The worst manmade wildfires

by Ray Ring

As I write this, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise reports that there are "four new large fires” in Colorado, Arizona and Utah. Two other large fires have just been "contained” by firefighters in California and Idaho. And 55 additional large fires -- ranging from the Southwest to Wyoming to Alaska -- "are being managed to achieve multiple objectives,” such as limiting the risk to people and houses.

We're in the middle of wildfire season and it's already clear that at least a couple million acres of public land will burn this year, mostly in the West -- a typical annual total nowadays. Hundreds of houses will be consumed, and probably a few people will die in the flames. It's a good time for reflection.

Many Westerners still view wildfires as primarily natural events. But actually, most or all of today's wildfires are either caused by human beings or made worse by human actions.

Even when a blaze is ignited by lightning, two big factors influence how much it burns. Our dedication to aggressive fire suppression over the past century has allowed an unnatural buildup of fuels on the public lands. And climate change -- driven by our heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide and methane -- results in worsening droughts, higher temperatures, insect epidemics and other stresses that make vegetation more prone to burn.

And all too often, people cause the ignitions. Some are accidents -- a careless campfire, equipment sparks, snapped electrical lines. And a surprising number -- maybe about 10 percent -- are deliberate, started intentionally, either for personal gain or just for the hell of it.

"Wildfire arsonists.” The term might seem strange, because wildfire arsonists don't get much publicity. But as our cover story and a sidebar reveal, they're not a rare breed.

We're pleased to have John N. Maclean, a nationally respected wildfire writer, investigating the battle against these arsonists. He's written several books on disastrous Western wildfires and has the topic in his blood; his father, Norman Maclean, wrote the genre's most famous book, Young Men and Fire, as well as the classic literary exploration of Montana fly-fishing and human frailty, A River Runs Through It.

Wildfire arsonists wield a devilish power over the environment and other people. Maclean focuses on a particularly terrible case and the toughest form of justice. It's a riveting and timely read.

We're also pleased to have Paul Lachine illustrate Maclean's story. Lachine, a Canadian, previously illustrated HCN spreads on alternative energy, salmon and recycling wastewater into drinking water (those startling images won an international award). Lachine's wildfire arson images add graphic heat to a compelling story.

NOTE: This is the editor's note accompanying a cover story, "The Fiery Touch."

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