In late September, the Arizona State Forestry Division released its Serious Accident Investigation report on the Yarnell Hill Fire, which in June killed 19 brave members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The report reignited the debate over who, if anyone, was responsible for those deaths, and we hope the wildland firefighting community can find valuable lessons in the details of the report. As important as those lessons may be, however, the real significance of Yarnell Hill may be what it tells us about the future of wildfire.
Over the past century, we have come to see events like Yarnell Hill as infrequent but inevitable, the result of a dangerous and difficult job and part of the cost incurred to protect lives and property. Yarnell Hill was immediately compared to other tragic wildfires, such as Devil’s Broom in 1910, Mann Gulch in 1949, and South Canyon in 1994. But Yarnell Hill also suggests a new era, and it delivers a stern warning: Wildfires will inflict death on this scale again, and possibly much sooner than we would have expected in the past.
The current wildfire threat, driven in part by a warming climate, is the most severe we have ever faced. Incremental temperature increases result in an earlier snowmelt, a drier environment, and a longer wildfire season; they can also stress vegetation and encourage insect infestation, which add to fuel supplies. Aggressive suppression efforts in recent decades have impeded the natural process that burned off those fuels. Combine these factors, and almost any wildfire has the potential to grow into a behemoth. Wildfire threatens the safety and economic well-being of tens of millions of Americans who live in or near the wildland/urban interface, areas of the country that are most susceptible to fire and are experiencing some of the nation’s most dramatic population growth.
With such clear evidence of this threat, you would expect the federal government to rush to take action. Instead, its response has been uneven. It has pulled resources away from the most basic needs of communities threatened by wildfire. Shrinking appropriations forced the U.S. Forest Service to cut back this year on mitigation programs; removing dry brush from forests is a proven way to prevent fires from getting out of control, but hundreds of millions of dollars have been slashed from the budget to fund that work.
Even though the number and size of fires have grown, the Forest Service hired 500 fewer seasonal firefighters this year than a year ago.
It is important to note that, while the federal government supports excellent programs to help communities adopt policies to make them safer — NFPA is proud to partner with the Forest Service on our Firewise and Fire Adapted Communities programs — those efforts are not enough. We ask emergency responders to be ready to manage the evacuation of their communities and assume primary responsibility in case of a wildfire, yet we do not provide them with enough training and equipment. We treat the wildfire problem like it is some sort of fluke, an aberration that will run its course, when in fact it is a problem that will grow steadily worse over the next generation, draining billions of dollars for suppression efforts, disrupting the lives of millions of Americans, and putting more and more firefighters in harm’s way.
We need to prevent another Yarnell Hill at all costs. To do so, we need a better coordinated national effort to deal with fundamental changes in the nature, scope, and consequences of wildfires.