It’s Getting Harder To Fight Wildfires, Just As They Get More Common
Swaths of wildlands from Arizona to California on up to British Columbia have been going up in flames this summer. And lately, some fires have started in Colorado, in tandem with experiencing smoke and soot blowing in from fires in Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.
It’s all part of a growing epidemic, says journalist Michael Kodas, author of a new book, “Megafire: The Race To Extinguish A Deadly Epidemic Of Flame.” Kodas is also deputy director of the environmental journalism program at the University of Colorado Boulder.
While it has been somewhat quiet, Colorado broke the record for its most destructive fire every year for four years in a row, starting in 2012. One of those fires was the Waldo Canyon fire, which Kodas noted was “the first time we had seen a wildfire turn into an urban firestorm in Colorado.”
“Most of the residents that lost their homes in Colorado Springs felt like they lived in suburbia, and they did. They lived on paved roads. Most of the trees that carried fire to homes were trees that they had planted. It was their landscaping that burned. Or the rails of a cedar fence that carried the fire to the home, so most of them had no idea that they lived in what we call the wildland urban interface, where homes risk burning in wildfires.”
Now, Kodas points out, the U.S. Forest Service has estimated that nearly a third of homes in the United States are in the wildland urban interface.
Interview Highlights With Michael Kodas
On one third of U.S. homes now being in the wildland urban interface:
“Across the country. And in Colorado, a story I did back in 2012, we basically just laid census data over maps of what we call the red zone in Colorado, which are our most flammable forests, and that showed about 100,000 people in Colorado moving into our most flammable forests just in a ten year period between 2000 and 2010.”
On the start of U.S. wildfire firefighting policy:
“The United States basically declared war on wildfire about a century ago, after a fire in 1910 called “The Big Blowup” that was about the size of Connecticut and burned in Montana and Idaho, where a lot of the smoke that we're experiencing in Colorado right now is coming from. They eventually put in an out-by-10:00 a.m. policy. Any natural wildfire that was seen across the country was supposed to be extinguished by 10:00 a.m. the next day.”
On how policy has changed in recent years:
“There are several land management agencies that are involved in fighting wildfire. The Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the nature of the federal bureaucracy is to look for blanket policies. But our forests are very, very diverse. Different types of trees, different types of forests have different types of fire. So when we reintroduce fire into these forests, some forests are really overgrown, and if you can safely reintroduce fire in them, you can thin them out, and get a natural fire cycle burning in them. Again, a lot of Ponderosa Pine forests are like that.”
On the question of whether it's a good idea to reintroduce fire into these landscapes, via prescribed burns:
“So, they're going to burn one way or another and trying to figure out how we can reintroduce fire in a safe way, at a time of year when it's moist, and there's snow on the ground so that we can have fire that is easy to deal with, and less threatening to nearby residents. Perhaps in which cases where we can manage the smoke, so that it's not causing a lot of health problems for people in the area, is probably going to be more easy for society to deal with than just waiting for the bad fire to ignite in really serious fire weather, in the middle of the summer, when we have no chance of dealing with that fire.”
Read The Transcript
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR news. I'm Ryan Warner. Smoke from forest fires raging in other states has made for awful air condition, air conditions that is, in the past few days. Colorado's had a relatively calm fire season, but that's just not the case across much of the rest of the West. The recent trend of more and bigger fires has continued. Journalist Michael Kodas has investigated. His new book is Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame. Kodas teaches at the University of Colorado, and welcome to the program.
Michael Kodas: Thanks for having me on.
RW: I understand as you were starting to work on this book several years ago you lived in Chautauqua in Boulder, just under the Flatirons, and as you sit down to write about fire you realize how close fire was getting to you. What happened?
MK: Well, I was actually moving into the cottage that I would spend the academic year in in Chautauqua when I noticed the smoke and dropped the boxes I was carrying and went up to the top of one of the Flatirons to kind of see where the smoke was coming from, and then moved to an area where I could actually see the flames. And by then the fire that burned outside Boulder in 2010 on Labor Day was already burning down homes.
RW: You were witnessing that. It was actually the first time, even though you'd fought fires in your past, the first time you'd seen flames engulfing homes.
MK: Yeah. You know, wildland firefighters are generally not supposed to be protecting homes. We're supposed to protect forests and grasslands and vegetated landscapes. So, while I encountered cabins and helped to mitigate them from flames that might approach them, I never had actually been in a fire where I saw a home burn at all, and certainly never saw a fire like we saw on Labor Day, that Labor Day, destroy a number of homes.
