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July 01, 2013

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Every lesson in fire science is written in the blood of a fallen firefighter.

Within seven days, Yarnell, 122 degrees and a huge dust storm in Phoenix. Arizona is ground zero for climate change. I'm not convinced that the state is a sustainable habitat for most beyond this generation.

Thank you for bringing up the crocodile tears of politicians who have demonized public sector employees. They are called "heroes" when tragedy strikes, and lazy ignoramuses sucking off the government teat the rest of the time.

Thanks. You already answered some of my questions.

Jon, I don't know if you saw this piece I posted earlier today: "Global warming is on track to double the number of wild fires in the US by 2050, but very few predictions of this type have panned out over the last ten years. Usually, the degree of severity of climate effects from global warming is much larger than predicted, or comes sooner than predicted. Some people try to push responsibility for more fires off on bad management practices, but this, while it may be a factor, is a) old news and addressed in many areas decades ago; b) pales in comparison to the effects of drought and c) pales in comparison to massive tree death which in turn is exacerbated if not simply directly caused by anthropogenic climate change." The link is http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/07/01/honoring-the-19-dead-at-yarnell-hill-az/

One sad irony is that these wildlands firefighters were avid outdoors types with deep, sincere, undying love for Arizona's natural landscape. Just last week they battled the Doce Fire to save a magnificent alligator juniper that few of us can be bothered to get away from our TVs to go see for ourselves:
http://dcourier.com/Main.asp?SectionID=1&SubSectionID=1&ArticleID=120588

RIP, all of you.

Good job Jon! Now, we'll see whether there are real journalists with the cojones to investigate the decisions that led up to the tragedy. And what you say is certainly prescient about our foolhardy escapes (without defensible perimeters) in the AZ "high country". Stuff like this may actually give rise to more "climate refugees".

Tremendous column, Jon. Many great points and lines. Among my faves: "self-serving bleats of assorted members of the Kookocracy."
No one does it better.
Thank you.

I was in Prescott over the weekend. It was hotter there than I've ever experienced, although wonderfully mild by comparison to the sprawling inferno we call home. Prescott's serenely beautiful downtown now harbors a perpetual caravansary of tourists, mostly Boomers, busy ladling frozen yogurt and ice cream into their bewildered faces.

We've discussed this before so there's no reason to pick the scab about Prescott's wanton and horrifying overdevelopment. The reach of Phoenix is beginning to turn distinct towns like New River into exurbs, and even Black Canyon City seems to be collapsing into that telltale farrago of trailer parks and retail strips. Where does this nightmare end?

The wildfires give a hint. Blading the fire lanes into the pristine desert ought to give more sensitive souls (Cal, this is your cue) a mortal shudder. Some things were, we thought, sacred. And as awful as Phoenix has become, I never dreamed all of Arizona was at risk for kudzu-like encampments of Real Americans. Silly, silly me.

Climate change, despite the reassurances of our Know Nothing class, is going to turn this state into a sunbaked turd. Flagstaff will look like Apache Junction in 50 years. This isn't some prediction ala Alvin Toffler. This is already happening. The pine bark beetle is both augur and auger.

I want to get on my knees and beg my contemporaries to hasten their overdue transition from the physical to the ethereal. Please, enough of your vacation homes in the high country. Enough of your Winnebagos and all-you-can-eat buffets. Go home to your maker knowing you lived high on the hog. Which just happens to be the American sign of the cross.

Good job, Jon. I suspect they will just blame it on a wind shift and nothing, absolutely nothing, will change.

Burn, baby, burn. Arizona's future given its horrendous political leadership and the greedy slobs who continue to rape the state.

Those who helped fill the prisons and run the lowlands into the ground are now retiring to higher elevations to avoid the Frankenstein they have created.

Mother nature will not forget and they will not long live in peace with blood on their hands.

Burn, baby, burn.

Eloquent. To the point. Many thanks.

Jon, It will take a team of investigative journalists with "sources."
I would not expect much from state officials.
Soleri, U all know my opinion, more road less wilderness and less people.
And given the condition of the Colorado river there will soon not be enough water to put out a Las Vegas Casino fire let alone major forest fires.
Why are we fighting fires in the forest or wilderness. Before the invention of fire fighters what course of action was taken to put out fires in the wilderness.

