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.
Crystal Kolden studies wildfire as a function of human and climatic influences. After starting her career as a wildland firefighter in northern California, she is now a professor of Pyrogeography at the University of Idaho.