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War in our forests.

This could be the Western fire season we fear. Here is what all of us need to know about how and why wildfires are fought today

WE CAN STATE WITH some confidence--but with little comfort--that, as you read this, some part of the West is burning. Our region is home to the largest, costliest, most devastating wildfires the country sees. The wonderfully varied topography and wealth of plant communities combine to make the West the perfect host to the great regenerator--fire.

Our fears for this fire season are primed by several years of drought, and we're haunted by images of recent major fires, including those at Yellowstone in 1988 and in the Oakland Hills in 1991. Last winter's rain didn't rid our forests of dead and drought-stressed fuel waiting to ignite. What it did was grow the fuses--the fine grasses--in abundance. Those "lush" landscapes will no doubt lure record crowds into the wilds this summer, and statistics show where there's folk, there's fire.

Fortunately, we also have 90 percent of the country's wildland fire-fighting resources stationed in our backyard. Nine of the 11 national fire-fighting supply caches are tucked about the West from Fairbanks to Silver City, New Mexico; all nine smokejumper bases are located here. Most of the ground forces are here, staffed by state and federal crews. Our landscape is blanketed with a state-of-the-art lightning detection and weather-monitoring network, which is linked by satellite to the country's wildfire nerve center, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) at Boise, Idaho. The center can mobilize up to 15,000 fire-fighters in less than three days--faster than the military.

In 1992 alone, 87,394 fires were reported to the Boise center--the Pentagon of fire combat. Nearly a thousand structures were lost; 2,069,926 acres were consumed. Ironically, the largest fire of the year struck just 11 miles east of Boise, burning more than a quarter-million acres. And 1992 was a relatively light fire year, mainly because of two factors: aggressive initial attack by firefighters and favorable weather conditions.

What sort of fire year might 1993 be? Well, it may be bad, but what year isn't? In a dry year, there's lots of dry fuel; in a wet year, as this one has been in much of the West, there's lots of fine fuel. But one wet year won't bring up the normal moisture content in stressed big timber stands. The preceding seven to eight years of drought and the high volume of insect-killed trees in many forests may make this a tough year.

"The southern Washington Cascades and some parts of Montana and northeastern Oregon are low on snowpack. Northeast Oregon also has a severe bug-kill problem--the dead tree and ground litter problem there is incredible," reports fire meteorologist Gary Bennett of the NIFC.

Most wildfires are handled by local and state fire-suppression units. Regional crews from five federal agencies--Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs--tackle many of the others. (One reason the West has so many fire-fighting resources at its disposal is because so much of our land is administered by these five agencies.)

Last year, more than 5,700 fires got beyond the control of the local or regional units, and the Boise center answered the calls for help. The center managed 500 fires and handled requests for assistance in fighting another 5,200. In all, Boise dispatched 737 fire crews with 14,740 personnel. Smokejumpers were sent up 537 times. More than 300 helicopters, 240 infrared-mapping planes, 147 aerial tankers, and 63 cargo planes were mobilized--all this essentially in one summer, in a light fire year.


It's not just the sheer numbers of resources that can be brought to bear that have changed the way Western wildfires are fought today. It's the technological ability to predict where fires will be that has most dramatically reshaped the battle scenario in the West for the '90s.

Computers can now guess where Western fires will occur. How? First, know that two-thirds of all wildland fires are started by lightning. Lightning detectors, strategically placed at 37 spots around the West and linked by satellite to the Boise center, can detect ground strikes more than 200 miles away and pinpoint the location to within 10 square miles. In addition, remote weather stations report hourly via satellite from 600 locations throughout the West. This "real time" weather data is fed into the Boise computers and overlaid with up-to-date topographical and fuel-load information. Armed with all this data, the computer crunches the information and gives a best guess.

Meteorologists in Boise then make daily, or even hourly, presuppression forecasts. When "red flag events," such as dry lightning, high winds, and low humidity occur, fire managers position crews and equipment or put local crews on alert status. Jumper planes are often sent out to tail high-ignition-probability storms as they move across the region; the crews are constantly fed current computer information and fly over the lightning strike area looking for smoke. When they spot a plume, a couple of jumpers parachute down.

Though new fire-fighting technologies (such as sophisticated retardants, foams, and gels) are constantly being developed, it's still people with Pulaskis and shovels who put out most wildland fires.


Fire-fighting strategies follow a series of three escalating phases: initial attack, extended attack, and project fire.

Initial attack. Getting to the scene quickly and nipping the fire in the bud stops 95 percent of all wildland fires. Getting crews in for the first 24 hours (but, most critically, that first long, hot afternoon) is key for virtually all wildland fire scenarios. Crews are dispatched in the most timely, efficient--and cost-effective--manner possible; if a wildland engine can reach the blaze, it's cheaper than a "helitack" crew. In rough terrain, smokejumpers arrive by parachute, helitack crews by chopper. "Sometimes, a jump crew's only mission is to jump in with chain saws and build a helispot," says smokejumper Ken Franz.