Do home owners give thought and preparation to there forest home being in fire danger. U cant even get a building code law requiring new homes to have sprinkling systems.

Homeless has got it right and as I have mentioned many times the story ending is in the "Good News" by Abbey.

Excellent piece, Jon

!00% agreement. Remember this area from the 50s and 60s. My Dad drove the backroads and we hiked and camped throughout the area. And yes, Yarnell Hill was really scary.
One Correction - - I believe nineteen were killed.
Bear

Here's a comment from Reddit:

What a cynical column. Most of us realize that Arizona has been developed in a sprawling manner but to launch an anti-establishment and anti-development tyraid like that is ridiculous. What about the people in the Midwest who live in flood plans? What about the people in the Midwest who live in blizzard prone areas? What about the people in The south who live in the path of hurricanes? What about all of California who is in a massive earthquake zone? Wildfires are a natural disaster just like any other natural disaster. No need to condemn the whole state over it. And to berate politicians for caring, Jesus Christ man they are people just like the rest of us.

Reddit. my american indian wife thought the folks u mentioned above were just dumb. One of her favorite sayings was her people didnt pitch tepees in river beds.
And how many mobile homes are we going to keep replacing in tornado zones. And are we going to continue to let people build burnable structures in areas prone to fire. And let people build structureds within a mile of any coast line. And why send the fire fighters just let it burn like it did 10000 yesrs ago.

Excellent points about not pricing in the real costs of building in what should be wild areas, and certainly not subsidized development. Not only such increasingly hot, fire prone areas, but flood plains and coastal areas.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/02/opinion/living-with-fire.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

Perplexing piece in this morning's Times. Many of the comments are excellent.

There is a disconnect on the Reddit bit. People have always lived in tornado, earthquake and hurricane zones and flood plains (think of the Nile floods for its agricultural benefits). Really, what speck of the earth doesn't have an unavoidable weather or geological drawback? But people who lived in forests clear cut everything near their homestead to build it and to protect. That fire break does not happen anymore and the modern houses are built of highly combustable materials. Like building your own Hell.

Best thing the gob'mint can do is let private insurers do the cost/benefit analysis. Declaring Yarnell a disaster area so the federal funds can flow only adds to the problem.

Great column Jon. I wanted to mention that the Yakima Herald Republic investigated the deadly Thirty Mile Fire and found a series of management mistakes led to the death of four young firefighters in 2001 in the Okanogan National Forest.Small newspapers can do this important journalism.

http://johnmacleanbooks.com/reviews/

What if a defensible perimeter were mandated for Arizona's mountain homes? Wouldn't it mitigate the risks taken by the folks who seem to deny reality? Just go through the White Mountains in the Pinetop area. See all the pretty cabins with trees no more than 5' away. What is it in our reptillian brains that causes us to temp fate in this kind of mindless fashion?

I lived in Prescott from 1974 to 1992. I can't stand it now because of all the development. Open woods are now off limits for wealthy retirees. This really hits me because I've seen all the development around Yarnell too, with clusters of ranches everywhere. I feel that most people want to live wherever they want and maybe we should try to limit our sprawl. Bottom line is that if you live in the woods you better get fire insurance because they should let most fires burn naturally. (Lots of exceptions like gas lines and such but that needs to be addressed in another conversation)

The 35 members of the Diamond Mountain cult doing a 3 year retreat south of Bowie in frame and chicken wire shitboxes badly built in a brush filled canyon nearly burnt up two years ago.A last minute wind change saved them but burnt up a bunch of homes in well names Ash Canyon 30 miles to the east. the lesson they took from this wasn't to move or cut brush .They decided god had saved them and would do so again.

Jerry, speaking of cults and fire.
Shades of Elmer Gantry and Waco.

