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A Tragic Year For Wildland Firefighters Ends In Reflection

The wildfire in Yarnell, Ariz., last June destroyed homes and killed 19 firefighters. Experts say expansion into wildfire-prone areas has created new challenges for firefighters.
Andy Tobin
The wildfire in Yarnell, Ariz., last June destroyed homes and killed 19 firefighters. Experts say expansion into wildfire-prone areas has created new challenges for firefighters.
A Tragic Year For Wildland Firefighters Ends In Reflection

Thirty-four wildland firefighters died in the line of duty this year. Some of those fatalities were isolated incidents, but one event captured the nation's attention, sparking a larger conversation about the new dangers firefighters face.

That event unfolded in central Arizona the afternoon of June 30, a Sunday.

"I'm here with Granite Mountain Hot Shots. Our escape route has been cut off," says a crew boss on recently released radio traffic from the Yarnell Hill Fire. "We are preparing a deployment site, and I'll give you a call when we are under the shelters.

That call from the crew boss never came. He and 18 other members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots didn't survive inside their emergency shelters when the fire blew over them.

"Our entire crew was lost," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo told the media at the time. "We lost 19 people in this wildfire, one of the worst wildfire disasters that's ever taken place."

Protecting Property In High-Risk Areas

In fact, it was the third-deadliest wildfire in American history. One recent report by the state partly faulted fire managers for putting the value of structures over firefighter safety.

Wildfire historians like John Maclean say this is part of a longer-term problem. He says there's too much pressure on firefighters to save homes and property.

"It is not the 'Home in the Woods Protection Service'; it's the Forest Service," Maclean says.

The Yarnell Hill Fire ignited at a time of unprecedented drought. Like in much of the Southwest, natural wildfires in that area had been snuffed out for decades, meaning there was a lot of fuel to burn.

"You have hotter, more intense fires, and you have homes that are defended with more aggression than you defend a forest, and you have a very high-risk environment," Maclean says.

But firefighting has also become more sophisticated, which is why so many people in the profession were so shocked by Yarnell Hill. Technology has helped fire managers better calculate and manage risk.

The Wildland-Urban Interface Grows

Doug Rideout of Colorado State University's WestFire Research Center is cautious about reading too much into this bad year. He says one large event doesn't make a trend. Many factors on the ground that day in Arizona were unique to that situation.

"This was an unusual year, and so part of this may be due to just the fact that it was an unusual year, and part of it may be due to the growing footprint of the wildland-urban interface," Rideout says.

That interface is where homes and even whole cities are being built into the forests, and it's where most of today's high-profile fires happen — Yarnell Hill included. The homes in these zones are being built safer, and Rideout says that comes with some unintended consequences.

"As we take measures to try to make the wildland-urban interface a nice and safe place to be and to occupy, the incentive for it to grow gets even larger, so it's kind of a self-perpetuating situation," he says.

All of this has wildfire experts warning that there could be many more Yarnell-type incidents in the future, unless some big questions are addressed: Where should development happen, and how? Should people living in these forests, not the federal government, shoulder more of the firefighting costs?

Those questions become even more urgent when you consider that almost two-thirds of that wildland-urban interface has yet to be developed in the West.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.

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