Airplanes and helicopters are often used on initial attack to dump retardant around the fire or water on it. (Some countries, particularly Canada, drop water-efficient foam on wildland blazes; this summer may see that tactic used increasingly here.)

That red retardant that's bombed on many fires is a high-phosphate salt, like garden fertilizer, that's gum-thickened. It's colored red so the next plane coming in can see where the last drop was made. Retardant is dropped mainly to allow ground crews to reach the fire's edge, not to extinguish the fire itself. (Ever wonder why aerial drops aren't used for structures? Liquid falling that fast could destroy a house on impact.)

Though water may be available, soil is still the key containment agent for wildfires. The first job is to cut a line around the fire. "No matter what fire, no matter how big it gets, you build that 6- to 12-inch-wide line. It's a psychological barrier as much as a physical one," says Franz. Getting that line around the fire allows the crews to move in and contain it--most often letting it burn itself out. Backfiring--burning the brush between the line and the blaze to consume the fuel in the main fire's path--is also commonly used.

On the toughest fires, special 20-person attack crews called "hotshots" are dispatched (usually by helicopter) to cut trail. "Their mission is to cut a fire line as fast as possible. Their main tools are chain saws, Pulaskis, and shovels. They get sent to the toughest fires, the toughest terrain, and get pulled back as soon as less-experienced crews can take over," explains Skip Scott, incident operations officer at NIFC. Franz puts it differently: "Hotshots are like a machine clearing trail as fast as you can walk."

Extended attack. If the fire can't be contained within that first 24-hour window, the battle enters this phase. More crews are sent in, and other tools are added to the fight.

For the extended attack, incident management teams come on scene; specialists in command, planning, operations, logistics, finance, and dispatch coordination make sure that crews get the fire-fighting gear they need as well as food, rest, and showers.

Computers and other high-tech equipment are now among the first items dispatched to extended attack fires. Patched to Boise, on-site computers using software called BEHAVE can model what the fire might do given all the local conditions. Portable weather stations are set up to track fire-created weather. "Fires can generate their own wind, their own rain, even their own thunderhead--a pyrocumulonimbus. Microwind patterns are the most critical fire weather problem," Bennett explains.

On extended attack, crews are linked by radio to the incident command post. One in 20 ground crew members is radio-equipped; all smokejumper crews carry radios. On-site telecommunications are now so complete that command centers can control air traffic around their fire.

In addition to airplanes and helicopters that drop water, retardant, and people around a fire line, reconnaissance planes watch the fire by day. At night, infrared-tracking planes map the fire, supplying incident commanders with a precise photographic map of the fire. "From 15,000 feet up, we can pick up a 9-inch-diameter hot spot," says John Reinert, Forest Service infrared specialist.

The large regional supply caches usually start getting tapped at this stage. Three kinds of gear are sent to the fire scene. Suppression gear runs from pumps, hoses, chain saws, Pulaskis, rakes, and shovels all the way up to runway lights for makeshift airfields. Safety and personal equipment includes extra gloves, fire-resistant clothing, helmets, one-person fire shelters, and first-aid kits. Personal sustenance items include food, sleeping bags, tents, and other such necessities. "Everything is prepacked, field-ready, and able to be dropped out of a helicopter; we can get a 40-foot truck packed and out in 2 hours," notes NIFC fire supply officer Wayne Dawson. "We get 60 percent more work out of bathed, fed, rested crews; the accident rate goes down, too," he adds.

Project fire. If an extended attack still fails to contain a blaze, it enters the project fire phase. "We refer to the shift to a project fire as 'when the fire goes over the hill,'" explains Skip Scott. "We send even more crews in, but at this point they may back off to natural barriers: drainages, rivers, roads."

Such a fire could now have an incident management team 80 strong; 2,000 ground crew members might be on the fire lines. The Boise center now taps the fire-fighting capabilities of the five federal agencies and assumes coordination of all these forces, with complete commitment guaranteed from the agencies. "We can meet the tactical needs on any given fire," says Scott.

Even so, the fire and the weather have the upper hand. "Wind is still the great leveler; if it's blowing, your effort is useless," says Franz. "If the weather is wrong, all you can do at best is steer the fire."

"For some incidents, it doesn't matter how many toys we've got," explains Doug Erskine, National Park Service fire director. "People believe we have such technological power that we can always control fire. We can't."

