The war on wildfire

In Michael Kodas’ new book ‘Megafire,’ culture, politics and economics drive wildfire as much as climate change

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Members of the Prescott Fire Department embrace at a memorial for the Granite Mountain Hotshots. All but one member of the 20-member crew perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire.
Michael Kodas

In 2003, Michael Kodas fought his first wildfire, a blaze ignited by a lightning strike on Wyoming’s Crazy Woman Mountain. The winter before, Kodas, who was living in Connecticut at the time, had joined a firefighting crew organized by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. As federal lands in the West burned, the federal government had called in help from firefighters across the country and overseas. Kodas got one week of training when he signed up for the crew in the winter, but that was it before he made his way to the front lines of a long-running battle on U.S. soil: the war on wildfire.

Kodas had been drawn to wildfire for years by the time he made his way to Crazy Woman Mountain. While living and working in Kansas he’d watched the “red buffalo” roam the open plains, paradoxically nourishing the soil it scorched. As a fresh-on-the-job photojournalist at north-central Connecticut’s Journal Inquirer in the late ’80s, Kodas chased some action he’d heard on the newsroom police scanner and wound up watching inmates fight a wildfire on prison grounds. It was then he began to wonder if he could join the war on wildfire, though it would be more than 15 years before he did just that.

A convict firefighter at the Enfield minimum-security prison runs to escape an out-of-control grass fire on the prison’s grounds in 1986.

After a decade-long, award-winning career as a photojournalist at the Hartford Courant, Kodas moved to Boulder, Colorado in 2010 to spend a year working on a project as a Scripp’s Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism. Colorado welcomed Kodas and his wife Carolyn with the Fourmile Canyon Fire that filled Boulder’s skies with smoke and lapped thirstily at the western edges of the city.

No surprise, Kodas’ fellowship project was centered on wildfire.

He intended to look at “The Big Burn” of 1910, the largest wildfire in American history, tearing through some 3 million acres of land across Washington, Idaho and Montana in just two days. The blaze killed 87 people, most of them firefighters.

The Big Burn was a turning point in national fire policy; the nascent U.S. Forest Service (formed in 1905) believed the tragedy could have been prevented if more men and equipment were available, and more importantly, they convinced Congress that total fire suppression was the only answer.

The American government, Kodas says, began treating fire “like a species we could eradicate if we wanted to.”

Here are the origins of Smokey the Bear, of cooperative firefighting like what Kodas joined some 75 years later, of elite fire suppression “hotshot” crews eventually forming across the nation, of land management practices that led to forests overloaded with vegetation, deprived of cleansing, life-giving wildfire.

Michael Kodas
An air tanker drops fire retardant around threatened and burning houses during the Fourmile Canyon Fire outside Boulder, Colorado on Labor Day 2010.

Here are the origins of the so-called megafires we see today: the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Australia, the Mount Carmel Fire of 2010 in Israel, the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado in 2012. These are fires that are burning hotter, faster, longer and bigger than wildfires of the past.

As for Kodas’ fellowship project, Timothy Egan beat him to the punch with his book The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. But Kodas had found new questions he wanted to answer: what defines a megafire, what drives them and how are they affecting humans the world over?

The Forest Service has defined a megafire as any fire bigger than 100,000 acres, but it was a small fire in Arizona in 2013 that helped Kodas build his own definition of a megafire. In July of that year, 19 firefighters — the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the nation’s only hotshot crew managed by a municipality — burned to death fighting a small fire on Yarnell Hill in Prescott. It was the greatest number of professional wildland firefighters killed in U.S. history, caused by a fire that only consumed 8,400 acres.

“Particularly with the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ deaths, I started to think differently about the definition of a megafire,” Kodas says.

“I made 11 or 12 trips down [to Prescott, Arizona,] for reporting. … I began to look at the idea of a megafire as something we should be measuring by impacts rather than by size or intensity or speed. And those impacts are affected by the changes we are seeing.”

Like how many wildfires are now burning intensely through the night (when before wildland crews could count on the cool temperatures and moisture of the night to quell a burn), or how fires are now burning quickly uphill.

In Megafire, Kodas distills years of research and thousands of miles of travel — to Israel, Greece, Indonesia and Australia, as well as domestically — into a story that examines what he found to be the four main drivers behind, as he writes, “charred forests around the world.”

First, the use and management of forests has created unhealthy, over-vegetated landscapes. Additionally, and something Front Range residents are familiar with, increased development into flammable landscapes provides more fuel and fills forests with human-produced sparks and heat. Global warming has also expanded the wildfire season by several months across the globe.

Perhaps most interesting though is the way political and economic decisions intended to suppress wildfires drive the flames as much as they put them out.

“The U.S. spent about $300 million a year in the early 1990s on wildfire, and now in bad years they easily go over $3 billion in funding for fire suppression but also in preparing for wildfires, fuel treatments, recovery after wildfires burn,” Kodas says. “And most of that money goes to the private sector. So you have a bunch of industries that have built up around wildfire, and obviously an industry wants to work. They want to fight every fire that they can, even ones that would be beneficial to our forests if we let them burn or if we managed them differently. That’s led to any number of horrible scandals and corruption,” some of which Kodas details in the book.

We can’t undo what’s done, Kodas says. Immediately cutting out all greenhouse gas emissions won’t stop these megafires from burning. That ship has sailed. What we have to do, he says, is change our perspective. The forests have to burn sometimes, and we have to get out of the fire’s way. We have to learn to live with smoke in the skies and blackened forests from time to time. It’s just natural.

Rod Moraga, a fire analyst who lost his home in the Fourmile Canyon Fire, put it to Kodas like this once:

“The first mistake we make is saying, ‘We’re going to fight it,’ because we have values systems, we have something to fight for. The other side is a natural process. There’s no winning or losing for it. It just does what it does. It doesn’t celebrate if it destroys a bunch of homes or destroys a forest, and it doesn’t weep if we beat it. Having this attitude of fighting it is counterproductive.”

Editor’s note: Caitlin Rockett studied under Michael Kodas as a graduate student at the University of Colorado and contributed research to Megafire. She joined Kodas for a reporting trip to Prescott, Arizona, in 2014.