winds hit, I hope that fire bosses everywhere remember 1910. I hope they pull their crews off the line, and wait until the blow-up is over to re-engage with the fire. I hope that across the region, every firefighter will survive the day, and that we will have learned something from our past. If we haven’t, the deceased will have died in vain.
But I also hope that the public begins to accept that trees, shrubs, and homes are not worth the lives of our firefighters. That because we choose to live in forests that have always burned and will continue to do so, we must learn to live with wildfire, even if it means rebuilding. I hope that more homeowners will build homes that are fire-resistant, and thin the vegetation to create what we call “defensible space,” instead of asking firefighters to risk their lives for possessions and sticks.
The Dutch have slowly evolved their perspective on flooding over the centuries. Today, instead of trying to keep the water out and avoid flooding at any cost, they are re-engineering their cities to let the water in. They are living with floods and minimizing losses through innovative approaches, like building parks and sport courts in low-lying areas that are intentionally allowed to flood. We need to take the same approach in the U.S., by re-engineering ourselves to live with fire instead of trying to avoid it. It’s the only way to end the cycle of burning and needless firefighter fatalities, particularly in and era of climate change.
A photographer captured a sign that one homeowner in Washington left on his gate: “Firefighters. This is just a house – please stay safe.”
If only every homeowner in the fire-prone west had that mentality. No house is worth a life. It’s time to learn to live with wildfire.