Bigger, Hotter, Faster

The wildfires of tomorrow will be like nothing we’ve ever seen. But the debates they’ll spark have already been raging for more than a century. 

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame. It has been edited and condensed.

It was in an almost invisible hole in the Bitterroot Mountains that America’s war with wildfire was born. There, on August 20, 1910, “Big Ed” Pulaski, a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, led 45 scruffy, untrained firefighters to shelter in the Nicholson mine above the West Fork of Placer Creek when the “Big Blowup,” a fire the size of Connecticut, threatened to incinerate them.

“The forests staggered, rocked, exploded and then shriveled under the holocaust,” Betty Goodwin Spencer, an Idaho historian, recalled of the blaze. “Great red balls of fire rolled up the mountainsides. Crown fires, from 1 to 10 miles wide, streaked with yellow and purple and scarlet, raced through treetops 150 feet from the ground. Bloated bubbles of gas burst murderously into forked and greedy flames. You can’t outrun wind and fire that are traveling 70 miles an hour.”

With Armageddon hot on his heals, Pulaski led his crew and two horses into the mine shaft to escape the inferno he described as having “the roar of a thousand freight trains.” He kept the fire out of the prospector’s hole with water he scooped from the shaft floor with his hat. When some of his panicked firefighters tried to bolt, he pulled his pistol. “The next man who tries to leave the tunnel I will shoot,” he told them.

They all eventually fell unconscious as the inferno sucked the oxygen from the cave. Five never woke up. One survivor, finding Pulaski lying limp at the front of the shaft, announced that he was dead. “Like hell he is” was his now-legendary response.

Today the ranger’s name rings out at every wildfire. The pulaski, a combination axe and hoe that he invented after the ordeal, is the most common tool in the battle against forest fires, so even firefighters who don’t know his story shout out his name on the fire line. The ranger’s legacy looms larger in the philosophy of firefighting that followed the blowup in the Bitterroots. Firefighters on the ground saw their efforts against the Big Blowup as a “complete failure.” The fire killed at least 78 of the men fighting it, reduced much of Wallace, Idaho to ash, and torched parts of half a dozen other towns. Mining camps, farms, and more than 3 million acres of timber burned.

But the fledgling Forest Service, just five years old and already hated in much of the West, chose to focus on the firefighters’ heroic stand, rather than the futility of the battle. The American philosopher William James wrote of extinguishing wildfires as “the moral equivalent of war,” suggesting that American youth be conscripted into an “army enlisted against nature.” One of humanity’s greatest allies was suddenly one of America’s most reviled enemies.

Too many trees

A century after the Big Blowup, America’s fight against wildfire seemed like a victim of its own success. As a nation, Americans have proved to be very capable forest firefighters. We still put out more than 98 percent of the country’s wildfires during our initial attacks on them, but the ones we can’t snuff are bigger, hotter, faster, and more frequent than those we confronted before.

By the time I was on the fire line in 2003, many foresters and firefighters believed that the blazes we couldn’t stop had grown out of the ones that we did. Their message, in fact, became almost as codified into the western mythology of the twenty-first century as those of Pulaski and Smokey Bear during the twentieth: Putting out all those fires but leaving behind the wood, grass, and scrub that otherwise would have burned overloaded our forests with fuel that was driving increasingly explosive fires.

Historically, frequent fires creeping slow and low along the ground devoured scrub, deadfall, small trees, and low branches. Ponderosa pines developed a thick, corklike bark that insulates them from flames, and many large, old ones have “cat face” fire scars and blackened trunks. The flames that marked them didn’t hinder their growth into tall, majestic columns, but removed other vegetation that might have.

Forests in Colorado’s Front Range have missed three, four, or five fire cycles that would have thinned them during the past century, Mike Battaglia, a young, slender researcher with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, told me as we headed into the woods above Fort Collins. “A forest, it’s like a lawn,” he said. “You have to cut your lawn every week.” In the ponderosas, fires were effectively the forests’ lawn mowers, hedge clippers, and branch loppers. During the decades when the nation’s firefighters put out every wildfire, the government had effectively fired nature’s gardening crew

After 100 years of the Forest Service extinguishing the ground fires, some forests in Arizona have 40 times their natural load of trees: An acre that historically had 20 ponderosa pines is now crowded with 800 to 1,200. Ponderosa forests above Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, and Boulder that historically had fewer than 100 trees per acre now have upwards of 500. But just 16 percent of Colorado’s forests below about 9,000 feet, where ponderosas are the dominant species, had increased fire severity due to fires extinguished in the past leading to overly thick growth. Most of the higher-elevation forests usually only burn every 100 to 300 years, so the nation’s century of fire suppression could only have interrupted their natural fire cycle once, if at all.

