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Matt Rahn was about 200 feet away when flames started climbing up the side of the garage and creeping toward the car inside.

A wildfire researcher with California State University at San Marcos, Rahn was at the edge of a fire that would go on to burn 4,240 acres across California’s Amador and El Dorado counties. He was there to study the smoke rising off blackening shrubs and trees. Watching the garage burn, though, he realized that firefighters—fending off flames without any real lung protection—were inhaling more than airborne remnants of burnt plants.

“Think about the average home, all the chemicals and things that are in there, not to mention all the building materials and furniture,” said Rahn, who also is a member of Temecula’s city council. “That’s when we started really thinking about what happens. What’s in the smoke when you have all that complicated fuel being combusted at the same time?”

That was in 2014, when wildfires burned 568 buildings across the state. Fire season is not yet over this year, and the toll already is higher: three people dead and 732 buildings burned, as of this writing. And the state is still recovering from back-to-back years of catastrophic fires that killed 137 people and damaged or destroyed nearly 35,000 buildings.

As climate change primes the West to burn, and more people build closer to nature, the question of what’s in the smoke when fires tear through wilderness and homes alike is still far from being answered. Yet the health of those breathing the smoke—like the firefighters battling the flames—depends on real data.

“Right now, we’re trying to keep California from burning down,” said Michael McLaughlin, chief of the Cosumnes Fire Department and legislative director of the California Fire Chiefs Association. “But how do we put emphasis on those that we’re putting between the fire and the communities we’re trying to save?”

“On people’s radar.”

When a wildfire burns through grasslands, forests and chaparral, the blaze churns out fine airborne particles that can irritate the lungs and have been linked to heart and lung problems, as well as premature death. Deadly gases like carbon monoxide and irritating, potentially cancer-causing chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons mix into the smoke cloud as well. 

It’s a complex soup with ingredients that can change depending on the fuel and the ferocity of the fire. And as the chemicals stew in the atmosphere, they continue to react—breaking apart and joining together to create new ingredients to inhale.

Burning buildings and cars typically make up only a small proportion of wildfire smoke, according to Shawn Urbanski, a research physical scientist at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory—but their contributions are starting to capture scientists’ attention. “With these recent fires, it’s really sort of gotten on people’s radar,” Urbanski said.

For folks inhaling smoke far from its source, toxic emissions from burning cars and houses are likely to pose less of a health risk as they’re diluted away. “All the way down in the Bay Area, probably the smoke from the Paradise Fire was pretty much just wood smoke,” said John Balmes, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

Of course, wood smoke isn’t benign; researchers as well as reporters at Reveal found increases in emergency-room visits for heart and breathing problems after exposure to wildfire smoke. But for people immediately downwind and for the firefighters battling the flames, the metals, carcinogens and toxic air pollutants rising from burning homes and cars could present an additional hazard. “It definitely is an occupational risk for the firefighters when they’re trying to save buildings, and for community exposures,” Balmes said. 

We do know that municipal firefighters battling structure fires in towns and cities can run into heavy metals as well as all kinds of cancer-causing chemicals, like formaldehyde, benzene, and asbestos.

They’re also more prone to getting cancer than the general population, according to a massive study of 30,000 firefighters in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia. The paper, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reported an increase in certain cancers, including of the esophagus, lungs, mouth and throat, large intestine and kidney.

There haven’t been any similar long-term epidemiology studies of firefighters battling blazes in the wilderness, according to a deep dive into the scientific literature that was published in the journal Inhalation Toxicology in 2016.

Shorter-term studies, however, have reported small drops in lung function and increased inflammation among wildland firefighters exposed to smoke. Kathleen Navarro is a research industrial hygienist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health who has worked as a wildland firefighter. She estimated in a recent study published in Environmental Research that, based on their smoke exposures, wildland firefighters may be at a greater risk of dying from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Wildland firefighters also tend to battle conflagrations without any lung protection beyond a bandana or a mask to filter out airborne particles—even when they’re working where wilderness and homes intersect, a junction known as the wildland urban interface.

