There Aren’t Enough Firefighters to Stop America’s West From Burning

An unprecedented 32,000 men and women are fighting blazes in what could be the most destructive fire season in history
Photographer: Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times

“This thing’s going to burn until the snow flies,” Joe Flores, a Forest Service firefighter from Vernal, Utah, says to his partner, Todd Gregory, as they race ahead of yet another out-of-control wildfire. Flores, who’s fought fires for 21 years and is an expert on fire behavior, has never seen anything like this year, with so many superhot, superfast fires burning at once. He’s riding shotgun in Gregory’s pickup on U.S. Route 97, and they’re speeding along the Columbia River, trying to reach homes outside Chelan (population 4,000), a tourist and farm village four hours east of Seattle, before one head of the sprawling Reach Fire does. The two can only do so much to protect homes without an engine or a full crew, but they can try to make sure everybody has evacuated.

Embers lifted on 40-mile-per-hour gusts of wind clear the mile-wide Columbia and ignite parched grass on the opposite shore. There, beneath Wells Dam, the fire climbs the bank and lights another 8 square miles of dry grasslands. A second head of flame continues a run northwest toward the Cascade Mountains.

Gregory pulls up to a ranch house tucked in an orchard. There’s a well-watered lawn out front and a small wood shed next to it that’s already burning. A wave of 6-foot flames is advancing at about 7 miles per hour from Chelan and toward Pateros, a 600-person town that lost 300 homes to wildfire last year. Engine running, Flores gets out of the truck just as a tank explodes in the garage. A bolt of flame vents above the roof. The smell of sulfur wafts over them.

“100 million people in the West can no longer expect to just pick up the phone, dial 911, and have a Hotshot come and save them.”

“We got to get out of here. I’ve no idea what we’re breathing in,” Gregory says. A panicked Labrador-mix rushes out from behind the garage and leaps on Flores.

“Do you mind?” Flores asks. Gregory shoots him a look: Dude, what kind of question is that?

Flores lifts the Lab into the truck’s cab. With flames now working through the garage roof, they pull out and head back to fire camp, a sprawling tent city that’s sprung up to house firefighters on break from the fire lines. Although the house survives, the garage is toast, one of 38 structures incinerated in the Chelan area over the next 10 hours. A fruit storage warehouse will get reduced to neat squares of ash and charcoal. Fresh apples in crates melt into globs of sticky black sludge. Parked cars become metal skeletons. Some 1,600 residents, who began the morning believing they were protected by almost 1,000 firefighters, leave in a hurry. Some escape through areas that have already burned, passing smoking telephone poles and downed power lines whipping the ground.

When Flores gets back to fire camp, he delivers the dog to a public information officer, who posts photos of the missing animal on Facebook. He brings the Lab into his tent that night to calm its nerves. The Lab’s anxiety is short-lived. At 4 a.m. it wakes the officer ready to play, and by that afternoon, the owner has responded and they are all but cartwheeling around each other in the parking lot. “It’s so cliché,” Flores says, laughing. “A fireman saving a pet.”

Harbour visits a fire team in California.
Photographer: Kevin Cooley for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Reach is one of five large fires within an hour’s drive of Chelan, and as of Tuesday, Aug. 25, it has spread across 90,000 acres. Fifty miles north, outside the 500-person town of Twisp, on Aug. 19, three are dead. “This is like the Big Burn all over again,” Flores says. In 1910, the Big Burn killed 78 people, blackened 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana, and started a century of aggressive fire suppression that, in many ways, led directly to the summer of 2015, which may well go down as the most destructive fire season in history.

In Washington state, fire covers nearly 500 square miles, and smoke is in the air as far east as Chicago. On Aug. 19, Washington Governor Jay Inslee asked for a federal disaster declaration, which he got two days later. There are so many blazes all across the Western U.S. that there aren’t enough firefighters to fight them. The National Guard has been called up, as have active-duty soldiers trained in 24 hours for the fire line. Canada has sent firefighters to help. So have Australia and New Zealand, and still there aren’t enough. An unprecedented 32,000 men and women are struggling to control the flames, yet it’s possible to walk for miles over burning ridges and down smoke-choked drainages without seeing a single firefighter. “Fire activity is off the charts,” says Shawna Legarza, the Forest Service’s fire director for California. As bad as Washington state is, California has been burning since early July, and there are 42 large fires active now. By mid-August, fires have consumed 7.2 million acres nationwide, mostly in Alaska.

