ARUN RATH, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
This has been a deadly year for people who fight wildfires. In all, 32 people have lost their lives fighting wildfires in 2013. That's the highest number in nearly 20 years. And just one incident accounts for most of those deaths, the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. It blasted through a firefighting crew known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Nineteen of the 20 men died.
A new report has released some new information about what happened to the Hotshots. But around the country, as people move further into wildland areas, and climate change turns landscapes into tinder, experts say the wildfire danger will likely only grow. And that's our cover story today: living with wildfires.
CHIEF DAN FRAIJO: Andrew Ashford, 29 years old. Anthony Rose, 23 years old.
RATH: The day after the accident, Fire Chief Dan Fraijo stood in front of cameras and reporters inside a high school gym in Prescott, Arizona, an hour north of Phoenix.
FRAIJO: Grant Mackenzie, 21. Jess Steed...
RATH: Fraijo read the names of the 19 members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshot crew who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire. The fire started from a lightning strike that sparked a brush fire. A fire hadn't hit the area in more than 45 years - it was primed to burn. Powerful winds spread the flames across thousands of acres in a matter of hours, catching residents unaware.
Geri Jones-Florman and Michelle Jacobson had to leave their homes at a moment's notice.
GERI JONES-FLORMAN: Oh, in the end...
MICHELLE JACOBSON: Minutes. Less.
JONES-FLORMAN: ...for me, it was like five minutes. Get your stuff and go.
JACOBSON: Now, move, get out of your house. And people were really literally running for their lives to get out in time.
RATH: Deployed between the flames and the people's property were the Hotshots. Twenty-one-year-old Brendan McDonough was the 20th member of the elite crew and the lone survivor. He was the lookout and was separated from the group. In an interview with The Prescott Daily Courier, McDonough remembers the tension of that day.
BRENDAN MCDONOUGH: My captain had reached me on the radio saying that we're going to expect 180-degree wind shift and that we could expect gusts up to 50 to 60 miles per hour. And once I heard that, I knew the fire was going to change rapidly, and he understood that too.
RATH: The Hotshots moved away from a burned out area, which was safe. And toward a ranch, another safe zone. But along the way, the winds shifted, and fire trapped the Hotshots. The crew leader radioed back that they were deploying fire shelters, a last resort.
MCDONOUGH: That was the last time that I heard my superintendent's voice. And what went through my mind when I heard that they had to deploy, I was crushed.
RATH: The bodies of the firefighters were found several hours later. Investigators have tried to piece together exactly what happened in the Yarnell Hill Fire. Yesterday, the Arizona State Forestry Division released their incident report. Jim Karels led the investigation.
JIM KARELS: My entire objective is to give the state of Arizona to our best ability of what happened on the Yarnell Hill Fire and to ensure that we learn from that into the future.
RATH: They reported that the fire was moving fast, more than 10 miles per hour. In the end, the Hotshots had just two minutes to prepare shelters. When the fire came, it was burning at more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt silver. An air tanker was poised and ready to drop flame retardant above the Hotshots, but they had no way of knowing their position.
The report does not assign blame, though it does cite a critical, 30-minute gap in communications. And investigators say they cannot explain one central mystery: why the firefighters moved away from a safe area and into danger. Here's investigator Jim Karels.
KARELS: We don't know that information. We don't have it. That decision-making process went with those 19 men.
MICHAEL KODAS: Yeah. One thing that they point out repeatedly is that the only explanation for the Granite Mountain Hotshots to have left the safety zone in an already burnt forest, which is where they were, was that they wanted to get to a place where they could re-engage the fire and try to prevent it from burning into the town of Yarnell.
RATH: Michael Kodas is writing a book about the wildfire crisis. He also worked as a seasonable firefighter. He was in Prescott in the days following the tragedy.
KODAS: The primary purpose of these reports is to try to prevent an accident like this from happening again. But they also are trying to avoid saying things about firefighters who have perished and to downplay the heroism of these firefighters. And there's also legal constraints that have kind of fallen on them in recent years.