For structure fires in towns or cities, firefighters typically use a breathing apparatus equipped with a clean air tank that lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, according to Cosumnes Fire Chief McLaughlin. That’s not feasible for wildland firefighters who can end up working long shifts, in treacherous terrain.

That’s why figuring out what’s in the smoke, and what it means for health, is so important, said Jesse Estrada, the department safety officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire. “You get exposed to a lot of stuff over the years, and the body takes a beatdown,” he said. “We need to understand what the short-term and long-term effects are. The only way to know that is to let time pass as they do the research and truly see what we are facing.”

“It’s just a different landscape.”

One of the people driving this research is Aida Rodriguez, a master’s student working with Matt Rahn at CSU San Marcos. The day after the Kincade fire started in Sonoma County, Rodriguez hopped on a plane with a pink duffle bag full of pre-labeled glass vials, patches made out of the same Nomex material in firefighters’ uniforms, and fabric staplers. Airport security, Rodriguez said, “were concerned about everything in there.”

The next morning, under a reddish haze of smoke on the horizon and the faint smell of camp fires in the air, Rodriguez got to work. Balancing the vials and Nomex patches on the front of a fire engine at the base camp in Santa Rosa, she tacked the material to the outside and the inside of the firefighters’ gear. She was done in about 20 minutes. “I was fast and furiously going through it,” she said.

Twenty-four hours later, it was Rahn who was in charge of ripping the patches from the returning firefighters’ uniforms, pushing them into the glass vials, and mailing them to an independent lab in Ohio for testing. His team’s goal is to find out which chemicals settle on the outside of the firefighters’ uniforms while they’re fighting the flames, and which ones soak through.

“Are they harmful chemicals? Are they cancer-causing?” Rodriguez said. “If that’s something we can answer, then you can develop a decontamination protocol to mitigate the exposure to those chemicals.”

Scientists across the country are asking these questions. Amara Holder, a scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is working with the U.S. Forest Service to review what we know—and what we don’t—about the air pollution from fires that burn homes and wilderness together.

The stakes are high for firefighters and other emergency responders, and for the people living close to a conflagration. “You’ve got smoke from a house, or a car, as well as trees,” Holder said. “It’s just a different landscape.”

Key will be measuring what’s in the smoke, and determining how far these pollutants travel—as some might dissipate before they reach nearby towns, and some might not. Figuring that out could help guide evacuations and determine when and where wildland firefighters need to wear protective equipment. “Then we’ll know what we need to do to protect people,” Holder said.

Navarro, the scientist who has worked as a wildland firefighter, is taking an even closer look at wildland firefighter health—by studying their bodily fluids. She and a team of researchers at the University of Miami and the University of Arizona are collecting blood and urine samples from firefighters battling fires at the interface between homes and nature. She’s looking for signs of metals, certain flame retardants, and a family of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that’s known to include carcinogens.

In those environments, firefighters’ chemical exposures become much more complex, according to Navarro’s colleague, Kenneth Fent. “There are a lot more questions about their health risks even above and beyond other wildland firefighters, where it may be more vegetation exposure,” Fent said.

Fent is helming a voluntary National Fire Fighter Registry to track the long-term health of any firefighter who signs up. The goal is to understand the long-term cancer risk of firefighters across the field, from those rushing into burning buildings to those fighting to keep a wildfire from engulfing a nearby town.

For wildland firefighters in particular, he said, this is the kind of study that’s been missing. And identifying the risks is the first step for trying to prevent them. 

“This is an expensive consideration.”

Why don’t we know yet what long-term health problems might plague wildland firefighters? One reason is logistics: It’s tough for scientists to tag along with firefighters while they’re working in extreme conditions to save lives and homes. “To do my work, I became a firefighter,” Navarro said. Her training allows her to measure smoke exposures at active wildfires, and gives her insights into what the job as a wildland firefighter actually involves.

Another reason is that this research is expensive, according to CSU San Marcos’ Rahn. “The laboratory analysis costs us about $2,000 per firefighter,” he said. “This is an expensive consideration. That’s the hurdle we’re up against.”

