Anatomy of a Monster

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine



Spontaneous Combustion

Sifting through the ashes—and questions—amid one of one of the worst fire seasons ever

Michael Darter
Unfriendly fire: one of 235 homes incinerated by the Cerro Grande blaze in Los Alamos in May

CHRIS KIRBY IS a large man with thick hands, the kind of powerful, unassuming guy the losing football team neglected to pick. Except, as a member of the Mormon Lake Hotshots, a crew of wildland firefighters out of Flagstaff, Arizona, he's had his share of losses too. Slouching into a folding chair inside the mess tent after hunting hot spots for 12 hours at the Pumpkin Fire outside Flagstaff, Kirby looks a little more haggard as he thinks back to May 9, the day he and everybody else on the line at the Cerro Grande fire in northern New Mexico realized they were fighting a blaze that had gotten too big, too hot, too fast. "There was quite a bit of discouragement," Kirby said. "Everyone expected to lick it in a couple of operational periods. We got our asses kicked."

For such a complex fire it had a startlingly simple beginning. At 7:20 p.m. on Thursday, May 4, a crew of 25 firefighters began dripping burning gasoline and diesel fuel onto dry underbrush in the northwest corner of Bandelier National Monument, 33,000 acres of canyons and mesas situated just south of Los Alamos, New Mexico. As the world knows now, it was supposed to be a small fire—a "prescribed burn" of only 1,000 acres designed to consume dead wood and prevent larger conflagrations. But within a few hours it was an out-of-control wildfire.

By Sunday, hotshot crews were rushing to halt the burn at the paved road that connects Los Alamos to the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area. With 30- to 50-mph winds blowing flames through timber turned bone-dry after a winter and spring of drought, there was no time to clear a line in front of the advancing fire. Instead, crews used drip torches to set backfires along a five-mile stretch of the road to cut off the head before it leaped down the next canyon and into town. "We were practically running with the things, trying to stay ahead of the fire," Kirby recalled. "It's the fastest burn I've ever been in, but it worked. It stopped the head of that thing that night."

By early Tuesday, however, the buffer zone that had been created just 36 hours earlier was raked by extremely high winds carrying burning embers far below the ski-area road. "By now the wind is really jammin'," Kirby said. "The thing got up in the trees. Once it started crowning, no one was going to get ahead of that." Crew superintendents realized that after five days they'd lost the fight. They loaded their crews into trucks, drove to Los Alamos, and watched for the next three hours as an inferno consumed the town, torching 245 structures, licking the flanks of the nation's largest nuclear weapons research laboratory, and ultimately denuding 42,878 acres of ponderosa pine forest. Viewed from above, the once green mountains now resemble a vast graveyard of charred black toothpicks. Most of the 1,000 acres the park rangers had intended to burn were left untouched.

Add Cerro Grande to the list of fires that have erupted so far—including the blaze that consumed 192,000 acres of grassland and 11 homes near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington at the end of June—and 2000 is already one of the worst years for wildfires in U.S. history. Between January and early July, major burns in Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Nevada, California, Texas, and Alaska had scorched more than two million acres, over half a million acres more than the comparable period in 1999 (see "Up in Smoke" map page 42). New Mexico and Arizona were hit with a nearly fourfold increase in acres burned. And with dry conditions prevailing across much of the country, the prognosis for the remainder of the fire season, which runs through late November, is not good. High on everyone's list of ominous prospects is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in northern Minnesota, where a freak windstorm last summer turned half a million acres of trees into a massive pile of kindling.


Tom Brownold
The Pumpkin Fire devoured all 14,757 acres of the Kendrick Mountain Wilderness Area outside Flagstaff.

AT ITS PEAK, Cerro Grande drew over 9,000 personnel from dozens of city, state, and federal agencies. Still, all the hoses, picks, axes, and shovels that the Boise, Idaho&150;based National Interagency Fire Center could muster—called up from the ranks of the U.S. Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs—did little as the fire cut its enormous destructive swath across the slopes of the Jemez Mountains. But once Los Alamos burned, the next victim—apart from Roy Weaver, Bandelier's superintendent, who paid for having approved the ill-fated fire by resigning from the job he'd held for ten years—was the philosophy and practice of prescribed burning. On May 12, while Cerro Grande was still in full swing, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced a 30-day suspension of prescribed burns on all federal lands west of the 100th meridian (roughly western Kansas), a ban that at press time remained in effect for the National Park Service.

