AFTER SEPT. 11, 2001, Americans saluted the heroism of the first responders who died running up the twin towers’ staircases as office workers sought to escape. On Monday, the country once again had to mix admiration with grief as it mourned the deaths of 19 firefighters near Yarnell, Ariz., the greatest single loss to any fire department since 9/11. As residents ran from their burning homes, the firefighters ran toward the flames that would soon overtake them, trying to subdue the blazing chaparral.
This is monsoon season in Arizona, when local weather patterns can result in lightning strikes without accompanying rain. The phenomenon may well have conspired with unpredictable winds, arid conditions and extreme heat to ignite a blaze in the high desert that is still out of control. The 19 who died were elite firefighters trained to battle big blazes, so-called hotshots, from nearby Prescott. They may have been attempting to build a “firebreak” — a gap in combustible material that can slow or stop a wildfire’s advance. But a sudden shift in the wind, a quirk of the terrain or something else resulted in an inferno so intense that they could not escape, and emergency shelters saved none of them.
About this time every year, men and women like these risk their lives to protect the homes and livelihoods of Americans on the edge of wilderness. Their willingness to sacrifice should prompt the rest of us to take steps to minimize the risks as much as sensibly possible. As more people move into former areas of wilderness, the annual fight against wildfires becomes more dangerous and more expensive. Climate change may exacerbate the challenge, as changing temperatures reduce snow packs, dry out the land and affect the ecology in ways that are less predictable. As on the coasts, which have to adapt to rising sea levels, people in America’s hinterlands must make smart choices about where they live and how to develop. People who settle astride untamed nature take on natural risks, whether wildfires or floods or high seas. But often others share in the costs of their risk-taking — certainly with mountains of tax money for disaster relief, sometimes even with lives. Instead of encouraging ever-increasing development in increasingly risky places to live, states, localities and the federal government have to think ahead.
Even with the best of planning, the country will always depend on a few men and women with grit and skill willing to protect their communities — professionals who will run toward the flames. Monday’s terrible loss should remind us of the debt we owe them when they return home — and when, tragically, they do not.