On the line

Wildland firefighters learn to survive in the era of megafires

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Story by Keith Szudarski | Staff Writer
Photos by Reed Klass | Staff Photographer

ON JULY 18, 2017, a storm rolled through Seeley Lake, Montana. The clouds churned and lightning flashed, momentarily illuminating the peaks of the scenic Swan Mountains east of Highway 83. The valley had experienced an early, hot summer, and when a lightning bolt struck Rice Ridge, it sparked a forest fire Bob Vanden Heuvel will never forget.

First-year firefighter Trenton Johnson, 19, was part of an initial attack team sent to begin the difficult task of putting out a forest fire. When they arrived on the west side of Florence Lake, six miles north of the town of Seeley Lake, they found the fire burning in a thick stand of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir, the ground littered with downed trees. They watched as the smoking bulk of a burned tree toppled into the fire.

As the team lined up behind the sawyers, they heard a crack overhead. The top of a snag broke off and sent the top third of a 70-foot tree crashing down toward them. According to the official report of the incident, the broken tree “whizzed by like a fastball” and “firefighters fell like bowling pins.” The tree brushed one firefighter’s shoulder as it struck Johnson’s helmet, knocking him unconscious and pinning his legs.

Bob Vanden Heuvel, paramedic and former acting chief of Seeley Lake Rural Fire Department, was part of the emergency response crew that was called in when Trenton Johnson, a 19-year-old wildland firefighter, was pinned by a falling snag during the Florence fire in July 2017.
Bob Vanden Heuvel, paramedic and former acting chief of Seeley Lake Rural Fire Department, was part of the emergency response crew that was called in when Trenton Johnson, a 19-year-old wildland firefighter, was pinned by a falling snag during the Florence fire in July 2017.

Vanden Heuvel, paramedic and former chief of the Seeley Lake Rural Fire Department (SLRFD), waited at the Seeley Lake airport for the helicopter that transported Johnson. He knew there had been an accident in his district, but he had no idea how bad it was. When the helicopter landed, its manager waved his crew and Life Flight over. “The first thing I saw was the white feet sticking out,” Vanden Heuvel said. It was his first inkling that something serious had occurred on the hill that afternoon.

Johnson died in the Life Flight helicopter on the way to the hospital in Missoula. It was his first season as a wildland firefighter.

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The fire that set the stage for the era of megafires happened in Yellowstone National Park in 1988. An unusually dry spring led to 1.2 million acres being burned.

Standing dead trees, also known as snags, pose great risk to wildland fighters. A gust of wind in the wrong direction can bring them down and cause serious injury or death.
Standing dead trees, also known as snags, pose great risk to wildland fighters. A gust of wind in the wrong direction can bring them down and cause serious injury or death.

Thousands of firefighters fought the fires with the assistance of dozens of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. With fires raging throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and other areas in the western United States, staffing levels of the National Park Service and other land management agencies were inadequate, and more than 4,000 U.S. military personnel were brought in to assist in wildfire suppression efforts. The firefighting effort cost $120 million ($250 million in 2018 dollars).

The epic Yellowstone fire was once thought to be an anomaly, but this is no longer the case. Intense, resource-draining fire seasons have been on the rise since Yellowstone. The Union of Concerned Scientists has shown the number of fires larger than 1,000 acres has increased from 140 between 1980 and 1989 to 250 between 2000 and 2012. The study also indicates that the average length of wildfire seasons in the western United States grew from five months in the 1970s to over seven months in 2012. In a Guardian article published in 2018, Alissa Greenberg wrote that California’s fire seasons last 78 days longer than they did 50 years ago.

Data from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) indicates that three million acres burned in the U.S. between 1985 and 1994. Between 2005 and 2014, NIFC showed almost seven million acres burned, more than twice as much as the previous decade. In 2015, 10.1 million acres burned in a single year, making it the largest fire season in recorded history. In 2018, more than 37,000 fires burned a whopping 4.25 million acres in the first seven months.

The reason? Decades of fire suppression and an increase of average temperature in the western U.S. by 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. The National Research Council suggests as average global temperatures increase, the total number of acres scorched each year will quadruple per degree of increase.

This puts wildland firefighters at increased risk of injury and death, as they push themselves to their physical and emotional limits, awake for days and sleeping on the ground, even as they deal with their grief and loss at their comrades’ deaths. Twenty-nine wildland firefighters died the year Yellowstone burned, but in 2017, national fatalities dropped to 14.