RW: We will talk about your experience fighting fires in a bit, but that same year saw your brother's home in California burn down. Is that right?
MK: Actually that was about five years later.
MK: So as I was finishing the book, and that was one of the challenges with writing a book like this. I'm a journalist who likes to do things that are topical and developing, and when you're writing a book, things that develop as you're writing tend to force you to shred a lot of pages and start over. So I'd finished the book a few times and then had to go back and change things. And one of the incidents that caused that was hearing from my brother that his place that he lived in had burned in the Valley fire in California.
RW: You write that Colorado broke the record for its most destructive fire every year for four years in a row, starting in 2012. One was the Waldo Canyon fire outside of Colorado Springs. Did residents there have any idea that they were vulnerable?
MK: Well, most of the residents that lost their homes in Colorado Springs felt like they lived in suburbia, and they did. They lived on paved roads. Most of the trees that carried fire to homes were trees that they had planted. It was their landscaping that burned. Or the rails of a cedar fence that carried the fire to the home, so most of them had no idea that they lived in what we call the wildland urban interface where homes risk burning in wildfires. And that's the first time we had seen a wildfire turn into an urban firestorm in Colorado. It's happened in California before and I believe in Texas, but Colorado had never seen a fire behave like that and ignite a portion of a city.
RW: You've mentioned the wildland urban interface. This is often where the city or the suburban areas meet the forest. There's been tremendous growth in those areas, making more people vulnerable to fire.
MK: Yeah. The U.S. Forest Service a few years ago estimated that nearly a third of U.S. homes now are in the wildland urban interface where they risk burning in a wildfire.
RW: A third of homes?
MK: Yeah, across the country. And in Colorado, a story I did back in 2012, we basically just laid census data over maps of what we call the red zone in Colorado, which are our most flammable forests, and that showed about 100,000 people in Colorado moving into our most flammable forests just in a ten year period between 2000 and 2010.
RW: So that is one force, one trend behind what you call megafires. Climate change is also a part of this and there's also this idea that a canopy has built up of trees in part because for decades the U.S. put out so many fires. There was this policy that a fire be put out by, what, 10:00 a.m. the next day after it burned, began.
MK: Yeah. The United States basically declared war on wildfire about a century ago, after a fire in 1910 called "The Big Blowup" that was about the size of Connecticut and burned in Montana and Idaho, where a lot of the smoke that we're experiencing in Colorado right now is coming from. They eventually put in an out-by-10:00 a.m. policy. Any natural wildfire that was seen across the country was supposed to be extinguished by 10:00 a.m. the next day. And in some forests in the U.S., particularly ponderosa pine forests in the Southwest, in Arizona, New Mexico, and in parts of Colorado, that led to a huge buildup of fuels. So ponderosa pine forests, a lot of them have a natural fire cycle of burning every 10 or 20 years, so if you put out every fire for a century, it's pretty easy math to see that you could easily increase the fuel load in there tenfold.
RW: You write "Forests in Colorado's Front Range have missed three, four, or five fire cycles that would have thinned them during the last century". So to what extent has awareness of that history contributing to mega fires. Has that changed policy in recent years, say at the Forest Service?
MK: It has changed policy. It's challenging to change policy the right way, because what has happened in the United States, is the government, the Forest Service in particular, but there are several land management agencies that are involved in fighting wildfire. The Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the nature of the federal bureaucracy is to look for blanket policies. But our forests are very, very diverse. Different types of trees, different types of forests have different types of fire. So when we reintroduce fire into these forests, some forests are really overgrown, and if you can safely reintroduce fire in them, you can thin them out, and get a natural fire cycle burning in them. Again, a lot of Ponderosa Pine forests are like that.
RW: Okay, so that has happened to some extent.
MK: To some extent, but other forests really have not shown an increase in fire severity due to excess suppression, as they call it, putting out too many fires. These forests probably always had infrequent but very severe, you know, what we would call today, "Mega fires." Reintroducing fire into those forests is not going to change the fire behavior in them. One study that came out a couple of years ago showed that just about 16% of Front Range Ponderosa Pine forests showed an increase in fire severity due the fires that were extinguished in them in the past. Now, the other side of that is that 16% where we put out fires, and cause fires to get worse in the future, is precisely where we like to live, and build the most mountain homes.
