We all want to prevent another loss of firefighters like the 19 young men killed during the Yarnell Fire in Arizona. And like the 5 killed during the 2006 Esperanza Fire.
Change the objective.
Protect lives (including firefighters) and property rather than attempt to stop wildfires in the backcountry. The two are often mutually exclusive.
Spending millions of dollars engaging in battlefield-like tactics against an uncontrollable force and attempting to modify the natural environment miles from developments is not working. Instead, we need to create communities that are firesafe through zoning, fire resistant construction and retrofits, appropriate defensible space, and strategic fuel breaks (within 1,000 feet of homes) in conjunction with firefighter safety zones. For those communities in indefensible locations, evacuate the residents and then focus firefighting resources on communities that are defensible.
The Esperanza house (lower left), an isolated structure in the backcountry on a hilltop above a steep canyon. Indefensible. Five firefighters were killed defending it in 2006. A statement made at the time: It was a “freak area ignition.”
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.
“There is an additional crisis taking place in our Southern California Forests as an unprecedented number of human-caused fires have increased fire frequency to the extent that fire-adapted chaparral can no longer survive and is being replaced with non-native annual grasses at an alarming rate. To counter these trends, forest managers will need to significantly increase the pace and scale of the Region’s restoration work. Only an environmental restoration program of unprecedented scale can alter the direction of current trends.
From this point forward, Ecological Restoration will be the central driver of wildland and forest stewardship in the Pacific Southwest Region, across all program areas and activities. Future Land and Resource Management Plans, other strategic plans and project plans will identify Ecological Restoration as a core objective.”
– US Forest Service
Ecological Restoration Implementation Plan
Please go here for the full report: http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5411383.pdf
Things are getting better 🙂