How the West Was Burnt

“Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died…, those who loved them forever questioning “this unnecessary death,” and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one.”   ― Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Darrell Willis prayed desperately. He called his wife, and then the head of the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. They prayed too.

In the background, the radio crackled pleadingly: “Are you there Granite Mountain? Are you there Granite Mountain?” Over and over, but there came no answer.

Courtesy, Terry Tomkins, U.S. Forest Service

Courtesy Terry Tomkins, U.S. Forest Service

Minutes before, one of nineteen young Granite Mountain Hotshots working a fire on nearby Yarnell Hill had radioed Willis, the Prescott Wildlands Fire Chief, to report that they were being overrun by flames, and were deploying their emergency fire shelters, lightweight cocoons used as a last resort by wildlands fire fighters.

Almost instantly, the eyes of the entire country were riveted on Prescott, now the scene of the most deadly wildfire disaster in several generations. What had begun the day as a routine 15-acre fire had grown to 200 hundred acres. By late afternoon, a sudden thunderstorm had shifted the winds nearly 180 degrees, sending a wall of flame into Yarnell, and over the thin line of exhausted men fighting to contain it.

Over the three weeks since the tragedy, we have mourned and prayed for the fallen, and for the nineteen families left to wipe away their tears and carry on without fathers, brothers and sons.  And finally, we have begun to ask: Why did this happen? Why were these nineteen precious lives cut short in their youth?

Helmets and boots of 19 who died on Yarnell Hill

Helmets and gear of the nineteen who died on Yarnell Hill

Of course, there are the proximate answers. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous calling. Freak storms can always cause fires to behave erratically. Maybe this-or-that measure could have reduced the danger. But what about the spike in wildfires engulfing the West these days? What could explain the almost-daily incidence of forest fires on the national news? Isn’t it time to take a serious look at the reasons for these events? 

Most of us have a vague sense that forest fires are always with us. Snowpack melts, rains fail, lightning strikes, and fires burn. When I was young, the typical year saw around 25-35 large Western fires – each one covering at least 1,000 acres. Yet, what defines a “typical” wildfire year in the West is changing. In the past 40 years, rising spring and summer temperatures, along with shrinking winter snowpack, have increased the risk of wildfires in most parts of the West. Today, the typical year sees more than 100 large fires – a three-fold increase from my younger days.

But maybe this is just a blip? Some sort of “natural variability” as fire seasons come and go? Well, it turns out that the U.S. Forest Service keeps very good records on Western states. Researchers at Climate Central have analyzed their data over the last 42 years, and produced a report with some startling findings. Compared to the average year in the 1970’s, in the past decade there were:

  • Seven times more fires greater than 10,000 acres each year;
  • Nearly five times more fires larger than 25,000 acres each year; and
  • More than twice as many fires over 1,000 acres each year, with an average of more than 100 per year from 2002 through 2011, compared with less than 50 during the 1970’s.

Last year alone, 9.3 million acres of timberland burned in the U.S., an area about the size of Vermont and Connecticut, combined. And north of the border, Canada has suffered epic wildfires. Last week, Northern Quebec was engulfed in a 1.9 million-acre fire that rained ashes as far away as Northern Europe. This single fire destroyed an area larger than all U.S. fires this year to date combined, and ranks as Canada’s second largest on record.  More alarming, Canadian researchers report that wildfire frequency in the vast sub-arctic boreal forests circling the top of the globe is now greater than at any time in the last 10,000 years.

What’s causing all this? The answer, for once, is pretty simple:

  • Fire seasons are getting longer year-by-year than ever before;
  • Spring and summer temperatures are now hotter than they have ever been on record; and
  • Spring snowmelt is coming earlier, leaving less summer moisture to reduce fire risk.

The trends in the annual burn season in the West are alarming. According to Forest Service records, in the 1970’s the first wildfires would break out about mid-May, with the last one starting in mid-October. On average, that was a fire season of about 150 days. But by the last decade, the burn season had tacked on another 80 days. Almost three months of extra burning time, and counting.


Courtesy Climate Central

Driving this long fire season are the two remaining dynamics: Western spring temperatures are hotter, and springtime snowpack is smaller. In the 1970’s spring temperatures in the West averaged 48 degrees Fahrenheit. By the last decade, that had shot up to 50 degrees. As a result, the snow has melted faster. Over the same period, springtime snow/water equivalent has fallen by almost two inches, from 17.4” to 15.6”.

This is all science, but it’s not rocket science. Warmer springs make for earlier spring snowmelt. Less summer snowmelt means dryer wildlands. Dry forests burn more readily. Burning forests kill our young men. And longer burn seasons will inevitably kill more and more of them.

Hotter temperatures, less snowpack, and more fires

Hotter temperatures, less snowpack, and more fires. Courtesy Climate Central

Now, if wildfires have doubled, tripled or worse with the climatic changes seen over the last forty years, what can we expect from the future? Well, so far, the science community has been pretty accurate in its assessments. In its 2007 assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fingered North America as a prime candidate for more wildfires, stating with “very high confidence” that wildfires and insect outbreaks (like the devastating pine bark beetle) “are likely to intensify in a warmer future with drier soils.” They specifically warn us to look for even longer burn seasons, and a further doubling of burned forest area in Canada.

Even more alarming, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences projects that for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit of temperature increase, the size of the area burned in the Western U.S. could increase two to four times. According to the IPCC, summer temperatures in North America are expected to increase by at least 3.6 degrees this century, and perhaps as much as 9.0 degrees. The math is chilling: If we use 2012 as a burn-season baseline, then at the low end, our grandchildren could expect to lose land the size of California, Texas or Alaska every year, if that’s even possible. The high end is beyond imagining.

So in the wake of our most recent national fire tragedy, let us honor the brave men and women who have sacrificed to protect our Western lands, and their fellow citizens, from raging wildfires. But there are times when you can do something more. Because unless we are prepared to see these tragedies as commonplace nightly news stories, we simply must demand that our leaders get serious about the unfolding tragedy of climate change. It’s not that hard to make your congressional representative hear you out on this. Just click here, follow the link, and then speak your mind.

J. Elwood

“Unless we are willing to escape into sentimentality or fantasy, often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts.”
― Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

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