Fighting wildfires in Colorado changes as temperatures climb
July 2, 2013
Craig — When an Arizona wildfire overwhelmed a Prescott, Ariz., hotshot crew, killing 19 members Sunday afternoon, it was one more indicator that the business of fighting wildfires is undergoing radical changes.
Thomas Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, told a Senate committee last month that the wildfire season lasts two months longer now than it did 40 years ago. He also said the drier, hotter conditions caused by climate change mean wildfires burn hotter, faster and consume larger areas than ever before.
“Ten years ago in New Mexico outside Los Alamos, we had a fire get started. Over seven days, it burned 40,000 acres. In 2011, we had another fire. Las Conchas. It also burned 40,000 acres. It did it in 12 hours,” he testified.
Mark DeGregorio, a BLM spokesman working on the West Fork Complex Fire in southern Colorado, said he's seen a growing intensity of wildfires throughout the past two decades, meaning "unprecedented" wildfires are happening more often. Training of wildfire crews is changing, he said, with a greater emphasis on safety and knowing when to leave or not enter a dangerous situation.
"Culturally, it has been difficult to change attitudes," he said about the can-do attitude of attacking any fire.
In Ecosphere, the peer-reviewed journal of the Ecological Society of America, a 2012 study found a high level of agreement that climate change will alter fire patterns fundamentally across large areas of the planet by 2100.
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Drought and record heat combined in 2012 to help burn 9.3 million acres, the third-worst year since 1960.
Since 2000, the Forest Service nearly has doubled its budget for fighting wildfires, from $540 million to $1 billion last year. Yet because of the budget sequester, the Forest Service has trimmed its firefighter force from 10,480 to 10,000 this year.
Year by year, more people are building homes in what is called the wildland/urban interface — basically, homes and cabins in the woods. As wildfires get bigger, hotter and faster — because of earlier spring melt, drought and extreme heat events — more people and their homes are in harm's way.
The Prescott hotshot crew was deployed to try and save homes in the Yarnell area.
Thrown into this volatile situation are the nation's hotshot crews, 110 in all, composed of elite wildfire fighters who undergo extensive training, meet high physical fitness standards and typically are deployed to the roughest country with little logistical support.
Hotshot crews are organized by federal agencies such as the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as state, county and municipal governments.
Hotshot crews are on the forefront of wildfire fighting, often used in initial attacks but equally at home with the wide gamut of tasks, all the way to mop-up operations.
The surviving member of the 20-member Prescott Granite Mountain crew was busy moving a crew vehicle when the rest of the crew was overwhelmed by a wall of flames pushed by erratic and powerful winds near Yarnell, southwest of Prescott.
As of noon Tuesday, the Yarnell Hill Fire had burned 8,400 acres and more than 200 homes in the area. The loss of 19 firefighters, according to the National Fire Protection Association, is the highest since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which 341 firefighters died and eclipses Colorado's loss of 14 hotshot members in 2004 near Glenwood Springs.
The Craig Interagency Hotshot Crew, in contrast, has been cutting beetle-killed timber for the Routt National Forest at Pearl Lake. The Craig crew works out of the BLM's Little Snake Field Office in Craig and is one of five based in Colorado.
The Craig Hotshots have been busy since May 4, when they deployed to California for 14 days, drove down to Dolores for seven days and spent five shifts on the Big Meadow Fire at Rocky Mountain National Park, crew superintendent Shawn Telford wrote in an email. More recently, they were busy fighting the Disappointment Fire, Wild Rose Fire and the Collins Fire west of Craig, near Rangely, for a combined total of six days.
There are 19 members of the Craig Hotshots.