RW: Ah, I see, so that's critical landscape?
RW: Reintroducing fire, it can be tricky. Of course, we saw that with the Lower North Fork Fire in Jefferson County in 2012. That was a prescribed burn that got out of control. Briefly, what happened there?
MK: Well, it was a prescribed burn in a time of year when usually it's a really good time to do that. It was basically right at the beginning of spring. Usually there's a lot of snow on the ground still, and the temperatures are low. It's easy to control and extinguish one of these fires. That year was a historic drought. The mountains got far less snow, and so they had the prescribed burn, the Colorado State Forest Service managed it for Denver Water, on Denver Water Board land and it is really important to protect those watersheds-
RW: Yeah, it was with this overgrowth in mind that they did this.
MK: Yeah, and they extinguished the fire, and everything seemed to have gone pretty well. A few days later, we had what we call a "red flag warning," which is basically that we've got extreme fire weather coming on, so the temperatures rose a lot, the humidity plummeted, and we had very strong winds come in. The fire that they thought was basically out, reignited, and burned into the forest, and burned into a neighborhood in Jefferson County, killing three of its residents, and destroying a number of homes.
RW: This is emblematic of the fact that the fire season has essentially grown by two months in Colorado, because of meteorological factors. Climate change is a part of that. So where do you land then, on this question of reintroducing fire into landscapes? It sounds like it can both work, but also be dangerous. What's the answer there?
MK: Well, it's a very tricky process reintroducing fire into these landscapes, but one thing to recognize is that fire is nature to all of these vegetated landscapes, and many forests, basically any forest, needs a fire cycle just like it needs a rain cycle. It doesn't need fire as often as it needs rain, but fire keeps it healthy. So they're going to burn one way or another and trying to figure out how we can reintroduce fire in a safe way, at a time of year when it's moist and there's snow on the ground, so that we can have fire that is easy to deal with, and less threatening to nearby residents, perhaps in which, in cases where we can manage the smoke, so that it's not causing a lot of health problems for people in the area, is probably going to be more easy for society to deal with than just waiting for the bad fire to ignite in really serious fire weather, in the middle of the summer, when we have no chance of dealing with that fire.
RW: It sounds like you don't think the federal government has yet found the right balance there, or identified the right plan to do that.
MK: Yeah, I don't think many governments have found the right balance there. One reason for that, is that these burns are incredibly expensive. Dealing with an overgrown forest is far more expensive than anybody anticipated when we started to think about this 20, 30 years ago.
RW: Yeah, but isn't it really expensive to put out an enormous fire that threatens homes, and that isn't planned and controlled?
MK: Of course it is, but then we're responding to it as a disaster, and it's come up, and so now the expense is something that we run into our coffers and get the money, because we have to, as opposed to trying to get politicians to approve spending a huge amount of money to prepare for a disaster that may or may not happen in the future.
RW: Speaking of money, what do we spend as a country on wildfire? Is it more, less than it has been, and is it money well spent? Are we directing it in the right way?
MK: We have seen an increase in expenditure on wildfire, that pretty much parallels the huge increase in wildfire that we've seen in the last 30 or 40 years in the west. In 1995, the Forest Service spent about 16% of its budget on wildfires. In 2015 they spent 52% of their budget on wildfires. From the '90s to now, in the early '90s, on average we spend about $300 million dealing with wildfires, and that generally includes preparing for them, fighting them, helping landscapes recover from them after the fact. If you add that all up now, in a bad fire year we spend $3 billion or more on wildfires, so the costs are escalating rapidly.
RW: But it sounds like a lot of that is spent on fighting fires in that kind of disaster mindset as opposed to the preventative efforts. Am I right about that?
MK: Yeah. And as we increase the costs, that gets worse, because what generally happens is the government runs out of money to fight wildfires around this time of year, August or September, and they have to go to other funds to get enough money to continue the fights. We ran out of money about a month ago to fight wildfires in the U.S.
RW: Oh, wow.
MK: So they got other funds. If you're kind, they call it fire borrowing. If you're a firefighter who's frustrated by it, the first firefighters who talked to me about it called it the annual fire theft. The funds that they get to continue fighting fires first come from the very budgets that we need to prepare for wildfires, so the budgets for mitigating and preparing for future wildfires get emptied to fight the fires that we have right now.
