Tough questions are being raised about the deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, part of the Prescott Fire Department, in the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona 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 not radioed promptly enough? Were good decisions trumped by nature? This deadly fire, like all the previous deadly fires, will be studied for years to come. But that’s not enough.
Three days after the deaths, the headquarters for the war on wildfires — the National Multi Agency Coordinating Group — declared a temporary “stand-down” for all wildland fire personnel. It’s become a standard response to such tragedy — a requirement that firefighters stop working 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. The cost is too high, and the battle plans have not kept pace with reality.
With the increasing severity and size of wildfires, again and again we hear from firefighters, “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 for people who spend their time in air-conditioned homes and offices. At the same time, millions more houses are exposed to wildfires than when the government began the war decades ago. We send tens of thousands of young men and women out on the fire lines each year with the implied understanding that they will fight harder, and take greater risks, when homes are threatened. That’s what the Yarnell firefighters were doing — trying to protect houses.
Even with all the personnel, equipment and dollars we hurl at the flames — more than $3 billion per year in federal spending alone, on average since 2002, according to the Congressional Research Service — we cannot catch up to the problem. Safety practices have improved, but each year in rough numbers between eight and 30 wildland firefighters are killed in the war, including 14 on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain in 1994 and 13 in Montana’s Mann Gulch in 1949. It’s a terrible toll on the families and the close-knit firefighting community, and no one would be surprised if the toll rises. And regardless of those numbers, there’s a principle involved: Homeowners need to take more responsibility.
We need to encourage firefighters to exercise greater caution, even when buildings are at risk. Let the fires burn if firefighters judge it too risky to engage, and assure them that the nation will have their backs when the inevitable complaints pour in. Tell homeowners that we can no longer commit to saving their homes in extreme conditions. That would put more pressure on them to make their homes fire-resistant, and it would likely discourage future homebuilding in the most flammable areas. If people choose to live there, let them and their insurance companies accept the consequences.
The decisions about when to fight, and when not to, should be made by the firefighters themselves, from the ones on the front lines to the incident commanders to the top brass who set strategy. Most fires would still be fought, most houses saved, but the most extreme conditions — the record heat and drought, the most challenging winds and topography — would result in a shout: Stand down!
A friend just wrote me about a time she tried to stand down in extremely risky conditions: “I had a 20-person interagency crew in Idaho. ... 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 much 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 is 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.
John N. Maclean is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). His most recent book is ‘The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57,’ published last January.