These numbers, however, do not reflect the growing trend in fatalities per year. Between 1960 and 1989, there were 10.2 wildfire-related deaths per year. From 1990 to 2015, that number was 17, a 67 percent increase.

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Part of the problem is more people are building more structures in fire-prone areas, especially in the American West. In 2007, landscape ecologist David Theobald and Colorado State University research scientist William Romme published an important paper in “Landscape and Urban Planning.” They recognized that “over the past several decades, the western U.S. has observed increased temperature, increased wildfire activity, and expansion of the wildland-urban interface,” and, as a result, they projected the longer fire seasons and higher fire frequencies we are seeing today.

Members of the Helena Hotshots haul and chip green timber cut from the edges of a Forest Service road in Kootenai National Forest north of Libby, Montana in September 2018. Wildland firefighters often fell living trees in order to eliminate fuel that allows wildfires to spread. Standing dead trees pose more of a risk than green trees.
Members of the Helena Hotshots haul and chip green timber cut from the edges of a Forest Service road in Kootenai National Forest north of Libby, Montana in September 2018. Wildland firefighters often fell living trees in order to eliminate fuel that allows wildfires to spread. Standing dead trees pose more of a risk than green trees.

A 2018 article by 11 research scientists, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicates the wildland-urban interface in the U.S. “grew rapidly from 1990 to 2010 in terms of both number of new houses (from 30.8 to 43.4 million, 41 percent growth), and land area (33 percent growth), making it the fastest-growing land use type in the conterminous United States.”

This increase puts billions of dollars worth of property at risk. Just ask the residents of Paradise, California. In early November, the Camp fire burned more than 180,000 acres and 7,000 buildings, virtually incinerating Paradise, a town of 26,000 people, 170 miles north of San Francisco. Farther south, the Woolsey and Hill fires burned more than 90,000 acres near Los Angeles and forced the evacuation of Malibu. These statistics make it the most deadly and destructive fire in California’s history. According to Fortune Magazine, the estimated cost of the conflagration is expected to top $19 billion.

This probably comes as no surprise to Casey Grant, writer for the National Fire Protocol Association (NFPA). Grant wrote that nine of the top 10 most expensive wildland-urban interface incidents ever recorded have occurred since 1990. “This includes the October [2017] fires in Northern California, where cumulative property losses are expected to exceed $3 billion, and where 42 people died. In 2016, the Fort McMurray fire in Western Canada also resulted in direct property losses over $3 billion, with more than 3,000 structures lost and two fatalities, firefighters and civilians.”

The Rice Ridge fire, a few miles from the fire Trenton Johnson died fighting, eventually threatened 1,719 structures and burned 150,000 acres, an area the size of Chicago. At its peak, it was at the top of the nation’s wildfire priority list and cost more than $30 million to put out.

The Gold Hill fire burns in Kootenai National Forest in September 2018.
The Gold Hill fire burns in Kootenai National Forest in September 2018.

But what is rarely mentioned in the media is the increased risk to the wildland firefighters on the line. Not only is climate change making fires bigger, more frequent and more intense, but there are more buildings to protect from the flames. And on wildland-urban interface-intensive assignments, the instinctual drive to protect people’s homes and the pressure from homeowners to save what is likely their most prized possession can force firefighters to work themselves and their crews almost to exhaustion.

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Josh Starbuck is a barrel-chested ex-smoke jumper who fought wildfires in Canada and the United States. Today he is a realtor in California, a state that seems to be on fire all the time. He’ll never forget arriving at the Esperanza fire in the fall of 2006 to learn that five firefighters had died.

Starbuck, who spent years fighting wildfires all over North America, said decision making can play a big role in determining the outcome of fires. As an example, Engine 57 was part of the initial attack on the Esperanza fire. The bulky Type III engine arrived at the fire around 5 a.m. and navigated unpaved roads toward homes in the fire’s path. Roughly two hours later, the fire exploded, and the firefighters sought refuge in their engine. By 8 a.m., the fire had engulfed Engine 57 and killed five firefighters, three on scene and two in the hospital. They shouldn’t have risked their lives to protect homes.

One of the most striking differences Starbuck noticed between firefighting in Canada and the U.S. was enforcement of work-to-rest ratios, a set number of hours of sleep required between hours on shift. When homes and property are in a fire’s path, like those on the Camp and Rice Ridge fires, firefighters may work up to 20 hours a day. It’s not uncommon in the U.S. for firefighters to be working and on shift for more than 24 consecutive hours.