RW: Let's continue this discussion with Michael Kodas. He's the author of the new book Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame after a break. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Let's rejoin my conversation with Boulder environmental journalist Michael Kodas. He's the author of the new book Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame. He says that megafires are occurring as they are today in the West for a host of reasons, climate change among them, the idea that more people are moving into forested areas as well, and land policy.
I want to talk about wildfire globally, though. So often, the West is the focus. Have other countries had that kind of Smokey Bear, put out the fire suppression policy like the U.S.?
RW: Not quite as aggressive as our Smokey Bear policy. I don't think, and that’s maybe unfair to Smokey Bear to call it his policy, but our government's policy of basically being at war with wildfire. There's certainly nations out there that are very aggressive with wildfire and have fought a lot of fires. Sometimes the forest management issues in other countries aren't so much that they put out so many fires and made the forests get overgrown, but it's what they planted in the forest. For instance, I went and covered a fire in Israel, which was their greatest natural disaster. It was a fire in 2010 that killed 44 people, including the police commissioner, the police chief of Haifa, 36 prison guards, all official people that died in this fire.
You wouldn’t think of Israel as having a wildfire problem, but almost 70% of their forests have been planted in the last century or so. They planted pine trees, both because they wanted to have a more forested landscape and in some cases because they thought they would have timber industries that would grow out of that. Now that those pine trees has matured, they’ve actually found that they're a terrible fire hazard when they're planted in dry and arid landscapes like Israel.
RW: You found in Indonesia that there is a character that’s kind of their version of Smokey the Bear who's an orangutan.
MK: Yeah. They have a nice patch on their shoulders of the fire service there that’s an orangutan, which is, an orangutan's already an orange creature, and the orangutan with flames behind him is quite dramatic. But the Indonesian issue with wildfire is also tied to us. They had fires, they have fires every year. They're all human-started and then they often lose control of them. They're started for agriculture to clear fields for things like palm oil, and back here in the United States about half of the products that we can get in any of our grocery stores have palm oil in them. The fires put a haze over Southeast Asia every year, but in 2015, the fires were so serious that for about 40 days, Indonesia was putting out more greenhouse gases from their wildfires than the entire U.S. economy was putting out.
RW: Oh, my. We have talked about fires on the Front Range, and I think that’s often what comes to mind when I think about homes encroaching on forests, but you also write about a big fire on the Eastern Plains, the Heartstrong Fire in 2012, I believe. What interested you about that?
MK: Well, I grew up in Kansas, and fire is really important in the landscape I came from. Ranchers from as far away as Mexico still bring their cattle up to Kansas to graze on burned fields there because the cattle can gain between 10 and 20% more weight when they graze on grass that’s in a recently burned field. So I grew up kind of seeing fires intentionally set on ranch land to revitalize the grasses. When I heard about this fire, the Heartstrong Fire, and saw the photographs of it, this was not anything like I'd seen before. It looked like something out of a monster movie. A family of firefighters were burned over in that, and that really fascinated me because here in Colorado, more than half of the firefighters are volunteers with little operations like the ones that the family I write about in the book were in and-
RW: You write that this family was essentially about 40% of this firefighting force.
MK: Right. Any time there was a response to a fire, sometimes it would be all members of the same family that were responding to this. You can see the risk with that if something horrible was to happen, what it would do to a family like that. Also, the devotion of farmers and ranchers who have pretty hard jobs already to maintain a firehouse and maintain the firefighting equipment and go out and help their neighbors. That's something we don't see a lot of in the media coverage, not because the media doesn't choose to cover it, but because these grass fires are often so fast that, by the time the television cameras get out there, it's over. The people who dealt with that are almost always volunteers working out on the Plains in little fire departments that they put together and invest a lot in, and I thought that that was a really good place to start writing about Colorado's fires, was with a family of volunteers.
MK: Right. Yeah, the Struckmeyer family out there had a lot of their regular day-to-day life interrupted by fires that they had to deal with out on the Plains.
RW: Do you see positive signs at all in how this country is approaching fires: fire mitigation, fire response?
MK: Yeah. It's been very, very slow, and some of it is going to be forced on us for the wrong reasons, like costs. We're just going to run out of money to deal with fires the way that we do. One positive change has been policies like being able to manage a fire for multiple objectives. Fire is really important to a lot of our wildernesses. There's both too much of the wrong kind of fire in this country, but we also have a fire deficit in a lot of forests, like in our wilderness, where they need more fire to be healthy. A lot of animal species depend on severely burned forests for habitat.