And the money—which Rahn said includes a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and another from the Cal Fire Local 2881 union—is running out.

Researchers have struggled to find someone willing to pay to investigate the risks to wildland firefighters, he said.  “We have to convince these funding agencies, believe it or not, that the work we do here is not just a California issue —this is a national concern,” he said. “It’s a challenge every year to try to receive that funding.”

That’s why two years ago, Cal Fire Local 2881 pushed the state of California to fund the research, according to union President Tim Edwards. And a bill by Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino, would have tapped $5 million from the state’s general fund to pay for wildland firefighting research at California State University campuses.

Although the bill sailed through the Legislature, former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, calling it a “well-intentioned and important proposal” that belonged in the budget, not legislation. Edwards, an engineer with Cal Fire and thyroid cancer survivor, said the veto was disappointing. “Being a state employee, and a state firefighter, I think that hurt me more than anything. It frustrated me more than anything,” he said.

Now, Edwards said the union is working to get the funding included in the state budget. H.D. Palmer, deputy director for external affairs at the California Department of Finance, wouldn’t say whether the union’s latest efforts will work. “I’ll respectfully decline to speculate on what will or will not be included in next year’s budget proposal,” he said.

What’s next?

There arestrategies to reduce wildland firefighters’ risks by removing them from the smoke when they’re off shift, and giving them a chance to clean up, Cal Fire’s Estrada said. “It doesn’t mean that when they go out in these environments that 100 percent of the time, every firefighter is completely immersed in the smoke for the duration,” he said.

Still, union president Edwards said, “We’re hoping to eventually find a breathing apparatus that will work at the wildland conditions.”

To that end, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate has contracted with a company called TDA Research to create a lightweight respirator that firefighters can use in the wildland for days to weeks. Since many wildland firefighters wear bandanas over their faces, the device is shaped like a scarf.

“We wanted to create something that was similar to what they use,” said Kimberli Jones-Holt, program manager with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. Jones-Holt is optimistic that wildland firefighters could be using the device by 2021.

As for Rodriguez, the results aren’t back yet from the patches she sent into the smoke in Sonoma. But in the meantime, she has her glass vials and fabric staplers still packed in that pink duffle bag, ready for the next fire.

“It’s important for us to realize that fire season is year round,” she said. “I don’t really have the time to sit and wait.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Features

On this week's tequila-soaked weekly Independent comics page: (Th)ink bemoans the pay received by the prisoners who are on California's fire lines; This Modern World looks at the latest from The Unbelievable Trump; Jen Sorenson sighs as she examines America then vs. now; Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy gets a visit from Flamey the Fire Safety Rhino; and Red Meat features Ted taking Christmas-cooking action.

Published in Comics

At some point last August in Montana, Missoula County’s daily air quality updates—peppered with chatty jokes about the apocalyptic sky outside the windows and wry recommendations to avoid outdoor exercise—stopped being funny.

The gray miasma that had covered the city lost its novelty, though the fantastic sunscapes—the sharp evening shadows by early afternoon, and the ominous beauty that the poetically inclined find in destruction—lingered. Unfortunately, the blanket of gritty air did, too.

Many parts of Southern California have experienced similar air quality over the past few weeks … but you knew that already.

All the commiserating small talk with grocery-store cashiers and detailed explanations of what we were breathing and where it came from could not lift the pall, figuratively or literally. Smoke—plumes of it streaking across satellite maps—became all too familiar, even as the fires that spouted it threatened evacuations and stressed budgets to breaking.

Edward Struzik’s new book, Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, describes so many North American conflagrations that they, too, begin to seem almost ordinary, as the fires seemingly burn bolder every day—just another of climate change’s many Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Struzik guides readers through the ecological, social and political factors that led to the major fires of recent decades, including the century of fire suppression that built up fuel; the changing conditions that spin fires into furies; and the inconsistent policy preparations across vast and varied fire-prone regions. The book is part prognosis, part play-by-play, and part resigned admission that as much as we know, or think we know, about how to live under perpetual threat of ever-greater disasters, nothing about future fires is guaranteed—except that they will come galloping.