“There’s no breaking work-to-rest without full crew consent in Canada,” Starbuck said. In the U.S. it can be as simple as a crew boss or superintendent telling crew members when they’ll get to sleep. When firefighters are pushed to their limits and sacrifice sleep for hours and suppression demands, the imbalance can lead to poor judgment and complacency, which can lead to injury and death, both on and off the fireline.

According to a 2016 article on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website, “Being awake for at least 24 hours is equal to having a blood alcohol content of 0.10%. This is higher than the legal limit (0.08% BAC) in all states.” This means wildland firefighters with mental states that would make it unlawful to drive are asked to do the dangerous work of fighting increasingly large and intense forest fires.

Burned out lodgepole pines stand in Kootenai National Forest in the waning days of active burning from the Gold Hill fire that took place from August to mid-October 2018. After a wildland fire is controlled, firefighters often patrol stands, looking for residual burns.
Burned out lodgepole pines stand in Kootenai National Forest in the waning days of active burning from the Gold Hill fire that took place from August to mid-October 2018. After a wildland fire is controlled, firefighters often patrol stands, looking for residual burns.

But such dangers are rarely considered. Frequent exposure to the dangers of wildland firefighting numbs firefighters. A 2010 article published by  the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned

Center started with the quote, “No problem, I’ve done this before.” And then, in a blink of an eye, it’s the last thing you’ll ever do.

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A Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) released following Johnson’s death on the Florence Fire echoes a similar mentality. The word “snag” appears in the report 16 times. An example: “Yeah, there were snags. It was kind of another day on the job.”

The casual iteration of “snag” speaks to the desensitization referred to by the Lessons Learned Center. Johnson had just arrived on the Florence fire. He and his crew were still charting the lay of the land. The tree that took his life wasn’t one he was cutting. The incident that took his life was simply the nexus of time and chance.

Another Lessons Learned article said not every mishap results from complacency: there are things outside of our control, but we ought to take “the few extra minutes to be thorough in our responsibilities.”

Wildland firefighters have little control over gravity or climate. They cannot control climate change to reduce the size and intensity of wildfires, and have little control over where people are allowed to build their homes. Those responsibilities are usually larger and more complex for even the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.

The only thing firefighters can control is themselves.

What firefighters and their agencies can do is reconfigure their tactics and keep bravado in check. “Canada has stricter travel guidelines,” Starbuck offered as an example. “Don’t push it, stick with the work-to-rest ratio and rethink mentality.”

Vanden Heuvel resigned from the Seeley Lake Rural Fire Department after the Florence fire and took a job as a paramedic in Missoula. He still thinks about Johnson’s accident. He often wonders what could have been done differently to prevent the untimely death of a 19-year-old firefighter who was helping him protect his district and the homes of thousands of people in Seeley Lake.

Almost every day, he wonders if it was really worth it.

Making Montana FireSmart

THE MONTANA DEPARTMENT of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Prevention and Preparedness Program was created to educate Montana homeowners living in the wildland-urban interface on how they can help to reduce the number of wildfires, and to protect their properties when they occur. But there is some concern that the message isn’t getting out and property owners aren’t doing all they can to make their communities fire proof.

Dave Aicher, 67, spent 38 years working for the Forest Service, and battled numerous blazes on the prairies of Eastern Montana. Now, Aicher lives near Seeley Lake, south of Lake Inez and west of Highway 83, not far from the Florence fire that claimed Trenton Johnson’s life. Aicher and his family have had to evacuate their home twice during wildfires.

From above, Aicher’s neighborhood is dotted with green, and trees obstruct clear views into his neighbors’ properties. Aicher cleared the forest surrounding his house to reduce the likelihood a wildfire could ignite it, and some of his neighbors have as well. But there is still ample fuel in the neighborhood, because creating defensible space isn’t as comprehensive as it needs to be.

“If I do mine [and] my next-door neighbor doesn’t do theirs, what’s the point of doing mine?” Aicher said. “I’m going to lose my house.”

This combination of inadequate defensible space and an overabundance of combustible materials means firefighters are put at risk while protecting homes and barns.

Aicher said reducing these risks involves more than just cleaning up individual properties. He recommends a more unified approach, where entire communities work together to make themselves FireSmart. Otherwise, he said, houses will continue to burn.