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Changes

In 1985, the suppression costs of wildfire were roughly 239 million dollars. In 2015, costs were 2.13 billion, almost 10 times as much. There were almost 15,000 fewer wildfires in 2015 (68,151) as in 1985 (82,591), but about 4 times as many acres burned. 

The problem is clear- wildfires are getting bigger, and throwing more money at the problem isn't solving anything. The solution is pretty simple in theory, not so simple in practice: Reduce the threat around communities through preventative vegetation management, point-protect vulnerable structures, and let the rest of it burn. 

This would not only save the public taxpayers a whole lot of money, but also the lives of firefighters, while restoring a necessary and natural process to our forests. Proactive instead of reactive. An upfront cost and effort taken to protect communities would safeguard communities and encourage public interaction, fostering a collective understanding of fire's role. Making this transition happen would be extraordinarily difficult, however. The system is in place, and difficult to change. 

We like to envision this project as the sparks of change, so to speak. We want to help people gather around this cause like a campfire. I am very glad to be using the pronoun 'we', as Fireline is growing into something greater. Stay tuned for a few changes.

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Close calls, no lessons...

We were on the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, which at 230,000 acres (or something), is the largest fire in New Mexico history. The fire was in the middle of the Gila Wilderness, and wasn't "burning out of control" or anything too special, it was just big. The fire mostly burned at a low intensity, through areas well-adapted to fire, largely as a result of extremely progressive fire management by the Gila National Forest. Well, I guess that's if you consider letting nature take it's course "progressive."

The Gila is an excellent role model for adaptive fire management. You could describe their management strategy as working with wildfire, and not against it, and it was very evident on the fireline. We had been burning for 10 days straight, reintroducing fire onto the landscape like a long-lost friend. I was admittedly very pleased at the general direction that management was heading with the Whitewater-Baldy fire, right up until the news broke that it was the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.

The next day, we were told that along with 3 other hotshot crews, we would be hiking into the Gila River Canyon- if you've never been, bring a satellite phone and all the climbing/rappelling gear you can find. As if the hairs on my neck hadn't yet stood fully upright, our Division leader proceeded to inform us that the only support we would have was from a Black Hawk helicopter stationed at a nearby National Guard Station, presumably flown by a pilot with no experience flying wildfire operations. However, we were told the helicopter WAS equipped with night vision. So there's that.

When pressed for a reason, the man who was sending us into the canyon could give none. We would only find out later that the reason we were being sent into this unbelievably dangerous situation was because the chief of the Forest Service decided to come out for a day trip. And apparently, Incident Management Teams get really uncomfortable when the Chief is in town, and the biggest fire in state history is all over the news, and it looks like they're just sitting on their hands.

This assignment was the type of "risk vs. gain" situation that every single person who has ever taken the most introductory wildfire course would think was a trick question. No one ever signed up to go dig hand line through a sparsely vegetated but extremely rugged and precipitous canyon in order to prevent an ecologically beneficial wildfire from crossing an imaginary line that someone in a tent 50 miles away drew in order to try and make their boss happy. No one. And no one should ever be subject to that kind of reckless endangerment again. It's criminal. 

Instead, not only one hotshot crew superintendent accepted the assignment. All four did. As if that wasn't enough, they then tried to outbid each other about who could get it done fastest. The scene was right out of a schoolyard dare. One tough guy decided his crew could do it in 3 days, the next guy said his crew would only need 2, and so on. They finally bargained each other down to a day and a half. And we did it. No one got hurt, by miraculous stroke of luck, which really is a testament to the physical capacities of the young men and women on the fireline. However, because no one got hurt, no one ever talked about how ridiculous the assignment was, and no lesson was ever learned.

Maybe this seems like an isolated incident, but I got stories like this for days and days. 

Let's talk about Southern California. I could devote an entire book series to all the bullshit I've seen in SoCal. However, there is one particular incident that stands out to me. 

We were on some fire by Goleta that had already burned up a few million dollar houses hidden out in the brushy hills of Santa Barbara County. When that happens, you can pretty much expect that every single proper tenet of firefighting has been tossed out the window in favor of a media-friendly, public relations strategy. Which is how we found ourselves 3 miles from Alan Parsons' house at the bottom of an oven-like canyon whose walls were 70-degree inclined, in the thickest, nastiest chapparral jungle I have ever seen. Did I mention we were only 3 miles from one of Alan Parsons' houses? You know, Alan Parsons of the Alan Parsons Project?

