Type "wildfire" into your Google news search box on any given summer day, and you'll get more than 15,000 news stories to sift through. As I write this, on Aug. 19, a brush fire has just burned 250 acres in Southern California, buildings in Reno have been devoured by wildfire, and a huge fire in Washington is ripping through hundreds of acres -- and these are mellow times compared to several weeks ago, when much of Northern California was aflame. California wants the president to declare the state a major disaster area.
Here in the West, between June and October, it's routine to see infernal headlines almost every day. On the rare day when a big fire is not bearing down on a subdivision somewhere, the media spends its time on analysis. Scientists blame the conflagrations on climate change, or a century of fire suppression, or drought, or pine beetles -- sometimes even on environmentalists. Editorial pages hint at fixes: Put more restrictions on development in fire-prone areas; let some fires burn; cap daily expenditures on fighting fire.
Though this is all repeated every summer, we have yet to see any substantial shift in the collective mindset when it comes to wildfire in the West. Sure, some folks who live in the woods are cutting a few trees down to create defensible space. Some county governments are slowly implementing regulations to facilitate firefighting in the wildland-urban sprawl zone. And the feds are letting a few more fires burn each year. But there seems to be a general belief that this summer's catastrophic blazes (and the ones before that, and the ones before that) were an anomaly, and that next summer will be different. People continue to obliviously build homes in tinderbox woodlands, and then demand a costly air and ground war to save their little piece of paradise when the flames inevitably arrive. Congress futilely attempts to stem the flow of taxpayer money to fires by capping the budget. Then, just as sure as summer, supplementary budgets are drawn up to support more spending. Substantial policy changes on a local, state or federal level are nowhere to be seen. Unless they're demanding that more resources be thrown at a particular fire that is threatening their constituents' homes, politicians tend to avoid the topic of wildfire policy altogether.
When are we going to wake up?
There was a time when High Country News was one of the few media outlets to devote a lot of space to wildfire science and policy. But with the media now saturated with fire coverage, a lot of it pretty good (check out the recent series in the Los Angeles Times, for example), we decided to offer fire-related content of a sort that can't be found anywhere else. In this issue, Matt Jenkins indulges his heavy-equipment fetish with a colorful piece about Teutonic firefighting machines in the Great Basin. Erin Halcomb, who has spent a few summers in fire lookouts herself, tells us about a woman who's spent five decades doing that. And Eric Wagner pens a nice piece about the newfangled fire lookouts -- perhaps the first wildfire article in history to also talk about beeturia.