Accounting for insurance costs, damages to businesses and infrastructure, and the flash floods and mudslides caused by denuded slopes, this year’s fires will likely cost taxpayers $25 billion—and that’s if a whole town or city doesn’t burn, which is a distinct possibility. If that happens, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the costs could double or triple: One hundred forty million Americans live in fire-prone regions, and $237 billion in property sits in those high-risk areas.

The Forest Service, the country’s largest wildland firefighting agency, has spent $800 million trying to control the flames this year, and it’s only August. As such, 2015 is on track to become the 15th year in a row the agency has laid out roughly $1 billion on firefighting alone. Expenses in some areas are equal to or greater than the value of the threatened property—$200,000 to $400,000 per home, according to Bozeman (Mont.)-based Headwaters Economics. Yet the Forest Service doesn’t have much choice: It can’t just let communities burn. So the service and its partner agencies keep putting out the flames, even though years of study have shown that doing so only leads to even hotter, more devastating fires later.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got,” says Tom Harbour, who, as the chief of the Forest Service’s fire department, sets the agenda for dozens of other federal, state, county, and municipal agencies and is effectively America’s wildland fire chief. “One hundred million people in the West can no longer expect to just pick up the phone, dial 911, and have a Hotshot come and save them.”

A smokejumper checks his gear in Redding.
Photographer: Kevin Cooley for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Forest Service’s Washington headquarters doesn’t look like it belongs on the National Mall. A red-brick building with towers and flutes, it appears like somebody lifted it from Harvard’s campus and planted it between the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Washington Monument. Harbour’s office is on the third floor, in a cubicle farm. A typical week in summer finds him traveling to offer his condolences to the family of a fallen Forest Service firefighter, on the Hill discussing a $50 million lawsuit over a prescribed fire that scored private land; and sorting out the legality of his firefighters driving their work vehicles home after a long shift. The rest of the time, he’s here.

“I keep two quarters on my desk for the most frustrating days. One is to give to people to ‘call someone who cares,’ ” says Harbour, smiling. The other is a reminder he’s saved enough to retire. “So you can take this job and shove it, ’cause I ain’t working here no more.” He admits to getting fed up sometimes. “Part of me says, ‘Goddang, things move slow.’ And part of me says, ‘Be patient, ’cause society has all kinds of other issues banging on its door.’ ”

Harbour, 64, is a short man with a graying mustache, square glasses, and a narrow face, with a pink spot from a recent bout with melanoma under one eye. He resembles Rick Moranis more than the broad-chested stereotype of a firefighter. Born into a military family, he went to college at the University of California at Davis, where he studied chemical engineering. He came to firefighting after quitting a summer job cleaning the kennels of 3,000 beagles. “Fecal removal specialist was my title,” he says. “Skills I still use today.” Since then, he’s been the chief of a helicopter fire crew, worked in varying command capacities in six different National Forests, received a master’s in forestry, and fought fires in Greece and Indonesia. After 45 years in the Forest Service, he most likes to talk about the years before he moved to D.C. in 2001.

While he was working in Arizona’s Apache National Forest during the 1970s, three fires popped up and burned 100 acres, each in one hot summer day. “Folks were atwitter” about the destruction, Harbour says. Forty years later, in 2011, the Wallow Fire tore across 500,000 acres of the Apache National Forest in a month. “I’ve seen in my career, in the same location, the difference between three fires of a hundred acres and one fire of a half a million acres,” he says. In other words, fires keep getting worse.

In 1995, the Forest Service spent 16 percent of its budget fighting fires. Today, it’s 52 percent and rising. The agency’s $5 billion budget hasn’t grown, just the portion of it spent on fire management, which includes timber operations to thin forests. “You’re no longer the Forest Service,” his boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, has told him. “You’re a fire department.”

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”

One recent morning, Harbour’s meeting with a congresswoman runs long, and he’s almost three hours late to a call with the smokejumping command staff in Missoula, Mont. When he shows up, his staff ushers him into a conference room. All the rooms are named after plants or animals. This one is Wolf. They’re discussing more traditional round vs. newer square parachutes for smokejumpers, the 360 elite firefighters who leap from airplanes into wildfires to snuff them in the cradle.

Harbour’s troops have long been considered the world’s best at controlling wilderness blazes, but their focus has recently changed to battling fires in or near towns—90 percent of Forest Service fire spending now goes toward protecting houses—so Harbour contends that square parachutes will give his aerial specialists better precision and safety when it comes to landing near buildings. But not all the smokejumpers are buying it. “Change, no matter what kind it is, is emotional and political,” says Josh Mathieson, a smokejumping base manager in California who will have to implement Harbour’s plan.