The far-flung points on Struzik’s map deliver the book’s most searing message: No forest, no fire, is isolated. Story after story delivers a similar account: the lucky turns of weather versus unexpected fire behavior, and the constant complaints about inadequate resources. The research showing the global travels of smoke plumes makes the point on a molecular level, too. Mercury, arsenic, carbon, asbestos—what once was buried will be unearthed, and once it is unearthed, there is no wall to stop its spread.

Firestorm opens with the Horse River Fire, nicknamed “the Beast,” a 2016 runaway wildfire near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, that burned 2,800 homes and nearly 1.4 million acres. It consumed billions of dollars and surprised firefighters at nearly every turn, and the fact that almost everyone living nearby escaped was more miracle than management. Struzik compares the fire to a hurricane or a tornado—with the stark difference that people in a tornado’s path rarely think they can stop it.

The contrast between the extraordinary power of megafires and people’s belief in their own ability to contain them is striking. Arrogance, ignorance, careless chance—people start fires and underestimate them, ignore humbling lessons and moving closer to danger. Instead of being seen as a crucial part of integrated ecological cycles, wildfires become overwhelming, menacing, supernatural.

Struzik punctures much of the mystery by explaining soil cycles and water pollution, funding and smoke particulates. In chapters that connect science to history, he offers a clear view of what has happened and what’s at stake. But his elaborate retellings of what happened during specific fire events over the last century lose clarity in all the chaotic play-by-plays of phone calls, weather patterns and evacuation orders. Timelines get tangled; contextual asides intrude at key moments and are then left dangling. For a reader intimately familiar with these fires, the level of detail may offer some insight. But those more interested in the future, readers left to make the larger connections on their own.

The thread that weaves through every chapter is clear, however. Megafires—whether seen as natural disasters, nightmarish calamities or policy mismanagement in action—will continue. They will become worse and more frequent. The wildland-urban interface will be more threatened. That thick summer air (and, as we know in Southern California, the fall and winter air, too) will return to block out sunlight and push us back indoors to clutch our air filters and grouse about stolen blue-sky days. Struzik reminds his readers again and again that whatever has happened already, no matter how severe and stunning, isn’t done happening.

It’s clear how huge of a role humans have had in getting us here. The question left unanswered is how we might cope with what happens next.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future

By Edward Struzik

Island Press

272 pages, $30

Published in Literature

On the morning of July 23, the city of Los Angeles was covered in a dusting of ash. An apocalyptic haze muted the sun, and the sky was an eerie, unnatural pink. Just a day before, a wildfire had broken out on private land 30 miles northwest, near Santa Clarita. Within 24 hours, the Sand Fire scorched 20,000 acres, and in a week, it burned another 21,000 acres. At least 10,000 people had to evacuate before it was contained by early August.

Every day seems to bring another fire. Today, the Blue Cut fire is ravaging the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County; as of 4 p.m. today, 6,500 acres have burned, with an unknown number of structures damaged.

The most volatile fire activity in the West this year has occurred in Central and Southern California—from Big Sur to Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Bernardino—causing the closure of the Pacific Coast Highway, the destruction of hundreds of homes, and the death of at least six people. According to experts, these blazes offer a glimpse into the West’s “new normal” wildfire season that has been intensified by climate change in recent years. Warmer temperatures, less snowfall and increased drought mean that fire seasonbegins earlier in Apriland lasts longer, until November or December.

Last winter, California breathed a sigh of relief during El Niño, expecting it to drench the parched landscape after four years of drought. Northern California got more rain and remains relatively wet, but El Niño didn’t deliver enough to prevent fires in the southern part of the state.

“It’s the legacy effect of the long-term drought: these large, volatile, fast-moving wildfires in California,” says Crystal Kolden, fire science professor at the University of Idaho. By the first week of June, firefighters in California had already tackled more than 1,500 fires that burned almost 28,000 acres—twice as many acres burned as in the first half of 2015.