To many land-management officials, prescribed fire is such a vital tool (when administered correctly) that discontinuing it would be a push beyond folly into madness. As Erv Gasser, one of the Burned Area Rehabilitation Team leaders brought in to repair the apocalyptic postfire landscape around Los Alamos, puts it, eliminating prescribed burns "would be like taking away a hammer from someone nailing two boards together." Paul Gleason, a wildland fire management specialist for the National Park Service who's been chasing flames for 36 years, happened to be in Bandelier on May 4, studying forest fuels for another prescribed burn that the Park Service was planning, and ended up as incident commander when the fire went out of bounds. Part of the problem in Los Alamos was a gross underestimation of the fire's potential complexity, Gleason said, which was abetted by a woeful communication system. "The people that were executing the prescribed fire are experienced burners," he said. Once the fire turned wild, though, "they had problems with contingency resources. They weren't getting the help they needed." If the complexity of the Bandelier burn had been properly understood, he added, additional firefighting crews could have been in position to help when things went haywire.

Not surprisingly, such contingency issues boil down to money. Funds for a prescribed fire, which costs roughly $100 per acre to carry out, are allocated in each park's budget. Only when a burn gets out of hand and is officially declared a wildfire does the federal purse open, and only then do manpower and equipment, such as air ops (slurry bombers can cost several thousand dollars per hour), flood the area. The suppression and rehabilitation bill for Cerro Grande amounts to more than $758 per acre so far, a total of $32.5 million. But that figure pales next to the compensation, as much as $455 million, to be doled out by the federal government to Los Alamos residents who lost homes and property.


Anatomy of a Monster
How wildfires get that way

"YOU REALLY CAN'T STOP FIRE any more than you can stop a tornado," says Don Latham, who leads the fire behavior unit at the U.S. Forest Service's fire science lab in Missoula, Montana. But Latham and other researchers have for years mapped, modeled, and studied blazes in an effort to learn what makes them rage.

Fires come in three strengths, each phase an escalation of the last. Ground fires creep through the organic debris and decomposing litter in the soil, usually causing the least overall damage, while surface fires clear loose shrubbery and detritus from the forest floor. But dead wood and saplings serve as a ladder for surface fires to climb into the canopy, where they become the blast furnace of wildfires: the crown fire, in which temperatures surge beyond 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The dead stuff goes first, and then when all the moisture is cooked out of the green wood, it goes too. Treetops can explode as the sudden intense heat ignites the gases inside them. Winds can carry embers miles ahead of the advancing flames. Crown fires typically travel at one to five miles per hour, but a steep hillside and a strong wind can turn one into a 15-mph blaze, often belching out a downdraft that sounds like a freight train.

Some U.S. forests have adapted to devastating crown fires that sweep through once every 100 years or so. But much of what had burned across the nation at press time—mostly lower-elevation Western ponderosa pine forests—had not. In these ecosystems, historically adapted to surface fires, crown fires can become what Scott Stephens, a fire science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, calls "stand-removal fires"—that is, fires that devastate, not replenish.Forest Service scientists have in recent decades developed computer programs that take into account such factors as terrain, wind, fuel, and elevation to plot a blaze's expected course. But out on the front lines, a raging crown fire is still difficult to predict. "When the fire gets going," says Stephens, "you just get out of its way."

Although it may take centuries for the land to return completely to its pre-fire state, parts of the forest start springing back to life right away. To hear federal Joint Fire Science Program manager Bob Clark tell it, the life cycle of a wildfire is a humbling thing to witness. "Fire doesn't create things and fire doesn't destroy things," he says. "It basically just rearranges." —JOHN INGOLD

PRESCRIBED BURNS are not a panacea, though, particularly in Western states where human settlement has altered historical cycles of fire. "The areas available for prescribed fire are shrinking," says Stephen Pyne, a professor of biology at Arizona State University who joined his first fire crew in 1967 and has since written nine books on wildfire. A century of fire suppression, Pyne says, has so completely changed the rural ecosystem that natural fires quickly grow into disasters, as opposed to the smaller pre-settlement blazes that took out weak trees and grasses, leaving nutrients and a healthy forest. "Certainly in the West, the ponderosa pine areas were more like savannas than dense woods," he adds. Indeed, many of the areas we think of as beautiful, healthy forests today are actually unhealthy messes.

Chastened by the Cerro Grande fire, Secretary Babbitt has ordered up a slew of studies to deal with overgrown forestlands better than the current one-prescribed-burn-fits-all approach. According to Interior spokesman John Wright, Babbitt is particularly interested in a system that has come to be called the Flagstaff Model. Led by Wally Covington, a professor of forestry and director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, and funded by 17 public and private groups from both sides of the environmental fence, including the City of Flagstaff, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Arizona Public Service (the state utility company), the Flagstaff Model is designed to restore Western forests to a precolonization state.