About 10 years ago, there was a fire in which an incident commander was charged with crimes. And so there's a sense that if they point too many fingers or they're too pointed in their report that firefighters and other officials might not be as cooperative with them as they might be because they fear there may be legal consequences for that.
RATH: Why was the Yarnell Hill Fire so deadly?
KODAS: Well, you know, in Arizona, they kind of have every aspect of our Western fire crisis in spades. This is largely a result of the fact that we've been putting out fires in the Western United States for more than a century. And this allowed our forests to grow unnaturally thick. And that's something that's really noticeable in Arizona. The forests there after a century of fire suppression often have 10 or 20 times more trees and scrub and grasses on them than they did naturally.
You know, on the other side of that, they also have a rapidly expanding wildland-urban interface, which is the term that firefighters use to refer to the point where homes and communities abut really flammable forests. And so there's all kinds of development going on in Arizona in these very flammable forests.
RATH: And with people living in the wildland-urban interface or WUI, has that changed the way we fight fires?
KODAS: It has. Increasingly, wildland firefighters are being expected to somehow protect homes in the woods. And they're really not equipped for that in the way that a structure firefighter is. You know, they're wearing very lightweight flame retardant clothing and just carrying the fire shelters like the Granite Mountain Hotshots perished in. When a forest firefighter ends up trying to protect a house, they're really not prepared for the hazards that come with trying to protect a structure.
RATH: And I imagine that, you know, dealing in these kind of urban or sort of semi-urban areas, there are things like propane tanks and other sorts of hazards that these firefighters are really not accustomed to.
KODAS: Yeah. That's correct. I went through my wildland firefighting training again this last spring. And I hadn't gone through that in probably 10 years or so. And, you know, one of the most stunning changes in that training was parts of the training program that actually explained what to do if you happened upon a meth lab while you were fighting a forest fire or an illegal chemical dump or, you know, we're dealing with homes with long and winding driveways in which access might be difficult and it might be difficult to escape if you were, you know, fighting the fire and things went bad. And those really weren't things that we had to think very much about even 10 or 15 years ago when we were fighting forest fires.
RATH: That's Michael Kodas. He's the associate director of the Environmental Journalism Program at the University of Colorado. Experts say it's worth comparing the problem of wildfires with the nation's problem with building fires in the 20th century.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The worst school fire disaster in Chicago's history, one of the nation's worst ever, shocks the country.
RATH: Horror stories of massive, deadly building fires would punctuate newscasts. By the early 1970s, the U.S. had reached a crisis point. Fires were killing more than 12,000 Americans every year. The federal government established a commission and released a report called America Burning.
Alexander Maranghides is a fire protection engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He says the America Burning report marked a major turning point in fire safety.
ALEXANDER MARANGHIDES: This was really the catalyst to really put together a research effort that resulted in significant improvements in the building codes and standards and test methods, which, over decades, has yielded a fantastic level of success.
RATH: Today, the number of deaths from fires every year is around 3,000, a fraction of the old number. But Maranghides says fires in the wildland-urban interface present a new and dangerous threat.
MARANGHIDES: The wildland-urban interface problem, when compared to interior building fires, is technically - and I'm being conservative here - an order of magnitude more complex.
RATH: So Maranghides says understanding wildfires will require the kind of focus that the America Burning report once provided.
MARANGHIDES: We are now with wildland-urban interface fires where we were with building fires 30 years ago.
RATH: Maranghides and his colleagues have proposed a scale to assess potential wildfire risk.
MARANGHIDES: You can think of our proposed scale as a way to quantify the hazard.
RATH: The scale ranges from one to four and would measure the potential hazard from fires and hot embers. Maranghides says building codes had been developed to deal with earthquakes. They exist for hurricanes too. But there is a big blind spot when it comes to understanding wildfires. He says the scale is not an attempt to restrict where people can build.
MARANGHIDES: All we're saying is at this point in space, this is the fire and ember exposure you can expect. So if you want to build there and you want your home to survive, the building materials and assemblies have to be able to withstand that exposure.
RATH: If the history of building fires is any guide, changing our approach won't take just years, but decades. In the meantime, we'll almost certainly see more devastating fires. As one expert told the Yarnell investigators, extreme fire behavior is the new normal.