America mourns the 19 elite wilderness firefighters who died in Arizona a week ago Sunday. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the people who risk their lives in what is about the closest there is to hell on Earth. Yet we repay their service by making policy decisions, on climate change and urban development, that make their jobs more difficult, and all but ensure more firefighters will die.
The dead firefighters were part of an Arizona-based “Hotshot” team. Members of those teams are in peak physical condition, and specially trained to drop into remote areas that no one else can reach. Think of them as the special forces of federal firefighters.
According to early accounts, the tragedy unfolded so quickly nothing could be done. The winds changed, and the fire crashed onto the crew. Their emergency fire shelters did not save them.
The nation lost 19 brave men who risked their lives to protect precious national resources and communities. Their enemy does not wield a gun, or pilot an aircraft. They confront a primal force of nature unleashed in all its fury. Yet, usually they win.
It has been shown time and again that our public policy choices contribute to the ferocity and danger of wildfires. Heat, drought and unpredictable wind surges fuel devastating wild fires, and all are symptoms of climate change. As the planet warms and climate patterns shift, extreme weather events, including fires in the West, become increasingly likely. More and worse blazes mean more firefighters put in danger.
We mourn the deadliest single American wildfire incident in 80 years, but one week after the tragic deaths, our country probably won’t change a thing.
President Barack Obama last week announced a few modest steps toward reducing the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, but they were far short of what is needed. America fails to lead the world on this issue.
Property development patterns exacerbate the situation. When communities allow developers to build homes on the edges of forests, they court disaster. The situation is akin to homes built in coastal areas prone to hurricanes. Eventually, nature will strike. But unlike hurricanes, fires can be fought. Hotshots can cut a firebreak to save homes.
A 2007 Government Accountability Office study about wildfires noted that “continued development in the wildland-urban interface has placed more structures at risk from wildland fire at the same time that it has increased the complexity and cost of wildland fire suppression.”
Who wouldn’t want to live so close to nature, in a place where the wind whispers through towering pines, where the beach is steps away? The conflagration that killed the firefighters also burned down dozens of homes in Yarnell, a town of mostly retirees.
When fighting wilderness fires, protecting private property is a priority. If those homes and businesses were not located within the trees, firefighters could let trees burn until the blaze became more manageable. They could choose the best place to fight rather than the necessary one to prevent private losses by people who chose to build in a dangerous spot.
Fires also are more likely to start where people are. It only takes a stray spark from a barbecue or tossed cigarette.
Getting smarter about where we put up homes should be easier than confronting global climate change, but politics again get in the way. Lawmakers do not want to appear hostile to “property rights,” a favorite conservative cause-celebre.
Nonetheless, a tragedy like 19 dead firefighters should launch a national debate and serious policy changes. The deaths of these sons, brothers and fathers should galvanize action that will minimize future risk.
But if history is any guide, it won’t happen.
There will be speeches, some hand wringing, maybe even a bill or two introduced in a do-nothing Congress. Then the special interests and lobbyists will get involved and their elected minions will obey.
Death is insufficient motivation. Just ask the Sandy Hook families.