From Angora fire to those fires in Idaho and Montana, Western wildfires are more fierce
Fueled by drought and development, wildfires in the West are getting bigger and more aggressive, creating conditions so dangerous that fire bosses are increasingly reluctant to risk lives saving houses — particularly if the owners have done nothing to protect their property.
From Southern California to Montana, seven firefighters have died this year battling blazes that have destroyed more than 400 houses — 254 at the South Shore of Lake Tahoe — a dramatic increase from last year.
The firefighters’ job has been made more hazardous by an onslaught of houses and vacation cabins being built across the rugged West — some of them inside national forests. An estimated 8.6 million houses have been built within 30 miles of a national forest since 1982.
“There’s the frustration of knowing these people aren’t taking care of their home, and why do we have to do it?” said John Watson, a Fairfield, Mont., firefighting contractor who uses a 750-gallon fire engine to protect remote houses. “I’ve asked them, ‘Do you understand the danger?’ There isn’t a whole lot that needs to be done to mitigate the threat, but they won’t do it. They say: ‘I’d rather have my cabin burn down with the trees than have you cut some down.”‘
Fire commanders say they are more likely to walk away from houses without a buffer zone, which can be as simple as raking debris from around a house and leaving a bed of gravel at the foundation, or putting metal roofs on their homes instead of flammable wood shakes.
Until recently, firefighters “saluted and went out and did it,” said Don Smurthwaite, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesman and former firefighter. Now, “we will not ask a fire crew in a dangerous fire to defend a structure that has not taken precautionary steps. That’s definitely a change.”
Wildfires have always naturally swept the landscape, but scientists say they are becoming more catastrophic. There is little dispute that the wildfires are being fueled by a hotter weather, a yearslong drought, the spread of weeds that burn like oily rags and the buildup of forest debris from decades in which fires were routinely suppressed.
“We at least seem to be having larger and more intense fires,” said U.S. Forest Service fire researcher Jack Cohen in Missoula, Mont.
So far this year, wildfires have consumed 8.2 million acres nationwide, an area larger than Maryland, and most of it in the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. That figure is fast approaching last year’s record of 9.9 million acres, and the fire season can last through November in many parts of the West, particularly in fire-prone Southern California.
On the South Shore, 3,072 acres burned in the Angora fire, which was started by an illegal campfire on June 24. Damages surrounding the fire remain at around $160 million. Since then a bi-state commission headed by the governors of California and Nevada has been formed and will make recommendations early next year to combat wildfires in the environmentally sensitive and highly regulated Lake Tahoe Basin.
By Sept. 26, wildfires had destroyed 409 houses across the West, more than 11Ú2 times last year’s total of 263, federal statistics show. California, as usual, has the biggest toll, with 338 houses burned so far this year.
From the West Coast to a few Plains states, 26 million houses – 40 percent of the housing stock – are in forests or perched on the edge of flammable wildlands, according to Volker C. Radeloff, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“There’s more at stake,” Radeloff said. “Everybody loves to live close to the wildlands and the houses are getting dispersed, making them harder to defend.”
From his deck, Chris Horton was enjoying the national forest view on a Sunday in June at Tahoe’s South Shore when he picked up reports of a wildfire over a police scanner. His wife, Joyce, heard the roar of the wind-whipped fire over a nearby ridge. When the flames came into view, they had 15 minutes to escape before fire engulfed their house and leveled 253 others, leaving only chimneys standing.
The Hortons regard wildfires as a small risk to pay for the beautiful summers and the fun winters, with hiking, rock climbing, boating and skiing.
“It’s always in the back of your mind, like hurricanes are for other people,” said Joyce Horton, a hospital receptionist, who with her husband, a postal clerk, plans to rebuild with insurance money.
Wildfires have killed 113 firefighters in the U.S. over the past five years, including seven this year as of mid-September, according to government figures.
Heart attacks and vehicle and aircraft crashes are the leading causes of death. The past five years logged 11 “burnover” and fire-entrapments deaths, according to a database maintained by the National Interagency Coordination Center.
Firefighter deaths over the past decade are averaging around 18 a year, up from 6.6 during the 1930s, according to Forest Service statistics. Last year’s death toll was two dozen, double the number in 2005.
Five firefighters died last October trying to defend a half-built mountain house in the foothills near Banning, Calif., about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. They were overcome by a 90-foot wall of flame. An auto mechanic accused of setting the wildfire awaits trial on charges of murder.
“It strikes a nerve in us that a lot of our firefighting brothers and sisters are being lost protecting structures,” said Bodie Shaw, deputy fire director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
— Associated Press writers John Miller in Boise, Idaho, Matt Brown in Billings, Mont., Gillian Flaccus in Los Angeles, Aaron C. Davis in Sacramento, Calif., Scott Sonner in Reno, Nev., Brendan Riley in Carson City, Nev., and Colleen Slevin and Catherine Tsai in Denver contributed to this story. Tahoe Daily Tribune Web Editor Jeff Munson also contributed to this story.