Unfortunately, the areas showing an increase in wildfires over the past century are precisely where the most mountain homes have been built. The canyons on Colorado’s Front Range provide scenic and secluded homesites, but now some are more like slums of trees—overcrowded with evergreens struggling to survive. And it isn’t just firefighting that has left them that way.

When ranchers filled the West with cattle and sheep, the animals grazed down the grasses that carried the mellow ground fires that had thinned many ponderosa forests. Miners tramped the land around their claims to bare soil, with much the same effect. With nothing left to carry fire on the forest floor, trees that would have burned when they were small instead survived and crowded in. As the forests grew denser and darker, they provided a more hospitable environment for Douglas firs, which normally prefer north-facing slopes that are cooler and moister, but in this case followed the shade provided by the thickening stands. Mountain mahogany, Gambel oak, and juniper, which ignite easily and burn fast, pushed in beneath the pines and firs.

Eventually a forest that once had trunks spaced hundreds of feet apart was filled with trees standing shoulder to shoulder, all of them fighting to get enough sun, food, and water. Undergrowth, fallen needles and leaves, and dead wood gathered around their feet. Diseases and pests such as the mountain pine beetle spread through crowded forests like the plague. Dwarf mistletoe infested many boughs, causing witches’ brooms of dry bristles that burned like haystacks.

“A forest, it’s like a lawn. You have to cut your lawn every week.”

—Mike Battaglia, US Forest Service 

Playing with fire

In 1963 A. Starker Leopold oversaw a report on wildlife management for the National Park Service that called for reintroducing wildfire to federal woodlands. The son of naturalist Aldo Leopold, he grew up with conservation and wildfire. Starker’s report urged the Park Service to allow natural fires that didn’t threaten development to run their course, and to set fires—prescribed burns—to thin the most overgrown forests. To many at the time, his ideas were the ravings of a madman.

A quarter century later, when lightning-caused fires that the Forest Service allowed to burn charred nearly a third of Yellowstone National Park, politicians and the public responded with outrage. But by time I was fighting fires, their benefit was clear. The forest ecosystems of Yellowstone were healthier a decade after the fires than they were a decade before them.

In 1995, the “Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review” noted the need to put fire back on the land to correct what had become known as the “fire deficit” in the nation’s woodlands. “The task before us—reintroducing fire—is both urgent and enormous,” the report said. “Conditions on millions of acres of wildlands increase the probability of large, intense fires beyond any scale yet witnessed. These severe fires will in turn increase the risk to humans, to property, and to the land [with] which our social and economic well-being is so intimately intertwined.”

But the reintroduction of fire hasn’t gone quite as planned. The excess timber and the warming and drying climate have made even carefully planned burns difficult to manage. And during the century in which the nation attempted to exclude fire from forests, they filled with homes. The woodlands that were most overgrown were often those closest to communities, where past fires were most aggressively snuffed. But those are also, of course, where the greatest resistance to prescribed burns and thinning projects lie.

A 2013 study by the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station noted that nearly a third of all U.S. homes were in the wildland-urban interface. So it should come as no surprise that four times more homes burned in U.S. wildfires in the 2010s than in the 1990s. As frightening as those numbers are, they’re likely just the beginning.

After the Big Blowup of 1910 inspired America to try to extinguish every wildfire in the country, foresters in the 2010s were finding that many of the nation’s efforts to put fire back into every forest were just as misguided. Colorado’s Front Range, for example, includes not just fire-starved ponderosa pine forests, but a much larger proportion of high country forests dominated by lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and spruce forests, arid mesas of piñons and junipers, and even ponderosas mixed with other conifers higher in the mountains. Many of them always had big, intense wildfires. So the lesson isn’t to stop thinning and burning the woods, but to focus those treatments where they will do the most good — overgrown ponderosa forests adjacent to homes and other development.

times more homes burned in U.S. wildfires in the 2010s than in the 1990s.

Heated debate

There are two camps battling in the ash of the past decade’s epic fire seasons. On one side, fire ecologists see flames as being as much a part of the forests as the trees, and believe that allowing natural fires to burn will heal those forests and keep them healthy. Firefighting, they say, should focus on protecting homes, watersheds, and infrastructure, while blazes in more remote woodlands should be allowed to run their course.

Humans don’t want intense blazes near their homes, but other plants and animals depend on them. Even the biggest and hottest fires leave pockets of slightly burnt or unburnt vegetation. Foresters refer to that pattern of lower- and higher-intensity burns as a “mosaic.” The right mix leads to a healthier forest with a variety of habitats for animals, more diverse vegetation, and a cleaner and more efficient watershed. In moderately burnt areas, seedlings can grow faster than they would have if the fire had not come through at all, while areas cooked by high-intensity fires may not show green for years.