Looking at the West as a whole, this fire season is similar to the last couple of years—longer, hotter and harder to control— except in the Pacific Northwest, where there’s been a near-average wet, cool summer. According to a recent report from the National Interagency Fire Center, that delays the region’s greatest fire risk until later in the season. However, it has been extremely dry and hot in the Great Basin and Rockies, leading to more fire starts. Those areas should return to normal fire risk by September.

The high fire potential in California will continue during the season’s peak and through November, though, perhaps even until the first snowfall.

Typically, when the Pacific Northwest is particularly active with wildfire, the Southwest is less so, and vice versa, Kolden says, due to large-scale climate dynamics. But because of climate change in the last five to 10 years, regional wildfire seasons now often overlap. Fires are also burning a wider range of ecosystems than in the past, Kolden says. The lower-elevation sagebrush steppe is fueling fires just as much as high-elevation ponderosa forests, Southern California’s chaparral, and Idaho’s rangelands—and often, all these ecosystems are experiencing fires at the same time.

“Climate change is starting to take over,” says Kolden, “so there’s a higher probability and incidence of fires all over the West every single year.”

Two of the largest are the Soberanes Fire in California, which has burned over 76,000 acres and is only about 60 percent contained; and the Pioneer Fire near Boise, which has burned more than 76,000 acres and is about half contained. The NIFC considers both these fires its top priority because they’re proving hard to contain and near highly populated areas. As peak fire seasons stretch and overlap, firefighting resources aregetting stretched thinner. The Pioneer Fire, for example, currently has about 1,800 firefighters working on it, while the Soberanes has a record-breaking 3,800, about 1,000 down from the peak.

It’s still unclear what caused the Pioneer Fire, but an illegal campfire ignited the Soberanes blaze, and faulty hot tub wiring caused the Sand Fire. A growing percentage of wildfires are started by humans, says Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, particularly in Southern California, where the population in fire-danger areas is increasing exponentially. That’s part of the reason that, even though that area’s fires aren’t necessarily more severe than usual, this year’s have resulted in morehomes lost and a high fatality rate in California.

By this point, Stephens says, it’s clear that Western communities and federal agencies need to be more proactive at planning for fire and drought when building homes and structures and managing land. According to his research, we should be restoring forests by thinning and using prescribed burns at five to 10 times the rate we are now.

“If we don’t start to change the trajectory of forest conditions in the Western U.S., we’re literally going to be running out of options,” he says. “The big fires will continue to come.”

This piece originally appeared at High Country News.

Published in Environment

Jerry D. Mathes’ second nonfiction book, Ahead of the Flaming Front, portrays the day-to-day life of a wildland firefighter. With a poet’s sense of language, Mathes describes his experiences as a rookie, gaining knowledge as he rises through the ranks.

Mathes works mostly for the Krassel Heli-Rappellers, a fire crew that works out of the Payette National Forest in Idaho. He performs a variety of jobs—not just sliding down ropes into remote fires, but also pitching in on hand crews to build fire lines, working as a sawyer, and traveling to fill in on other crews throughout the West. Although the landscape and environment change, the physical routine and the danger of the work do not.

Mathes introduces us to a range of characters—perhaps too many to keep track of—but he gives us vivid portraits of the women and men who pursue this hazardous and sometimes tedious job. What emerges in the end is one hugely important thing: the importance of camaraderie in the work of firefighting.

The tragedies of past firefighters are woven throughout the book, both as cautionary tales and as a rationale for all the rules, regulations and paperwork, but Mathes rages against the bureaucracy that he believes sometimes prevents firefighters from acting efficiently. The book was already in publication before the Yarnell disaster of last summer, in which 19 firefighters died, but Mathes was always aware of the potential for that kind of tragedy. When he became an instructor, the most important thing he instilled in his rookies was their right to refuse an assignment when the risks are too great.