The call runs nearly an hour. Harbour spends most of the time listening. He stands and paces. He sits with his face in his hands and then his hands on the desk. He slowly rolls his pen over his fingers. For Harbour, the parachute decision is a particularly close one. In 2011 his son, a Forest Service smokejumper, crash-landed in New Mexico’s vast Gila Wilderness because he was unable to steer his chute into a better landing zone. He fractured his pelvis, a femur, and an ankle and busted up his knee. When he healed months later, he insisted on returning to work, and when he did, he strapped back into the same type of parachute he’d been injured in. While Harbour rationalizes his choices to the smokejumpers over the phone, his son is fighting fires in Alaska, where more than 5 million acres of timber have burned—the second-largest fire season in Alaska history.

“They disagree with me, and that’s fine,” Harbour says, tapping the table with his pen. “But it’s not their friggin’ decision. It’s mine.”

When the call ends, the room empties, and Harbour sighs. He puts his feet up on the table.

“You’ll think I’m crazy,” he says. “But these new chutes are going to allow jumpers to attack fires close to towns and infrastructure. That’s what we need to fight the fires of the future.”

Wreckage northwest of Omak, Wash.
Photographer: Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times

In the Lower 48, fire season began in earnest the last week of July, when thunderstorms sent almost 2,300 lightning strikes into the drought-parched forests and foothills of Northern California. Two days later, smoke was rising from 250 new wildfires, Governor Jerry Brown called a state of emergency, and almost 10,000 firefighters from at least a dozen different fire agencies poured into Northern California. On Aug. 3, Harbour joined them.

To contend with California’s regular fires, the Forest Service set up two command centers, with one, in Redding, called North Ops. Redding sits in a bowl in the Sacramento Valley, and as Harbour arrives, the wind is filling that bowl with eye-stinging smoke. On the grounds, a long-haired smokejumper in flip-flops pedals a cruiser bike around the base while air tankers loaded with fire retardant take off from the runway. The mood isn’t festive, but one feels the excitement and gravity of a shared sense of purpose. The command staff hustle about to send firefighters and gear to the front lines. Several stop to shake Harbour’s hand. He joins a briefing headed by Paige Boyer, the assistant director for fire and aviation management for Northern California.

“We really want to get that fire off the map,” Boyer says to a half-dozen of her colleagues gathered before a map. “We want it out of the public eye.” Boyer taps the northeast corner of the map, where red colors the fire where a firefighter died.

Three days earlier, Harbour had flown to Alturas, Calif., to pay his respects to the family of that engine captain, 38-year-old Dave Ruhl. He’d disappeared while scouting a fire near the city limits. His crew didn’t find his body right away, and while CNN and the Associated Press zeroed in on the details of the first fire death of the 2015 season, Harbour arranged to meet his folks, as he’s tried to do for each of the 163 firefighters—both Forest Service and non—lost on duty in the past 10 years.

Boyer goes on to list dozens of other active fires that have her concerned. Some are on Forest Service land, others on Bureau of Land Management, state, county, and private property. The Forest Service tracks them all. Harbour takes note of the three major highways closed, the fire surrounding a timber town with only one way in and one way out, three small towns evacuated, a threatened gas pipe. Meanwhile, the Forest Service is having trouble getting enough Jet A fuel for 51 helicopters and airplanes servicing Northern California fires.

Harbour asks Boyer about the weather for the next eight weeks. Unless some season-ending event comes along—a hurricane out of Baja, say—Northern California will keep him busy until Halloween. “But Paige promises me it’s going to rain,” he says. “Right, Paige?”

Holding a line near Hayfork, Calif.
Photographer: Kevin Cooley for Bloomberg Businessweek

Firefighters have an old saying that three things drive cost and risk: wood, weather, and homes. While fire suppression and drought have left the woods and weather in dangerous condition, it’s the homes that make fires so expensive to fight. With bridges, gas lines, power poles, and millions living in fire-prone places, such as Downieville, Calif. (population 282), Sisters, Ore. (2,174), and Denver (649,495), the complexity is mind-boggling.

Take, for example, the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire outside Colorado Springs. Only two of the city’s residents were killed, but chaos reigned. In a matter of 12 hours, a strong wind pushed the fire straight down the backside of the Colorado Front Range and through 300 homes. When one house ignited, the sparks leapt to the next, and the wildfire became an urban conflagration, evoking the Great Chicago Fire, which burned 3.3 square miles of the city in 1871.