“Snag forests”—remnants of severe fires in which only a few burnt trunks still stand—are a critical habitat for many species. Black-backed woodpeckers, for instance, are dependent on the charred trees in intensely burnt forests for their nests and the insects they eat. In the Northwest, reductions in the number of severely burnt forests over the past century led to declines in the woodpecker’s population.

On the other side of the debate, an alliance often called the “fire-industrial complex” believes that timber harvests and grazing animals can thin the woods, while investments in more aggressive firefighting and bigger and better technologies can protect the valuable resources that related industries depend on, as well as the communities spreading fast into the forests.

While judicious logging and grazing can reduce the amount of fuel available to burn in the forests, they can also increase fire activity. Timber interests prefer to harvest large trees, which are more profitable, but these are the very trees that make forests resilient to wildfire. Small trees and brush, the removal of which improves the health and lowers the flammability of the forests, hold little value. Debris from logging activities, known as slash, can fuel fires if it isn’t cleaned up properly. New logging roads allow more people into the woods, which leads to more campfires, more sparks from vehicles, and more flashes from firearms to ignite blazes.

Interestingly, although the nation’s investment in fighting wildfires has exploded, so have the frequency and intensity of those fires. “I’ve had firefighters tell me, ‘It’s like dumping dollars on the fire,’ ” said George Wuerthner, an ecologist who edited the book Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. Private companies supply everything from firefighters and bulldozers to caterers and mobile shower facilities for the fire camps. Most don’t get paid if they’re not actively fighting a fire, so they lobby to fight as many fires as they can.

“There will be an increasing polarization of this debate,” Crystal Kolden, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Idaho who focuses on wildfire, told me. “Science suggests that we should let more of these fires burn.” But the terror that large wildfires inspire, she said, allows profit to trump science.

“I’ve had firefighters tell me, ‘It’s like dumping dollars on the fire.'”

—George Wuerthner, ecologist and author

A warmer, drier west

The journal Ecosphere added fuel to a different fire when it published a study showing that changing precipitation patterns and increasing temperatures brought on by global warming would result in an increase in wildfires across more than 60 percent of the Earth’s land by the end of the century. June 2012, the warmest June on record in Colorado, had temperatures 6.4 degrees above average. “The conditions we saw in 2012 will be an average year in 2030,” Nolan Doesken, Colorado’s state climatologist, told me. “And a hotter Colorado is a more-vulnerable-to-wildfire Colorado.”

Similarly, in 2015, Alaska had its hottest May in 91 years. The next month 1.8 million acres burned there in just 12 days, nearly twice the previous record for acres burned over an entire June. Some 320 fires burned across the state, charring nearly half a million acres in a single day.

While the increasing acreage in flames was scary, what was actually burning was just as frightening, if less dramatic. In addition to vast evergreen forests, the fires burned deep into tundra and permafrost, which hold about twice the amount of carbon as is already in the atmosphere, as well as huge stores of methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas. One study showed that 60 percent of the climate-warming gases released in a large Alaska fire came not from burning trees and vegetation, but from the combustion of organic material in the soil.

With the wildfires themselves adding huge amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and thus warming the climate, they’ll likely drive even more fires.

Fighting tomorrow’s fires

The seed of mythology planted a century ago in the wreckage of the Big Blowup fire grew into a deeply rooted tree with myriad legends branching off of it. One was that we could eradicate natural fire from forests and fields as if it were an unwanted pest. Another, written in the sky over the flames, convinced the public and politicians that planes and retardant could contain every forest fire. Yet another was that new technologies—better fire shelters, more powerful computers—could allow men and women to stand up to conflagrations that were growing larger, faster, and hotter. Then there was the dogma that loggers and grazing animals could take the place of flames in maintaining the forest. And finally there was the delusion that we could build our homes ever deeper into the nation’s most flammable landscapes without facing any consequences.

While the recent deaths of firefighters in wildland fires—like the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2013 or the 53 who have succumbed since then—trimmed a few branches from that tangled tree of legends, it could save lives and homes in the future. Cutting down that towering tree altogether, however, will require America to see past the fantasies inspired by the dancing flames.

Excerpted from Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame by Michael Kodas. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Kodas. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Michael Kodas

Michael Kodas is the associate director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, an award-winning photojournalist and reporter, and author of the best-selling book High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.


In Megafire, a world-renowned journalist and forest fire expert travels to the most dangerous and remote wildernesses around the globe, as well as to the backyards of people faced with these environmental disasters, to look at the heart of this phenomenon and witness firsthand the heroic efforts of the firefighters and scientists racing against time to stop it—or at least to tame these deadly flames.

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