Five hotshot crews (100 people) were flown up by helicopter near Condor Peak, in order to cut line through chaparral forest 30-40 feet tall. We were told to secure the fire's edge, which had stopped progressing and had instead been smoldering in the oak litter for a few days, curing out the underbrush and waiting for a good wind event to come alive again. Anyone who knows anything about smoldering oak brush, wind events, and steep-ass canyons knows where I'm heading with this is, and it's bad news, jack.

We went into that canyon every morning and out every night, and I let anyone who would listen know my exact feelings on the situation. Everyone did. It just never made it past a shoulder shrug and "Yea, I know. We all know." As the day heated up on the last day of our tour, a Santa Ana wind blew down from the golden hills to the east. That evening we sat on Alan Parson's lawn and watched the canyon we were in only two hours before explode and burn into the night.

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Initial thoughts

Wildfire is not the destructive, devastating thing it is made out to be. Sure, it can be, but only because a century of forest fire exclusion has resulted in tinderbox-like conditions prone to high-intensity, high-severity crown fires. Fire is a natural process, one that keeps forests healthy. It encourages seed germination in some species, adds nitrogen to soils, and clears out excess debris and young trees. When we stop natural wildfires from happening, forests get overly dense, and burn catastrophically. We need to take the fear out of fire, stop fighting nature, and start working towards a sustainable future with fire on the landscape.

Lightning is a natural ignition source, unlike a campfire or cigarette, and these fires should be allowed to burn despite what Smokey the Bear has told us. Even forests that are left moonscapes by powerful, high-severity and high-intensity wildfires come back in time. Life goes on, and while grasslands and oak brush and juniper may not look as nice to the average home buyer as the forest that preceded it, the mountains don't care. The mountains have seen everything from deserts to alpine forests come and go, blowing away on the winds of time. 

The situation is so much more complex than we want it to be. Our relationship with wildfire needs to change, because it is costing lives. A lack of public understanding about wildfire has allowed local and national media to pounce on the fear that has been instilled by shortsighted government land management policy. Unfortunately, getting the right message across to the public is difficult because of many reasons.

We are subject to short-sighted tactical decisions that are made because the media stirs up fear where none should exist. The City of Sedona lost $1 billion in tourism because people thought the Slide Fire was still burning for months after it had gone out. That is real money, and real power. Can you imagine if that power was directed appropriately? Everyone loves a hero, but as it stands, the media loves them even more when they die. Hero deaths = great ratings = very scary predicament. 

We are subject to these short-sighted tactical decisions because of agency liability. If a Public Information Officer told the truth to the media, and said that "everything is under control, you guys should really chill out", and then someone got hurt or a house burned down, it would make the agency look bad. If a fire is being intensely covered by the media, there is a much stronger impetus to put it out as quickly as possible. This often translates to "as dangerously as possible".

However, the real kicker to all of this is that there is an answer, a solution to the problem. If the right message was told by the right messengers, and everyone heard and understood the real story, including the science, politics, and the human side, the problem would not exist at all. We would be ok with letting fires burn in the middle of nowhere, and accepting smoke impacts as part of our lives in a fire-prone landscape. We wouldn't be sending young men and women to the front lines of climate change, asking them to risk their lives for a lost cause. Instead we would develop programs that fund preventive actions around fire-prone communities, stopping the problem before it starts, and allowing our forests to heal with fire.

Instead of being sent into situations with extreme exposure, firefighters should be preemptively clearing brush around structures while fire is still far away, and leaving long before it gets there. They should be putting some fire on the ground here and there to help the fire along or to tidy up the edges. They should NOT be suppressing fires in desolate wilderness, they should NOT be dragging hand line that they know will be abandoned into steep canyons where if something goes wrong the whole crew is toast. They should NOT be subject to the whimsical objectives of a homesick Division leader who hasn't left his truck for two weeks, or to tactical decisions based upon political pressure from high above. For every close call there is a lesson learned, but for every pattern that emerges, there exists a need for rapid and systemic change.

As long as the message gets out, the problem gets solved. That's where Fireline, and more importantly you, come in. The vision is firefighters telling their story directly, and the message is clear: our lives are not disposable. We won't suffer and die anymore for a broken system. Please share this project and this message with whoever you think might listen, please help us get the message out.

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