From the Big Blowup to Yarnell Hill: A Cautionary History of Wildand Fire by Char Miller

Found this on the SAF LinkedIn site:

It’s always hard to excerpt one of Char’s pieces, but here goes:

That conviction was woven into the determination to take on the Mann Gulch fire of 1949. Fifteen smokejumpers parachuted near a wind-whipped inferno in the mountains above Helena, Montana, where they joined a ranger who had hiked in to battle the rapidly moving blaze. Trapped near a ridgeline, thirteen died. In its post-fire investigation, the Forest Service exonerated the fire boss’s decision to jump in the first place and his management decisions during the increasingly ferocious and unpredictable burn.

“I really think that the fire we saw when we flew over there was a typical smokejumper fire,” a survivor confirmed. “And if they didn’t jump on that fire they wouldn’t have jumped on half the fires they jumped on that year. So I don’t think it was a mistake to jump. After we got on the ground I think it was a freak of nature that caused the wind to do what it did and to pick those coals up and drop them in the canyon below us.” Because smokejumping had been invented, the agency needed to use this tool notwithstanding any such “freak of nature.”

Unfortunately, those freakish moments have piled up. Between 1949 and 2012, burnovers have killed an estimated 221 of the 769 wildland firefighters who have died on the job.

The 1950s and ’60s were especially harrowing on the California national forests. In 1953, fifteen died in a burnover on the Mendocino NF; the next year, three more were lost on the Tahoe NF and then in 1956 another eleven fell on the Cleveland NF. Ten years later, a dozen firefighters were killed on the Angeles NF, also the site of a 1968 incident in which four perished.

Following the 1994 fire season, in which 14 firefighters were killed in the South Canyon fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the Forest Service and other federal and state agencies embraced a more rigorous safety-first strategy, hoping to limit the number of fatalities.

This year’s tragedy in Arizona suggests that we may not have fully absorbed this painful, century-long history. The problem does not appear to be one of policy but of memory. We don’t seem to know how to recall this deadly past, to keep it front and center, so as to abide by the rules and regulations already in place.

The public moreover must deliberately integrate these deaths into our ongoing education about fire’s essential place in the landscape, whether grassland, chaparral, or alpine. They must also be a required discussion item before every zoning commission or city council vote to permit yet another subdivision in the wildland-urban interface. For make no mistake, we are undeniably complicit in this mounting toll — we sent these firefighters out to do the work that led to their demise even as we have contributed to the increased frequency and intensity of the fires they have battled on our behalf. They die where we live.

To insure that their numbers do not grow, perhaps this time we’ll remember what happened during the Big Blowup and in Griffith Park, at Mann Gulch, South Canyon, and now Yarnell Hill. Perhaps this time we won’t forget what we have always known.

Here are some of my reflections on Char’s piece:

1) From Storm King to now was 19 years; you could argue that, given the kind of work that these folks are doing, and the judgements that need to be made, the track record is actually darn impressive.

2) There is a difference between “not living there in the woods” and “not using certain potentially dangerous tactics when fighting fires around houses in the woods.” I’m not a suppression expert, but they seem to have a variety of tactics. That’s what Kathy Voth questioned in the piece here that The Optimist posted.

3) Even if we stopped any more building, there are plenty of built places left to potentially burn- including Southern California.

4) Flooding of rivers has been a part of the landscape for millennia as well, but we don’t “educate people about the essential role of flooding in the landscape.” In fact, where I grew up, within the KCET listening area, La Ballona Creek was concrete lined for flood control (people are working to restore it, which I think is a good thing).

1 thought on “From the Big Blowup to Yarnell Hill: A Cautionary History of Wildand Fire by Char Miller”

  1. Indeed, if the Station Fire had a Santa Ana wind on it, the fire would have blazed right through the Pasadena area, house by house. Should we also evacuate places with high winds, too, so that we can grow more “fuels”?


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