“What’s going to happen 40 years from now?” Harbour asks. Wildfires regularly burn six times the acreage that they did when Harbour started out in 1975. They now threaten entire towns, even cities. “Is that relationship linear or logarithmic? It can’t be logarithmic, ’cause there ain’t enough goddang timber to burn.”

Some studies predict that by 2050 fires will burn twice what they do today. There’s no mystery as to why. While the role of flames varied greatly among ecosystems, until about 1910 fires shaped most of the 193 million acres of forests that the Forest Service manages across 40 states. The lodgepole pine forests of Idaho and Montana and chaparral thickets of Southern California burned infrequently with great intensity. The ponderosa pines of New Mexico and Northern California burned regularly with low intensity. But when the Forest Service took control of the land around 1910, its firefighters reacted to all fires the same way: They put them out as quickly as possible. Without flames, forests once regularly thinned by fires grew thick. In many stands in the California foothills there are now 1,000 trees per acre where a century ago there were just 150.

Today, temperatures in the West average 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in 1895, when record keeping started. They’re forecast to increase an additional 4 to 6 degrees by 2100. “Think of the warming atmosphere and moisture in the forest as a puddle of water on asphalt,” says Park Williams, a climatologist at Columbia University. “The warmer it is, the faster the puddle evaporates.”

Hotter temperatures make dense forests drier, and the fires more extreme. In California, a 1-degree temperature increase is associated with 35 percent more acres burned; in Montana, it’s twice the acreage. The conditions generate megafires, blazes far too intense for firefighters to safely stop. Arizona’s 2011 Wallow Fire was a megafire, and so were California’s 2013 Rim Fire, which burned 250,000 acres, and New Mexico’s 2011 Las Conchas. That biblical firestorm blackened 1.4 acres of mature forests every second for 14 hours straight.

Current fire policy, adopted in 2000, is actually sound, Harbour says. It allows incident commanders to make nuanced decisions about which fires, or even sections of fires, to fight and which fires to let burn; it encourages prescribed burning; and it allocates millions of dollars to thin dangerously dense forests around communities. But the policy is hard to practice, which is why, on the ground, it still looks like 1910 out there.

“Solving this is going to take engagement on personal, private, county, state, and federal levels,” Harbour says. His focus is his own agency, and he’s trying to change its culture. He calls it doctrine. Along with educating the politicians who set his budget, he’s trying to teach his firefighters—men and women who love to fight fires and are recognized as heroes when they do—that to win means having to fight fires less often. Prevention, not suppression. “Doctrine, properly understood, changes behavior,” he says, and recites a stanza of the nearly revised firefighting manual that sounds like it was written by a consultant. “Safely meeting reasonable objectives with minimum firefighter exposure while enhancing stakeholder support for our management activities.”

People need to be realistic about what firefighters can do, he says. Firefighters also need to be realistic about what they can accomplish. “I hope very much that we will be smart enough as a nation to realize the societal and ecological time bomb we’re sitting on,” he says. “Change or we die.”

Joe Flores holds a palm up to a steady breeze coming out of the west ridgetop. He’s trying to estimate wind speed and figure out if these gusts are the forecasted storm or just a prelude. It’s the storm: Over the course of the next few hours, the storm’s wind will keep his ridge clear but fan 24 large fires in Washington and Oregon. Up and down the east side of the Cascades, columns of flame, some miles wide at their base, blow smoke 15,000 feet in the atmosphere, where the wind shears it into a hard right angle and carries them east to the Great Lakes. As Flores had worried, it is the Big Burn all over again.

Throughout the night, winds funnel through river canyons, and western Washington glows that beautiful, terrifying orange of fire season. Tonight, it’s only haunting. Over the radio, the emergency warning system interrupts every third country music tune, and with a slight lisp, an announcer reads off the latest evacuation orders. “Do not wait for door-to-door notifications,” he cautions. “Evacuate immediately.”

The communities of Riverside and Omak Flats empty. In Twisp, Winthrop, and Conconully, thousands of people, their lives packed hastily into cars, flee too, just as they did last year.

Back in fire camp by the Columbia, Flores is hunched over a computer, calculating how the wind affected the fires throughout the afternoon, when he hears a tragedy: four firefighters burned, the town of Twisp in jeopardy. When Harbour gets the news, the fire chief will feel as he always does—devastated and, somehow, personally responsible.

At around 4 o’clock, an incident commander pulls Flores and the rest into a large, central yurt. Three of their own have died, they’re told, and a fourth was badly burned, while trying to protect Twisp, which remains standing. There’s a moment of silence, and some tears, and then everybody collects themselves and returns to fighting fire.