Occasionally, the language verges on sentimental, and proofreading errors distract from what is otherwise a fascinating read. One conversation gets at the heart of the book: Mathes and a fellow firefighter, Flegal, are fishing while waiting by a river to be picked up. As the helicopter approaches, Flegal says, “It’s still good times, bro.” Mathes responds, “I gave him a thumbs up. ’As long as we’re still breathing.’”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Ahead of the Flaming Front: A Life on Fire

By Jerry D. Mathes II

Caxton

260 pages, $17.95

Published in Literature

As I approached a crew of firefighters on the edge of smoldering redwoods, just west of Central California’s Big Sur River, it struck me that their uniforms were orange—not the yellow you usually see on firefighters.

It was just 12 hours after the Pfeiffer Fire broke out; it started on Dec. 16 and burned around 1,000 acres, destroying more than 30 homes in the process. I had arrived in the valley a few hours earlier, and was still getting a lay of the land.

I greeted the first crew member I encountered, and asked if he would answer some questions; he just shook his head with a grin and didn’t say anything. Then a whole bunch of other heads turned my way.

“I’ll answer some questions!”

Four of them came to my side and told me of a redwood tree falling in the night and almost hitting a member of their crew. They’d been out since 2 a.m., they said, and a tree seems to fall every five minutes. They were effusive, excitable. I asked where they were from.

“We’re from Gabilan Camp, in Soledad,” one said, pointing to the decal on his helmet. “You heard of Gabilan Camp?”

Gabilan Conservation Camp was formed in 1986 as part of the California Conservation Camp program, administered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The program’s aim is to allow able-bodied (and willing) inmates to perform meaningful work for the public. And since 1947, after teaming up with Cal Fire, much of that work is firefighting.

“For the Department of Corrections, it’s the one ray of sunshine,” Gabilan Conservation Camp Commander Steve Pate said. “It’s a great program.”

There are camps closer to the Coachella Valley, too. For example, the Bautista Conservation Camp, in Hemet, is home to 107 inmates, as of Oct. 31, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation website. (Two crewmembers, Victor Ferrara and Aaron Perry, actually died while battling a fire in 1990, according to the camp website.) 

Pate spoke to me on Dec. 18 from Big Sur, as he oversaw 374 inmate firefighters from throughout the state’s conservation camps, including those from Gabilan, where 134 inmate-firefighters had been assigned.

At the time we spoke, inmates made up more than 42 percent of the fire suppression personnel. “We’re the largest force out here,” Pate said.

Each of their 11 strike teams on site in Big Sur consisted of 34 inmate firefighters, and two each of correctional officers, corrections supervisors, Cal Fire captains and Cal Fire strike team leaders.

Gabilan’s inmate firefighters are convicts who have met a list of qualifications including good behavior, being medically fit, and having no convictions for sex offenses or arson. Their training begins at a prison, the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown. After passing tests for fitness and skills, they are assigned to a camp, where their lives change markedly.

“There’s a lot of freedom in the camp,” Pate said. “They’re not in cells; they have an open dorm. The doors are not locked, and they can go to the yard anytime.” He added that the food is much better than regular prison food. “Probably better than I eat every day,” he said.

When Gabilan’s inmate firefighters are not fighting fires around the state, they’re out in Monterey County, performing public-works duties. They sandbag in Carmel when a flood hits, or clear brush in the forests of Pebble Beach.

“Our crews account for $280,000 a month in labor saved by community,” Pate said. That number is conservative, he added, since it assumes minimum wage; inmate firefighters are paid $1 per hour.

I met three of them at the Pfeiffer Fire incident base on Dec. 19, after they’d come off a 24-hour shift. Pate indicated that the three prisons they came from—New Folsom, Santa Nella and Corcoran—are a far cry from Gabilan Camp.

“They’re the three hardest prisons in the state,” he said.

Melvin Gray, 47, was in prison for 11 years before coming to Gabilan, where he’s spent the last two. “It changed my whole life,” he said, adding that he plans to apply for a job with Cal Fire when his sentence is up, just four months from now. “I have something to go home to.”

Patrick Meyer, 59, voices a sentiment they all share: It’s great to be part of a team, to work together and help the community. “We’re more than a crew,” Meyer said. “We’re a family.”

