Wildfire in the West has become an uncontrollable force

A former fire dispatcher says last year’s fire season pushed firefighters to the edge.

 

It was midsummer in 2015, and the aircraft-dispatch board behind me was covered in scrawled phone numbers. Twenty-five aircraft managers were working the record-breaking fire season on the Idaho Panhandle, my first season as an aircraft dispatcher. Phones rang constantly, radios added their chatter, and every computer screen displayed maps of fires, weather or the location of airplanes.

For the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, 2015 ranked as the biggest fire year since 1926. Decades ago, a large fire was anything over 500 acres. These days, 500 acres would be considered small, and it’s not unusual anymore to see a fire torch 4,000 acres in just a few hours. Recent history tells us there’s a new trajectory for wildfire – toward fires that no one can understand, predict or “control.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise, the five worst years in wildfire history all occurred in the last decade. At one point in 2015, there were 27,000 firefighters trying to put out blazes across the West. In the dispatch center on the Idaho Panhandle, we worked 12-hour days, six days a week, from July until October. Our job was to move the necessary pieces — the aircraft, crews, and equipment — to whatever places fire managers and incident commanders told us to. And that summer, it was an almost endless job.

Flames of the 2013 Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest.

Like everyone working in fire last year, we were exhausted, overworked and overwhelmed.

In Montana, fire managers were watching fire models and using their extensive training and experience to manage fires just as they always had, only to have people on the ground begging them to understand that they were seeing something totally different. “Their models weren’t showing what a beast it actually was,” said a firefighter on the Flathead National Forest. She was talking about a fire that she barely escaped before it blew up. 

It occurred to me last August that wildfires have become qualitatively different. And it was a disturbing thought, the realization that no one had the ability to manage fire anymore. Fire managers can’t understand the fires we have today, because their training and experience are no longer relevant to modern-day fires.

Given the conditions now piling up — hot summers, long fire seasons, low snowpack, heavy fuel loading, an ignorant public, erratic storms — there is simply not enough education or experience available to help teach a fire manager what to do. It’s not the managers’ fault; it’s not any one person’s fault.

People with 30 years of experience are seeing things they’ve never seen on fires before. No one in 2014 could believe or understand all of the extreme fire behavior they saw that year, and then the erratic fires of 2015 surprised them again. This is not a manageable force of nature, and no one is qualified to manage it, because it’s never existed before.

When I’ve mentioned this to people who are not involved in fighting fire, I can see on their faces that they won’t, or can’t, believe me. Most people continue to think that we still have to put out every fire — an outdated idea — but even more worrisome is the fact that many people, including the fire managers themselves, apparently do not yet realize what wildfire has become, an unprecedented force. 

I am afraid of this force, and of the idea that we can still handle it. I recently left Forest Service dispatch for a variety of reasons, but one was that I was amazed we hadn’t had any fatalities on the national forest that year. Amazed. 

I don’t think it is necessary to always send crews in to save people’s homes or other structures. Sometimes, the most effective way to manage fire is to just keep people out of danger. The risk to firefighters is always present, but the risk now seems elevated beyond comprehension.

In order to avoid losing lives in this time of unprecedented fire behavior, fire managers — and all Westerners — need to recognize that there is no model for what we are already seeing this summer. The wildfire that destroyed 200 homes and killed an older couple near Lake Isabella, California, this June travelled 11 miles in its first 13 hours. “It was like a tornado,” a homeowner told the Associated Press, “but it was fire.”

The power of modern wildfire is astonishing and horrifying, and it far surpasses any previous experience or knowledge. Welcome to the future. 


Allison Linville is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of
High Country News. She lives in Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.