"We have created an enormous change in this ecosystem from an open-grown and grass-dominated ecosystem to one dominated by trees," says H. B. "Doc" Smith, program liaison for the institute and Covington's right-hand man. "Before, there were perhaps 20 to 50 trees per acre. Now some stands grow to 2,000 or 3,000 trees per acre. It's akin to taking off the predators and watching the prey erupt."

On a 500-acre test site inside Flagstaff city limits and a remote 3,500-acre site on Mount Trumbull, north of the Grand Canyon, the Ecological Restoration Institutehas cut out most of the trees, leaving the oldest and healthiest, and carefully burned away the underbrush. To offset the costs, they allowed lumber companies to do the thinning. What remains is a more open stand that Smith says will eventually produce a carpet of grasses and wildflowers, such as lupines, asters, and geraniums. "What happens is, after the third or fourth year, the effects are softened," says Smith. "You begin to see the wildflowers and less of the little chunks of charred material. People start to say, 'By golly, this looks good.'"

But a proposal to implement the Flagstaff Model on a wider basis has angered environmentalists. "The problem with Wally Covington is he wants to cut everything back to 1900," says Rex Wahl, executive director of Forest Guardians, a New Mexico&150;based group that has used the federal courts to stall a Forest Service plan to implement the model on 100,000 acres around Flagstaff. "There's a major flaw in that. In 100 years, on average, there would be three to four established cohorts of trees, some old, some new. If you cut it back to 1900 you've denied all that production."

Wahl isn't alone in his criticism. Sandy Bahr, conservation outreach director for the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, says Covington's restoration is just another word for logging. "He's taken an awful lot of big trees out," Bahr says, referring to the Mount Trumbull test site. "It's not like the forest got in this condition overnight, but I think that, 'Gee, we better cut those trees down before they burn,' is taking things a little too far." Even Paul Gleason sees the limits of the Flagstaff Model. "In limited areas next to houses, mechanical treatment is a viable option," he says, referring to chainsaws and bulldozers. "But there is lots and lots and lots of ground where mechanical treatments aren't possible."

To help appease their critics, Covington and Smith plan to test other forest management prescriptions alongside the Flagstaff Model. But the scientists are confident that their method will become one of many forest management strategies of choice in the West, particularly if it gets support from the Interior Department. "I think we have a chance if we can get past the hypercritical environmental community," says Smith, "and the notion that thinning is always bad."


REGARDLESS OF how fire management policies are modified, the grunts don't see their jobs changing much. "We do what they tell us," says Ali Ulwelling, an Alpine Hotshot out of Estes Park, Colorado. "We're all assholes and elbows."

Still, firefighters are keen observers of how sweeping policy decisions can go wrong in the field. "We've got kind of a dysfunctional culture in my mind," says Marc Mullenix, division chief of wildland fires for the Boulder City Fire Department, speaking of the five federal agencies that have to unite logistically when a large forest fire erupts. "We have this huge dysfunctional family, and you put them on this fire and you wonder why things don't get done right." Wayne Patton, incident commander for the Burned Area Rehabilitation Team at Los Alamos, echoed that sentiment when asked if he thought the feds would come up with substantive improvements to the prescribed burn policy. "God, I hope so," he said, "'cause this thing was a mess."—STEPHEN TITUS

A short history of fire in America
1850s Native Americans and early white pioneers set brush fires to drive game and improve foraging.
1871 Peshtigo, Wisconsin, is wiped out by a fire that kills 1,500; additional blazes claim 760 more lives in Minnesota and Michigan. The story is overshadowed in the papers by the Great Chicago Fire, which kills 300.
1872 The 1st United States Cavalry fights fires in Yellowstone National Park with buckets.
1910 First fire lookouts built in U.S. forests atop 10- to 30-foot trees.
1910 A spate of fires in Idaho and Montana collectively known as "The Big Blowup" kill 85 people, 74 of them firefighters. National media coverage treats fire as solely a destructive force, rather than a natural process. Public gets scared.
1920 First Pulaski Tool manufactured. Designed by a veteran of the 1910 fires, Ed Pulaski, the combo ax and mattock remains a smoke-jumper essential today.
1928 Controlled burns are first used for fire management, to maintain fire breaks in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
1939 Fire teams experiment with airdropping water, supplies, dummies, and finally live jumpers. Basic jump gear includes two canopies, a felt-padded jumpsuit, a football helmet, ankle braces, logger boots, and a jockstrap.
1945 Forest Service creates Smokey Bear icon. Later, an orphaned cub named Smokey generates so much fan mail that he is assigned his own ZIP code.
1946 Surplus B-17s,B-29s, P-47s, and Navy dive- bombers are modified to blitz wildfires.
1956 Sodium calcium borate, the first air-dropped retardant, rains down on the Inaja Fire in Southern California.
1978 Realizing that fire can, at times, be beneficial, the Forest Service shifts its focus from fire eradication to fire management.
1988 The military pitches in to fight fires in Yellowstone. Huge blazes drive home the futility of suppressing all fires.
1993 National Interagency Fire Center established in Boise, Idaho.


