I didn’t intend to go to prison or to get overrun at a wildfire. I also didn’t plan to spend years of my life chasing “megafires.”
I was just excited to see my first wildfire.
It was 1986 and I was a young photojournalist in Connecticut trying to document a blaze reported over the police scanner in my car.
When I saw the smoke, I climbed over a couple barbed-wire fences to photograph a handful of men digging a line of dirt around a small grassfire. But as I focused my camera, I heard angry shouts and saw a bulldozer-sized man with a badge running at me. I’d strayed onto the grounds of a state prison. The firefighters were all inmates. The guard tackled me.
“You can’t just walk in,” he screamed. “And they can’t just walk out.”
Then the blaze blew up, threatening to overtake a firefighting inmate. I tried to photograph him running for his life, fully expecting the guard to grab the camera or handcuff me. Instead, he picked me up, pointed me at the action and stepped back. I photographed as the conflagration bore down on the prisoner.
Suddenly, the wind shifted and the flames subsided. Spared, he went back to work and the guard led me away. I still have the photograph.
While that fire was tiny, the incident sparked my enduring curiosity about the phenomenon of wildfire, which has since grown much worse — especially in the American West, where I live today.
With as many as 30,000 people joining the battle against wildfires during busy fire seasons — by October, more land had burned in 2017 than in all but two years since national recordkeeping began — the U.S. must get firefighters wherever it can: Correctional facilities, the National Guard, the Air Force Reserve, battalions of the U.S. Army and even Australia and New Zealand.
The growing demand for firefighters reflects a new reality. In the 1970s around 3 million acres of U.S. land burned in an average year. During the first decade of this century, that figure topped 7 million. Prior to 1995, the U.S. annually averaged less than one fire exceeding 100,000 acres in size — the U.S. Forest Service’s criteria for a “megafire.” Between 2005 and 2014, the nation averaged 9.8 fires of that size yearly.
It’s not just trees burning. Seven times more homes burn in wildfires today than did in the 1970s. Budgets are going up in smoke, too. In 1995 the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its funding on wildfires. In 2015 it was 52 percent.
And some 85 percent of firefighting costs are related to less than 2 percent of the fires — the epic conflagrations known as megafires.
But what exactly is a megafire? As a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at CU Boulder in 2009, I started trying to figure that out by pursuing the biggest, most destructive fires on Earth.
I visited the scene of the Black Saturday fires in Australia that killed 173 people with an explosive force equivalent, by some measures, to 1,500 of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima. The story there was the climate, which drove temperatures and drought so severe that the fire risk was literally off the nation’s fire danger scale.
In Israel, I attended memorial services for the Mount Carmel fires that killed 44 people, including a police commissioner, the police chief of Haifa, 36 prison guards and a 16-year-old volunteer firefighter whose mother drove him to the fire because he didn’t have a driver’s license yet. In that nation, where nearly 70 percent of the forests were planted in the last century, the new abundance of trees has resulted in thousands of wildfires in a landscape with no history of natural fire.
In Indonesia I witnessed fires so vast that, for 40 days in 2015, they released more greenhouse gases than the entire U.S. economy. Smoke from those fires sent half a million people to the hospital. Those huge fires grew out of small blazes set by farmers and multinational corporations to clear land for fields producing goods consumed around the world, most notably palm oil, which can be found in about half the items in any U.S. grocery store.
of U.S. Forest Service’s funding spent on wildfires
of U.S. Forest Service's funding spent on wildfires
acres of U.S. land burned in an average year
acres could burn
of wildfires are started by humans
In June 2013, just a day after I returned to Colorado from overseas, a tweet from a Boulder firefighter led me to reconsider how we’ve been defining megafire.
“19 Firefighters Dead While Battling Arizona Wildfire,” it read.
That led to a dozen reporting trips to Prescott, Ariz., home of the Granite Mountain Hotshots before all but one member of that elite firefighting crew was killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire. Afterward, I came to measure megafires more by their effects than their size.
By Arizona standards, the Yarnell Hill Fire was tiny. Yet it destroyed more than 100 homes and killed 19 of the nation’s best wildland firefighters, the greatest loss of firefighter lives since 9/11. Each of the drivers of the huge fires I’d seen overseas — the warming and drying climate, forestry practices that made woodlands more prone to intense burns, human development that introduced new fuels and sparks to vegetated wildlands — challenged the doomed hotshots.
I saw small but unusually volatile fires take lives, destroy homes and damage infrastructure and resources. Those, I realized, were far more “mega” than blazes of 100,000 acres burning in remote wildernesses, as they always have.
Colorado, for instance, broke its “most destructive” fire record four times in four years, beginning with the Fourmile Canyon Fire that exploded outside Boulder on Labor Day, 2010. None of those devastating fires, including the Waldo Canyon Fire that burned into the city of Colorado Springs, met the Forest Service’s megafire criterion.
My original definition of megafire was the first of many misconceptions I abandoned during a seven-year-long wildfire reporting project, often with the help of CU researchers.
When I started researching megafires, I believed that the decades during which the U.S. was extinguishing every natural wildfire had left the nation’s forests overgrown with too much woody fuel, driving the increase in wildfire. But research by Tom Veblen, who runs CU Boulder’s Biogeography Lab, and Rosemary Sherriff (PhDGeog’04) showed that just 16 percent of the ponderosa pine forests on Colorado’s Front Range showed increased fire severity due to fuels building up after past fires were extinguished. Most of the rest of those forests have always been prone to severe fires. That’s something to consider before we build houses in there.
It's now hard to see wildfires as purely natural disasters.
I thought the vast swaths of dead lodgepole pines left behind by beetle infestations couldn’t help but make wildfires worse. But studies by Veblen and Tania Schoennagel, a researcher with CU’s geography department and INSTARR, showed that beetle-killed trees weren’t changing the behavior of fires much.
And it was hard to continue thinking of wildfires as purely natural disasters after research by Jennifer Balch of CU’s Earth Lab showed that over two decades, humans started 84 percent of them.
With Forest Service scientists predicting that the amount of land burning in the United States will double in coming decades — to 20 million acres a year — it’s important that the nation sort through the myths about wildfires, regardless of whether they meet an arbitrary definition of megafire.
For the inmate firefighter I photographed decades ago, I’m sure the tiny grassfire that nearly burned him alive was “mega” enough.
Michael Kodas is associate director of CU Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism. This story is adapted from his most recent book, Megafire.
Photos courtesy Michael Kodas