Earlier this summer, the city of Prescott lost nineteen elite ﬁreﬁghters at the Yarnell Hill ﬁre in Arizona. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were found in their ﬁre shelters, emergency tents meant to be deployed as an absolute last resort. I didn’t know any of them personally, yet having spent the last several months immersed in ﬁreﬁghting culture at the Smokejumper Visitors Center, I was especially heartbroken by the news of their deaths. After giving my tours, I would sit behind the desk and stare at the mock ﬁre shelter on display across the room. The one in our visitor center looked like a one-person foil tent with a plastic window revealing a cardboard cutout of a ﬁreﬁghter tucked inside. The shelter is a combination of aluminum, silicon, and ﬁberglass, and is designed to protect its inhabitant by trapping breathable air and deﬂecting radiant heat. The shelter’s training manual describes use as “entrapment” and is candid about what it might feel like in the event of a ﬂame front: Entrapment can be extremely frightening and may lead to panic … During the ﬁre’s peak, the noise will be deafening…Leaving a shelter too soon can expose your lungs to superheated air or dense smoke. Typical entrapments have lasted from 10 to longer than 90 minutes. Since 1977, ﬁre shelters have saved the lives of over 300 ﬁreﬁghters. Some of their testimonies are published in the manual. As I read through them, I couldn’t stop imagining the terrible fates of the nineteen Granite Mountain hotshots.
At ﬁrst, I couldn’t justify the tragedy. These ﬁreﬁghters lost their lives for what? To protect a couple of structures? If this is the terrible cost, surely we must reevaluate how we approach wildland ﬁres. When it comes to hurricanes and earthquakes, we work to implement preventative measures beforehand to minimize damage, and if things take a turn for the worse we get everyone out of harm’s way. We accept that Mother Nature will wreak havoc on our homes and don’t send individuals out as some kind of front-line defense against the natural disaster. Furthermore, if we decide to evacuate, we don’t expect others to risk their lives trying to save the property we abandon. So why do we respond diﬀerently when it comes to wildﬁre? I posed this question to a group of visitors on my tour today. I asked whether they’d be more upset to hear about twenty ﬁreﬁghters who died trying to protect homes or a huge wildﬁre being left to burn itself out. Many agreed that it would be awful to hear about the deaths, but infuriating to discover that nothing was being done to contain a ﬁre. “If we don’t suppress that ﬁre, we’re putting the lives of so many others at risk,” exclaimed a tall, red-haired woman. I then reminded my group that ﬁre was a vital component to preserving an ecosystem’s functionality. Everyone nodded reluctantly; we can all recall that basic fact from grade school biology class. So if there were plenty of time to evacuate nearby communities, would it be okay to let the ﬁre burn? “Of course not! Thousands of homes will be lost unnecessarily. Fire might be beneﬁcial for nature, but it oﬀers no beneﬁt for our homes and businesses.” Good point, but I pressed on. “All right then. What about ﬁres that are threatening just a few structures, like country homes and vacation cabins in the middle of the forest?” A beat passed before anyone answered. Finally, a young man oﬀered a proposition: “We should do what we can to protect those homes but not at the expense of human lives. If a country home catches ﬁre, well, that is the risk the owner took to build it where he or she wanted to.” The system my group advocated appeared sound in theory, but reality is not so straightforward. Whether you are a country homeowner or a city dweller, your choice to stake a livelihood in this dry Western front bears a comparable amount of risk. And with ﬁnite resources, who is to say one home is more entitled to protection than another? What’s more, beyond national forests and wilderness areas the border between civilization and rugged brush land gets pretty fuzzy. It is more complex than simply saying ‘this ﬁre can burn naturally and that ﬁre cannot.’
The conundrum is trifold and deeply interconnected; we should allow Nature the beneﬁt of ﬁre, but how can that happen when people refuse to live with the reality that they are the encroachers, and not the other way around? As a result, public opinion is that wildﬁre shouldn’t burn and that suppression is the best tactic to pursue. The logic is simple but naive. As in the case of the Granite Mountain hotshots, wildland ﬁreﬁghters are often put in unnecessary and potentially fatal situations all to save replaceable property and equipment. However, I believe a balance can exist. Just as a coastal resident will build their house on stilts and invest in storm shutters, people who live in ﬁre prone areas should put in the extra eﬀort to “proof” their properties as well. This means keeping a green and tidied lawn, clearing dead brush and thinning trees, and storing ﬁrewood at least 30 feet from any ﬂammable structure. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to invest in home insurance. Wildland ﬁreﬁghters also play a part in implementing preventative measures. Very often during the winter and spring months, they travel around the country carrying out prescribed burns. Crews are able to calculate risk in a low-stress environment and, under ideal conditions, manually burn an encumbered area one plot at a time. This practice prevents the land from blowing up when lightning strikes during the summer months. Lastly, and most importantly, general public opinion about ﬁre needs to change. Smokey Bear’s mantra is suited to educating the public on campﬁre negligence and arson, but we must also learn to discern the diﬀerence between good and bad ﬁre. Naturally occurring ﬁre is absolutely vital for this environment to ﬂourish. And though it sounds a bit counterintuitive, taking care that Nature gets her vitamins — even at the expense of some human luxury and convenience— is the surest way we can take care of ourselves.