In reading and talking to folks about the 19 firefighter deaths this past week in the Yarnell Fire, I am reminded of how I felt after learning about the details of the 2006 Esperanza Fire where 5 firefighters were killed defending a house. The house was at the top of a long, deep canyon: a fire chimney. You couldn’t have designed a more hazardous location. After the report came out basically laying blame on the firefighters themselves for their own deaths, I wrote an essay concerning the one issue the investigators, and the fire service in general, refused to acknowledge (but everyone talks about privately). The house should never have been built in the first place. You can read what I wrote here: http://www.californiachaparral.org/afirefighters.html
Everything I wrote back in 2006 is applicable to what just happened in Arizona. I am hoping this time, the fire service and the country will seriously rethink the whole fire suppression model. The majority of the money spent on wildland fire needs to be spent BEFORE the fire. Making structures firesafe. Creating adequate defensible space. Developing firefighter safety zones near communities. Establishing strategic fuel breaks within 1,000 feet of communities. And most importantly, strict land planning regulations that prevent homes from being built in dangerous locations. Stop putting firefighters at risk to attempt fire suppression in the backcountry, far from communities. And stop placing firefighters at risk to protect structures in hazardous locations.
The climate is changing. The fires are getting more dangerous. It is a different world. The phrase, “I’ve never seen a fire like this before,” is becoming a bit trite. Let’s do something about it. Focus on saving lives (including firefighter lives) and property, instead of trying (and continually failing) to stop fires. This means focusing on communities instead of trying to fight the natural environment.
The 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed near the location marked below. It was a little less than a mile away from the development.