The Black Forest fire in Colorado killed two people and wiped out 511 houses. Arizona’s Yarnell Hill fire immolated a crew of 19 firefighters. California’s Rim fire in and around Yosemite National Park has become the third-largest blaze in state history. And now, new wildfires are relocating the threats from San Francisco’s Sierra Nevada reservoir to its exurbs at Mount Diablo.
These blazes illustrate the major challenges of the American fire scene: Black Forest is a textbook example of fires that burn where houses and natural fuels intermingle dangerously. Yarnell Hill tragically highlights the limits of fighting fires and the costs of doing so. And the Rim fire is an unhinged wildland scene, where landscapes with once-manageable fires have turned feral.
These are not new problems. The vulnerability of its workforce has haunted the fire community since the Big Blowup of 1910 overran the northern Rockies and killed 78 firefighters. Concern over fire’s removal — from wildlands and agricultural areas that traditionally relied on routine burning — inspired an intellectual revolution that sought to replace fire repression with fire management, even restoration. Policy reforms came to the National Park Service in 1968 and the Forest Service 10 years later. Still, this was a revolution from above; the hard slog of translating ideas into programs came fitfully. The Yellowstone fires that mesmerized the media for much of the summer of 1988 revealed the difficulties of translating policy into practice.
By then the campaign to create a pluralism of fire programs had stalled. By the time it rebooted after the 1994 season, the climate had flipped from soggy to droughty, the politics had switched from bipartisan reforms to partisan attempts to roll them back, the workforce had shrunk and begun privatizing, and sprawl had sparked a new kind of fire and revived suppression as a politically safe stance. As a result, we’ve been chasing flames ever since — at greater costs and with less effect. There is no reason to believe we will, in the near future, get ahead of the problems.
Take those burning houses. As early as 1986, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Fire Protection Association launched an initiative to protect homes in fire-prone areas. Today, the issue is no longer just ill-sited McMansions but a giant retrofit for 30 years of irrationally exuberant sprawl. The National Association of State Foresters estimates that more than 72,000 communities are at risk and only 20 percent have a plan for protection.
Retrofitting up to a third of America’s housing is a challenge as daunting as rebuilding its crumbling bridges. It means not only replacing combustible roofs but enacting building codes, zoning reform, fire taxes and other infringements on private property. Meanwhile, climate change may flip the script of people constructing houses where fires are, with fires instead coming to where houses are. Some 83 percent of the communities at risk are in the Southeast; the 2011 blowup in Bastrop, Tex., may show what will happen if the Western fire scene moves east.