Mark Nunez, 40, relays tales of locals cheering them on, driving by them on Highway 1 and saying, “We love you!”

“They don’t treat you like an inmate,” Nunez said. “It makes you feel good.”

A version of this story appeared in the Monterey County Weekly. Below: Inmate Charles Jones takes a brief break while battling the Pfeiffer Fire. Photo by Nic Coury.

Published in Environment

A modest metal building sits behind a chain-link fence in the industrial quarter of Prescott, Ariz., with only a small sign to identify it: Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew.

By now, the story is well known: 19 of 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were fighting to save the town of Yarnell, Ariz., when they were hit by what might best be called a fire hurricane on June 30

Just a week and a half earlier, these men had inserted themselves between hundreds of homes north of Prescott and a ferocious wildfire that swept over the very mountain for which the hotshot crew takes its name. Thanks to their efforts and the help of additional firefighters, ground and aerial equipment, homes and citizens were spared.

Many of us who live in Prescott have had numerous occasions across the years to offer thanks to the men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as well as to other city, county and federal firefighters. That’s why, when they drive back through town, we line the streets and cheer. We shake their hands when we meet them in local supermarkets. We write letters to the editor in praise of their heroic efforts.

But after all the kudos, we return to our homes, safe and secure, and seldom think about how these men routinely put their lives on the line, placing themselves in jeopardy for our collective well-being.

As investigations continue into how the tragedy occurred, there’s another search that needs to occur: We Westerners need to look into ourselves for honest answers about what we can reasonably expect of our firefighters and what we must expect of ourselves.

We carry a burden of responsibility that needs to be acknowledged and met. As those who live in the Coachella Valley and Idyllwild areas know thanks to the Mountain Fire: We live in arid lands, a characteristic likely to become more pronounced with the onset of climate change effects. Wallace Stegner eloquently expressed the nature of this challenge when he wrote that “adaptation is the covenant that all successful organisms sign with the dry country.”

Living where I do, I have woven into my daily routine some fire-resistant, adaptive actions and hereby offer them up as suggestions for other residents of the region.

First: It’s our job to add less fuel to the (prospective) fire: At home, we’ve pruned lots of vegetation on our property, which meant striking a delicate balance between conserving sufficient native wildflowers and trees for wildlife habitat and trimming trees that overhang the roof or grew too close. We also cleared gutters of fallen leaves and needles and pruned dead branches from surrounding shrubs, all to reduce fuel load on the lot. See www.firewise.org for useful tips.

Second: We packed “fire bags” to be prepared to evacuate. Yes, this is tough psychologically, but crucial to our own and firefighter safety. We filled several suitcases with family photos, necessary meds, lists of contacts and other household contents that we’d need later. We checked to ensure we’re properly insured in the event of a wildfire. We scouted the route of our escape vehicle.

Third: We all need to work to reduce the carbon emissions that worsen drought and increase wildfire severity throughout the West. Some actions are simple, such as installing LED lights, conserving water inside and planting drought-resistant native species outside to reduce water use. We try to drive less, and we do cooperative errands, labor and tool-sharing with our neighbors—all small ways to make a cumulative difference. See the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web page: www.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/home.html.

Fourth: We must encourage decision-makers at local and state levels to create disincentives so developers build fewer homes on the edges of national forests and other public lands—in the place called the wildland-urban interface. See “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection,” by Headwaters Economics: headwaterseconomics.org/wildfire/fire-cost-background.

Fifth: We should demand that our congressional representatives restore and increase funding for our wildland firefighters. See, as example, this petition on the White House website: petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/increase-fire-prevention-funding-federal-and-state-wildlands/FDkqzvy2.

Sixth: Find your local or regional headquarters for wildland firefighters and offer a “thank-you” donation for their training or scholarship funds. Ongoing appreciation to the people who risk their lives for us is perhaps as important as expressing grief after a tragedy.

Terril L. Shorb is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He teaches community sustainability at Prescott College in Prescott, Ariz.

Published in Community Voices