Wildfire seasons, historic burns


1910, Big Bust: 3 million acres burned, 85 lives lost

1932, Matilija: 219,000 acres

1933, Tillamook: 300,000 acres in Coast Range; another 250,000 acres burned in same area 6 years later

1937, Blackwater: 5,000 acres; burned over a Civilian Conservation Corps crew, killing 15; forced reforms that led to smokejumpers, hotshot crews

1949, Mann Gulch: 5,000 acres; 13 smokejumpers killed

1961, Bel Air: 456 homes

1967, Sundance: 56,000 acres (50,000 in 9 hours)

1970, Laguna: 175,425 acres, 382 homes

1977, Sycamore: 805 acres, 234 homes

1980, Panorama: 23,600 acres, 325 homes

Siege of 1987: 640,000 acres in two national forests

1988, Greater Yellowstone: 1.5 million acres

1988, Canyon Creek: 250,000 acres east of Missoula

1990, Painted Cave: 4,900 acres, 641 homes

1991, Oakland Hills: 25 lives, 3,403 homes lost

Sources: National Interagency Fire Center; Stephen Pyne, fire historian

Hot issues: protect property, preserve wilderness?

IMAGINE THE REACTION if firefighters torched a wildland subdivision to stop the advance of a forest fire. Though that might be the best strategy, it's inconceivable that such a scenario would ever be played out.

Wildland crews, in fact, defend threatened structures first. It's not what their mandate requires; it's more a social, political, even moral obligation. Great for the property owners, not so great for the public forest.

"We are funded to protect natural resources; instead, we're waylaid to protect property that's usually insured," says Pat Durland, BLM fire prevention specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Yet an outcry arises every summer when cabins are lost in a wildland blaze. Too many exurban property owners think they should still have the level of fire protection service they had in an urban setting--a pipe dream when you consider that wildland crews, which are seasonal in nature, are staffed, trained, and equipped to fight wildfires, not structure fires.

Also, the more people who move into the wilds, the more likely a fire will be started, accidentally or otherwise. Living in the wilds is a risky venture; the primary responsibility for minimizing the risk is not with firefighters, but with property owners. (For a report on fire dangers in the urban/wildland interface, see "Our Wild Fire" in the June 1992 Sunset; for a reprint, send $2.50 to Our Wild Fire, Sunset Magazine, 80 Willow Rd., Menlo Park, Calif. 94025.)

That same visceral reaction we have about our houses, we also seem to have about wilderness in general and our favorite parks in particular.

"Parks do have a special place in the public's heart. Destination vacation spots are more visible," says Doug Erskine, Park Service fire director at the Boise center.

But if the wilderness is truly wild, fire is as much a part of it as the trees themselves. The Park Service's philosophy reflects that.

Erskine adds, "We don't see trees burned as contrary to the park's objective. We don't grow timber, we grow trees. We're more concerned with impact on the land than acreage consumed. When we fight a fire, we select tactics that are least disturbing to the land. Take a sequoia grove, for instance; suppression could do more damage than the fire itself."

What of Yellowstone's fiery summer of 1988? Its fire-management plan (similar to other plans in most of the other big Western parks) allowed naturally caused fires to burn if they met guidelines regarding drought, current weather conditions, fuel loads and types, and other factors. All human-generated fires that threatened special park values, such as attractions, structures, or endangered species, were attacked immediately.

Many of the fires that brought public outcry over this policy were human-caused and fought from the outset. The Yellowstone conflagration--the largest, most sophisticated firefight in American history--saw more than 9,000 firefighters on the line at one time; more than 25,000 were eventually involved, as well as dozens of aerial tankers, helicopters, and fire engines.

But what finally stopped these fires that affected 1.5 million acres? Not equipment, not the hordes of firefighters, but 1/4 inch of rain. What the courageous firefighters were able to do was save lives and structures.

Fire ecologists have determined that the Yellowstone fires were not an abnormal event; a similar burn took place in the early 1700s. They further believe that, left to its own devices, the '88 fire would have burned about the same number of acres.

Lodgepole pine forests take 250 to 400 years to reach peak burnability, and even then only extreme weather conditions will torch the trees. That's what happened to Yellowstone in 1988. Saying it was inevitable is not an oversimplification. Most lightning fires burn themselves out without causing significant damage. And recovery takes place unaided. "We like to let things happen the way they've always happened. We don't do a lot of heavy rehabilitation. The land knows what to do and can probably do it better than we can," Erskine explains.

Yellowstone is recovering; its plant and animal populations are incredibly resilient. Can the human population be as resilient--and patient? The park is still wonderful, but some of the postcards are different. So, do we want true wilderness or pretty postcards? The economics of tourism might dictate that there's an aesthetic threshold that shouldn't be crossed.

It's a tough call: if you want to preserve a natural wonder as it is, you have to come to grips with fire as an inevitable--and, paradoxically, vital--part of that process.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; fighting wildfires
Author:Crosby, Bill
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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