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Last Updated: Friday, 7 September 2007, 16:33 GMT 17:33 UK
Why forest fires are spreading
Esperanza Fire, California, in 2006
Four firefighters were killed in Banning, California, last year

By Tim Egan

Fires wreaking destruction in the American West are set to become the norm for many months of the year.

The fires that raced through Greece, killing 64 people and leaving thousands of farmers in ruin, are down to a few smouldering remnants.

But here in the American West, our season of heat and destruction is just now getting into its peak. More than 50 active wildfires are raging throughout a million-and-half acres as we speak.

California is burning, with fresh fires crackling to life with every evening's dry thunderstorm. Montana, Idaho, Colorado and other parts of the Rocky Mountain West are burning as well - a seasonal affliction, aggravated by a siege of drought.

An army of yellow-shirted fire-fighters have been dispatched by air and land to contain these blazes. But they can only do so much. Nor will they. But more about that in a moment.

Fires create their own weather, sucking up oxygen and thundering outward in search of fresh fuel.

To live west of the 100th meridian is to live with fire - to live with its terrifying suddenness, its bullying winds and the horrid sound of a blaze on the run. Fire comes with the land. But of late, our fires have been bigger, hotter, with a season that starts in late winter and extends well into the fall.

This year, the first of the fires burned up pockets of the lovely, pine-scented heights of the mountains in the Southwest.

They call these areas of alpine green the Sky Islands - poking above the desert floor, an attic of breezy relief. I happened to be there on a February day when the temperature nudged 99 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 37 Celsius), with smoke in the air, a menace too early to arrive.

The forests were splotched with a rusty tinge, as trees die from heat and insects. Frogs, squirrels and other animals with a 10,000-year-old history of habitation have all but disappeared. To me, everything felt out of whack.

Then, last week, I was in the Rocky Mountains, where 50 active fires are burning. You smell one of these big fires well before you see it. The smoke gets in your nostrils, your hair; it clouds your eyes; it lingers in your clothes.

It feels ominous. Then the wind kicks up, and your adrenaline starts to surge. Fires create their own weather, sucking up oxygen and thundering outward in search of fresh fuel. They are unpredictable, especially in a mountain environment. Even from a hundred miles away, snow-white ashes fall from the sky.

Heat records

In one of these fires, in the resort town of Ketchum, in Sun Valley, where Ernest Hemmingway fished the Wood River and ultimately killed himself, they were forced to start up the snow-making machines to spread moisture over the ski slopes. A thousand people were evacuated, and the national guard was sent in to protect multi-million dollar homes. In many ways, all of this is the New Normal.

We can expect longer, more damaging fire seasons. And they will threaten more homes. Two trends - climate change, and a population surge into the open country - are converging in a place where fire has long had a home.

If you look at a map, you find that the fastest growing areas of the US are in places that are most prone to wildfire - the canyons, mesas and alpine retreats of the West.

Of course, fire is no stranger to this area. But the region has been warming for nearly 30 years. And now we are seeing the kind of heat records that nobody wants.

Phoenix, the fastest growing big city in America, just recorded 32 days of temperatures above 110 degrees (43 Celsius) - a record for one year. There, people live indoors this time of year, racing from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office or air-conditioned mall.

Phoenix, Arizona, US
Cities like Phoenix experience 'killer heat'
Now it may be alarmist to say that Phoenix and other places may one day become unliveable. But the climate models suggest that killer heat and catastrophic wildfires will not be anomalies.

They will be part of this "New Normal". Last spring in Paris, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a draft of its projections. The panel said the American West would be one of the hardest hit areas. Already, stress is killing large, forested sections here.

You can see this narrative of heat and climate change in tree rings. I went to visit Dr Thomas Swetnam, director of the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona.

He showed me a crosscut of an ancient bristlecone pine tree - one of the oldest living things in America. The rings were thick for healthy, wet years and thin for dry, difficult years. He then showed a section from the 16th Century, during one of the worst droughts over the last thousand years. Then he showed me the last few years - a time when the tree essentially stopped growing.

The drought of 500 years ago was worse, he said. But the temperatures are warmer today by four or five degrees, suggesting that this is just enough to push these forests over the edge.

"Climate change is happening now all over the West," he said. The changes are big, and coming fast. These new fires are different from others. They not only burn hotter, but they are enormous.

Trophy homes

Consider this comparison. In Greece, nearly 450,000 acres were consumed - a huge swatch of olive groves, forests and parkland. By contrast, the West has lost nearly 20 times that amount this year.

At the same time, hordes of people are moving into the open country at the far suburban edge of these new, fast-growing Western cities. On the surface, the land still looks good. But most western forests are sick, as I mentioned. The trees are losing their fire-resistant resin or bark. They are tinder, ready to go.

Wildfire near Palm Springs
Since 1990 more than eight million homes have been built in Western areas; places called the "urban-wild land interface." That means that enough people to populate New York City are now living in places where fire is part of the natural cycle.

What you see in these new communities at the edge of a national forest are not little cabins or humble mountain shacks. People build trophy homes of 5,000 square feet or more, three stories, half a dozen bedrooms, with huge timbers.

They revel in their palaces in the wilderness, away from the urban clusters, and then they expect that the wild will not touch them. But fire, as I said, is a much a part of this ecology as perennial grass. Fire renews the forest. Many trees need fire to sustain themselves.

So those stately, pretty trees shading a McMansion would disappear without fire, which forces open the cones and releases the seeds.

These new houses, many of them, are dream homes. They look perfect in their setting, if a bit oversized. But to a fire, they are just fuel. The people who live in these homes - with all the creature comforts - also expect someone outside their community to protect them when the woods are ablaze.


Thus the Forest Service, set up to nurture and patrol the great publicly-owned reserves of the West, has become the Fire Service. They spend nearly half their budget on helicopters, tractors, buckets and paying to feed and move these big camps of seasonal firefighters.

Not long ago I was in Colorado when a fire jumped a ridge and burned down into a cluster of expensive new homes not far from Aspen, one of the wealthiest communities in the world. The owners cried for help. "Do something," they demanded.

Some of the best firefighters in the world - Hotshots and Smokejumpers, elite men and elite women trained to tackles flames in a vertical battleground - rushed to the rescue. They came up with a containment plan and started to dig a fire line in the scrub oak and smoke. But then - as suddenly as the wind can change - disaster came.

I was down below the fire, at a base camp, and you could hear radios spark with strained voices, and the sound of panic. The fire sprinted out of control, toward the crews, riding gusts of 40 miles an hour. It was a storm unto itself, spreading a wall of flames at the rate of 35 feet per second.

In the West, it looks like normal is going to be a fire season that now lasts for nearly half the year, with homes in the way
The firefighters ran for their lives, up a hillside. Some hunkered down in their fire shelters, these little aluminium-foil pup tents used as a last line of defence against a fire.

Still, it was not enough. The super-heated gases penetrated the tents. Others were burned to death. Fourteen people died that day on Storm King Mountain.

Afterwards, the Forest Service vowed that it would never happen again. They would not lose men and women to protect people's summer homes. They even wrote a new manual for firefighting. At the top, more important than anything, they wrote, was saving lives. Property was at the bottom.

But since then, they've lost more than a dozen people. It's almost always the same scenario. Somebody does something heroic. In the post-mortem, the crew chiefs say the fire was hotter, bigger, faster than anyone expected.

They say it wasn't normal, but what is normal? In the West, it looks like normal is going to be a fire season that now lasts for nearly half the year, with homes in the way. Because nature, especially during mood swings, doesn't respect a city line.

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