The 2000 fire season's nastiest burns—so far

YEP, IT'S BEEN A LONG hot summer. The table below presents ten out of the many thousands of officially reported fires that at press time had burned over 2.1 million acres across the U.S. this year—plus a selection of other notable flash points such as Minnesota (well-primed with heaps of blowdown in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness). Which raises the question: When will it end? By early July, meteorologists were seeing signals that La Niña—the climate pattern that usually spells drought in the southern U.S.—was abating. But Stephen Dickenson, emergency operations coordinator for the National Interagency Fire Center, says it ain't over yet. Well into the fall, La Niña might still set the stage for big fires in areas of California, the Great Basin, and the Northern Rockies below 4,000 feet that are thick with fast-burning grass, sagebrush, and juniper. For news on the latest flare-ups, see —CAROL GREENHOUSE

The Valentine Fire: The Southwest's first major blaze of the year—a 40,333-acre fire just outside Tatum, New Mexico—took hold on Valentine's Day and caught the Forest Service off guard, forcing 85 volunteer firefighters to work around the clock for 60 hours. It was the first of many such days to come; by June, the 2000 fire season was already the region's worst ever. The Pumpkin Fire: When first sighted near the Kendrick Mountain Wilderness Area, 25 miles outside Flagstaff, Arizona, at 9 a.m. on May 24, the hot spot was only ten feet in diameter. But early detection didn't help—100 acres went up in an hour, a breath-sucking 2,797 by midnight. Two weeks and $6.5 million in costs later, all 14,757 acres of the wilderness area were gone.
The Outlet Fire: By early summer, federal wildland managers had set nearly 3,000 prescribed fires. About 98 percent stayed under control, but not this one. Set two miles north of the Grand Canyon's North Rim Village on April 27, this 500-acre planned burn ultimately scorched 14,118 acres and ended up costing $9.5 million to snuff out. The Holeyland Fire: How do you fight fire in the Everglades, miles from the nearest road? "We send in the Bombardiers," explains district forester Sue Congelosi. These are tanks that roll over rugged terrain spraying water in their wake. They doused this fire—14,000-acres northwest of Fort Lauderdale set off by lightning on Memorial Day weekend—in just five days.
The Cerro Grande Fire: The conflagration that grabbed headlines around the world. No wonder: Spawned by a Park Service prescribed burn on May 4, it threatened the nuke labs of Los Alamos National Laboratory, forced the evacuation of 25,000 inhabitants, charred 245 buildings and 42,878 acres, and ran up a bill that ultimately will cost Uncle Sam half a billion dollars. The Viveash Fire: Pecos National Historical Park became a tent city for 1,000 firefighters when what began as a campfire on May 29 swept across 28,283 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest, requiring 56 fire crews, 39 engines, 16 bulldozers, 11 helicopters, 7 slurry bombers, and $10 million to extinguish stubborn flames that couldn't be contained for 26 days.
The Cook Ranch Fire: Concerned about his livelihood, one rancher affected by this $2 million, 47,240-acre fire that blew up south of Fort Stockton, Texas, on May 4, asked that his pasture be saved before his house. Both were spared, but not everyone was so lucky. Texas Forest Service pilot Carl Payne was killed when his single-engine air tanker swiped a tower and crashed. The Hi Meadow Fire: One resident offered an officer $1,000 to let him through the roadblock to retrieve his belongings on June 12, when this 10,800-acre wildfire spilled from Pike National Forest into Bailey, Colorado. No dice. Homeowners had mere minutes to evacuate before 51 homes went up. It took nine days and $4.3 million to contain.
The Cree Fire: May 7 was a dark day for three Ruidoso, New Mexico, teens who found a cave, lit their way inside with a burning branch, and managed to torch 8,265 acres of forest. Some, it seems, will never learn the adage about who can prevent forest fires. Ironically, the original Smokey Bear, an orphan black bear cub, was found 20 miles northeast of here in 1950. The Hanford Fire: A fatal car accident started the year's biggest fire—a 192,000-acre monster that on June 29 rolled over nuclear waste dumps at Hanford Nuclear Reservation outside of Richland, Washington. The human cost: Eleven homes torched in nearby Benton City, plus one man who sustained third-degree burns. Quoth the Energy Department: No radiation was released.


©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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