So, now fire managers can manage a fire for multiple objectives. So you can choose one flank and say, "Hey, this threatens a resource that we depend on, like a watershed, or maybe infrastructure, or homes, and we're going to fight the fire really hard on this flank. But, on this other flank, where it's burning into this wilderness area, and we don't have a lot of homes or infrastructure at risk, we can let this fire go for a little bit and do good work for us, maybe make the next fire less severe." That's going to be a lot more cost-effective, and it's actually going to be good environmentally for that particular area.
RW: I see. So, one fire can have multiple dimensions, multiple uses. You write about something called the fire industrial complex. I guess it's like the military industrial complex, the idea that people are profiting off firefighting policies, which don't always make sense from a scientific or societal point of view. You write about aircraft in particular. Colorado's legislature appropriated about $20 million to buy firefighting planes a few years ago. Was that a waste of money?
MK: I don't think it was, over its entirety, a waste of money. Some of the things they invested in make a lot of sense. One plane that helps them find fires much more quickly makes a lot of sense to most of the firefighters I interviewed about that.
RW: Essentially it's fire surveillance, looking out for fires.
MK: Right. It's a plane that you can mobilize very quickly. It's small. For instance, the Waldo Canyon fire, one reason that that blew up was that they had great difficulty finding that fire for almost a day. So, an aircraft that can fly over that with really sensitive instruments that can pinpoint exactly where the fire is and let firefighters know where to go, that makes a lot of sense to most of the firefighters I've talked to.
RW: Waldo Canyon was in 2012 outside Colorado Springs.
MK: Right. However, sometimes, like investments in larger air tankers, which I don't think we have bought for Colorado, but some legislators are asking for, we've never really come up short of aircraft when we've needed them to fight fires in the state. Now, there's a fear, as we have more and more severe fires, we're going to need more aircraft, but a lot of firefighters think it's kind of nuts for us to spend a lot of money on large air tankers that take a long time to mobilize, are incredibly expensive, and usually we can get them from the usual contractors nationally that we need them for.
RW: I see. As opposed to the state owning and operating them.
MK: Yeah, so that investment some firefighters thought was not necessarily well-placed.
RW: Before we go, I want to ask you a question as a firefighter, because you actually worked on a crew several years ago. What are some of the more unexpected things you learned as a wildland firefighter that you think, I don't know, anyone living in Colorado should know? I think of the fact that the blackened burned area is the safest place to be.
MK: Sure. Being in the black is the safe zone. So going to where the fire has already burned everything away, that's a place where you can survive the fire. It's unlikely to be able to get back in there. It doesn't have much left to burn there. Yeah, lots of firefighting safety issues and fire behavior issues that I learned about were fascinating; but, what really kind of blew my mind and got me really interested in investigating the topic was how often economics or cultural issues were playing into how we fought fires.
So I dealt with people who, at one point I was on a fire in Colorado where a young boy got up and sang a song, thanking the firefighters for saving his house. When I commented, "Boy, that was really cute. That's really heartwarming," one of the gruff, veteran firefighters I was with said, "Yeah, he sang it better last year. It's like every time we come to this area this kid gets up and sings a song thanking us. His family's home's never really been threatened, but they make a lot of money when the firefighters are here, and so they really like it when we come back."
RW: Ah. From the groups of firefighters there that require services, and meals, and things.
MK: Right, exactly, that there's an economic boost. In fact, some of the firefighters I was with called it 'fire tourism' dollars. So there's that. There's the fact that politicians play a huge role in where we choose to fight fires and sometimes for strange reasons. In one case, one fire we were on we learned was being fought because somebody in Washington had a fishing trip planned to the area, and they didn't want any smoke in the air when they were having their fishing trip.
RW: It was Dick Cheney.
RW: Okay. Thanks for being with us, Michael. Appreciate it.
MK: Thanks for having me.
RW: Michael Kodas is an award-winning photojournalist and reporter. He helps lead CU's Center for Environmental Journalism and we talked about his new book, Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame. He will be at the Tattered Cover Bookstore on Colfax in Denver tonight. Coming up: Are tent communities a good way to house the homeless, at least for awhile. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.