Tough questions are being raised about the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots in Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30. They were physically fit, highly trained young men, and they deployed emergency tent-like "shelters" in hellish temperatures that likely topped 1,200 degrees F. Burns and suffocation killed them, but were mistakes and bad policy also at fault?
Could the fire have been tackled earlier, when it was smaller and easier to control? Were weather reports of squirrely monsoon winds radioed promptly enough? Did the firefighters make good decisions that were trumped by nature? This deadly fire will be studied for years to come, like all the previous deadly fires.
But that's not enough.
Three days after the hotshots died, the headquarters for the war on wildfires -- in bureaucratic lingo, the National Multi Agency Coordinating Group -- declared a temporary "stand down" and "Operational Pause in Remembrance" for all U.S. wildland fire personnel. It's become a standard response after deaths -- a requirement that firefighters stop work for a few minutes to mourn and reflect. That's also not enough.
It's time for a more lasting and meaningful stand-down in this war, which mostly rages in the West. The cost in lives and treasure is just too high, and the battle has lost its focus; the national vision for fighting wildland fire has not kept up with reality.
As wildfires grow in size and severity, driven by climate change and other factors, we send tens of thousands of young men and women out every year with the implicit understanding that they will fight harder, and take greater risks, when homes are threatened. And millions more houses are threatened than ever before. Recent surveys show that about 9 percent of the nation's land area, containing 39 percent of all houses -- 44.8 million units -- is now part of the flammable wildland-urban interface. That's what the Yarnell firefighters were doing -- protecting houses.
We need to encourage firefighters to exercise more caution, even when homes are at stake. Let the fires that are riskiest for firefighters burn. And assure the firefighters that the nation will have their backs when the inevitable complaints pour in.
We have entered a new world of wildland fire, and it's going to get worse. It's hotter and drier; fire seasons begin earlier and last longer. Again and again, we hear firefighters say, as they did after the Arizona deaths, "These are the most extreme fire conditions we’ve ever seen." For those on the fire lines, climate change is a visible reality, not a Sunday morning talk-show debate by people who spend their time in air-conditioned homes and offices.