Tom Haney set out from Virginia’s Eastern Shore this weekend to prove once again that he belongs in an elite cadre of firefighters called smoke jumpers.
He pointed an old Nissan pickup truck toward Montana and drove. There, at a U.S. Forest Service training camp in Missoula, the seven-year veteran will run through dozens of push-ups, pull-ups and drills that show he hasn’t forgotten how to parachute over trees since his release from duty six months ago.
Haney said he has no worries. The experience of jumping toward flames is hard-wired in his brain. “It’s kind of nerve-racking,” he said by cellphone Friday as he drove through Indiana. “You’re looking out the window of the plane, staring at the flames. You do the jump. You want to try to panic a little bit, but you follow your training, how to position your feet and hands when you jump out of the plane.”
This year Haney and the 10,000 firefighters who work for the Forest Service must be especially sharp. A fourth year of drought has primed the West for monster burns, and the fire season is expected to be one of the worst on record.
California’s wildfire season is two months longer than it was in 2000, starting in mid-March and lasting until November.
“It’s a witch’s brew,” Tom Harbour, the national fire and aviation director for the service, said of the challenges his firefighters face.
In spite of the lengthened fire season and the risk, public officials continue to allow developers to build businesses and homes on the edge of virgin forest.
Two million homes bump against wildlands in the West, the majority in two states with the highest risk, Washington and California, according to Headwaters Economics, an independent nonprofit group that studies wildfire prevention.
The value of properties at a moderate to high risk of being engulfed is about $500 billion dollars, according to CoreLogic, a company that studies real estate economics. When fires break out, firefighters are deployed to protect both lives and property.
“The risk keeps increasing. I’m putting firefighters in harm’s way,” Harbour said. “The drought makes it worse. We forecast significant fire danger out West.”
Haney said the call to a fire starts with the blast of a siren for smoke jumpers. “It’s a very intense moment. You take off running. You get your gear on,” he said — 85 pounds, strapped to his back. “When you’re in the air, headed to the fire, it’s kind of nerve-racking. I’ve been in situations when the weather is nice and it’s scary, and the weather is not nice and it’s not scary.”
Lindsay Gilman is part of another cadre of Forest Service firefighters called Hotshots who work on the ground. They work 16 hour-days, seven days a week, and can be flown anyplace where fire is starting to get out of hand.
Her crew of 20 face fires with 45 pounds of equipment each to dig pits and remove brush to slow fires. They carry small foil tents called shelters that provide some heat and fire protection if they get trapped, but the shelters can’t stand up to long exposure to intense heat. Nineteen Hotshots sought refuge in these tents when a fire in Yarnell, Ariz., overtook and killed them.
“It’s hot. It’s miserable. If you’re new to it, it’s pretty chaotic,” Gilman said. “Lots of aircraft are overhead. The flames are big, and when the fires are cranking, it sounds like a train. You just kind of have to keep your cool and remember where you’re going if something gets crazy.”
Removing dead and dying brush from a fire’s path is key to sapping its strength. Urban planners and researchers in Colorado and Arizona are trying to convince public officials that prevention — getting rid of tinder before fires start — is far more important than they seem to realize.
In Summit County, Colo., officials give financial assistance to property owners who clear limbs and brush. The county sends a wood chipper to neighborhoods free of charge. so residents aren’t forced to haul the debris away. A contractor takes the chips to a biofuel plant that converts them to energy.
The $500,000 program has been “wildly successful,” said Jim Curnutte, the county’s community development director.
Now the county is considering incentives for developers who build near forests to include fire breaks in their designs, Curnette said. They can be bike paths, parking lots or golf courses that rob fires of fuel before they reach homes and businesses.
In Sedona, Ariz., last year, officials watched as a fire that burned 20,000 acres climbed out of Oak Creek Canyon and moved toward Flagstaff. It was a trap. The land had been cleared of fuel, and the fire lost momentum.
“We know [treatments] work because we have years of research into how they change fire behavior and improve the environment,” said Diane Vosick, a director at the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.
Vosick said officials learned from a 2010 fire that burned 15,000 acres and left the land bare. When an unprecedented rainstorm struck, floodwaters rolled into town with no forest to soak it up. The damage was at least $133 million. Treating the land at $1,000 an acre could have saved $13 million in damage.
The Forest Service has a program specifically for removing debris, but virtually every year its budget is raided because of the way Congress funds the agency.
For years, Congress has resisted calls to change its outdated formula for funding fire suppression. Lawmakers appropriate about a billion dollars annually for wildfires based on the average cost of battling them since 2005, but the size of the fires and cost of fighting them have outpaced the average.
In an annual ritual, the Forest Service drains the fire-suppression budget with months remaining in the fire season. To keep paying firefighters and providing equipment, the service raids the funds of programs meant to prevent wildfires and provide safe habitat for wildlife.
To avoid a crisis, Congress steps in with emergency funding to replenish both the suppression and prevention budgets. But months that could have been spent clearing debris are lost.
“We’ve got 58 million acres of land in the national forests we’d like to reduce risk on,” Harbour said. “We’re working on two to three million acres a year.”
In his 2016 budget, President Obama offered a proposal to provide $800 million to suppress most fires and put other funds in a special account for the 2 percent of the most complex, costly wildfires. Legislation to support that proposal is slowly working its way through the House and Senate, according to the Forest Service.
But even if any of these long-shot bills pass a divided Congress, they won’t affect most of the 2015 fire season.
Already this year, California has experienced double the number of wildfires that struck last year, said a spokesman for the state fire agency, Cal Fire, and 12 million dead trees killed by drought stand as fuel for huge infernos called megafires.
The recent arrest in Fresno of a man suspected of setting 27 fires — including several in the past few weeks — was a troubling reminder of the state’s danger. Lightning sets a lot of wildfires, but the overwhelming majority are caused by humans who use power tools that spark, set campfires they fail to control and on rare occasions, turn to arson.
All the land needs is one careless flicker of fire. Snowpack that replenishes rivers and reservoirs in California hit zero for the first time in recorded history and reached record lows in Utah, Oregon and Nevada. The land is so parched, cracked and dry that a Friday morning rain in the Los Angeles area had no chance at bringing relief.
“California’s fire season has grown by over 70 days,” said Daniel Berlant, chief of public information for Cal Fire. “That 70-day extension allows our vegetation to dry out. By the end of the season, extreme dry levels burn bigger and hotter. Over half of our state’s largest 20 wildfires have occurred since 2000.”
The stress on the Forest Service, run by the Agriculture Department, is hard to see because it still manages to put out 98 percent of wildfires quickly wherever they happen. But the remaining 2 percent are vexing monsters that burn out of control, eating up resources as firefighters are deployed to suppress them.
“What we do, where we put property, how we manage public lands — it’s a fascinating place where we are in the United States,” said Harbour, who has been with the Forest Service more than 45 years. “We’re headed for a train wreck, and we can’t keep going this way.”