Ramblings on fires and floods:
I drove up and down Yarnell Hill a few times while I lived in AZ.
The closest I got to forest firefighting was while working a summer camp on Orcas Island. Island fires can be devastating because there is only so much room to burn and few safe places to hide aside from the boats. The (male) staff at the camp was expected to be ready to help out any time. Only one fire broke out while I was there and I was designated to stay behind with the campers- possibly because of my age of 17 or 18.
One got to Orcas by Washington State Ferry. The terminal in Fidalgo was reached from Seattle by taking the first exit on I-5 north of the Skagit River Bridge.
Jon and I had just parted company when the Arizona floods of 1977 and 1979 took out most of the bridges in Phoenix. John Wyman, whom we both worked with, was the first vehicle over I-10 when they re-opened it- driving his ambulance with a patient in back. That same year I had to negotiate a one lane detour where the Hassayampa washed out lanes of US 60 at Wickenburg.
We had a fire last fall east of Seattle in the Cascades. I drove over to look at it while it was mostly contained but still burning. I stopped at a roadside fruit stand where I could see the burned area and smoke from over the ridge where hotspots still blazed. I knew better than to go too close or get in the way of the professionals. This was close enough for mere curiosity.
The locals were trying to keep business as usual but the fire had almost reached the fruit stand a few days before and everyone there knew someone who lost a home or ranch or farm to the fire. I settled for the stories, bought as much as I could to help the local economy and drove home.
On another blog I read, I read about a fellow who is training to be a doctor. He was criticized for being weak, fat and lazy by someone who had never met him. Part of his reply was (I'm paraphrasing from memory) "I've got scars because I run towards natural disasters. Which way do you run?" That doesn't sound weak or lazy to me. Running toward danger is what Jon and I did and what he still does with his writing.
Keep running Jon- bicarb!

Jon, really on point.

We miss you in Phoenix.

Cheers,
Joe D.

I was among the first to comment on Alan Dean Foster's NYT article. I wrote: the North American continent is subject to more natural disasters than similarly-sized landmasses because first, its geography and natural climate that gives rise to winds, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods; second, the continent is battered by the hurricanes that rise over African waters. With the effects of climate change ever more visible, it is more important than ever that we stand up for public workers and resolve to hire the best.

I, as you, become nauseated by the croc tears of the "Kookocracy." Our public sector unions are the final target of the anti-union forces in America and we must protect them.

Public-sector unions are always eliminated in fascist regimes. They establish a floor on wages and benefits. When they are gone, we will be even more screwed than we are now.

Mike Davis's excellent book City of Quartz describes the insane development of the Los Angeles area and how it puts residents in danger.

I see the Westboro folks are going to protest at the funerals. What will the Kooks do?

I am honored by your words, Buford. Bicarb, partner.

When I hear politicians speak who have openly decried and derided Federal involvement in initial-response issues or who have denounced our hard-working firefighters as freeloaders and union employees, their calls to keep the deceased and those they left behind in our collective thoughts and prayers seems disingenuous at best and hypocritical at worst.

Of the investigation of the fire, Jon and all, I suspect that we'll hear nothing more than "it was an unpredictable tragedy caused by rapidly changing winds." (On the local media this morning, we've been bombarded with the final picture text messages sent from the deceased firefighters to their families...which I don't know should be in the public realm.) We'll never see the investigation that we need to have, and one you rightly mention in your column: how Arizona rampant exurban development is raping and pillaging the last natural defenses that we have left.

It is a sad day in this state in more ways than one.

Mr. Talton wrote:

"Speaking of which: What has been the budget history for fighting wildfires; is it adequate, keeping up with population, building, etc. And please name names of those in the Legislature and elsewhere who have opposed the necessary resources."

As you point out, land-management in tinderbox areas with growing populations is critical to preventing such wildfires to begin with. So, not only do budgets need to provide funds for firefighting, but also for fire prevention.

Most of the Yarnell fire, especially in the initial stages, occurred on state trust land. The Arizona Office of the State Forrester is responsible for fire prevention and fire suppression on state trust land.

According to Arizona Deputy State Forrester Jerry Payne: "The costs per acre of such prevention efforts ranges from $400 to $1,000. Treating the chaparral around Yarnell is at the high end of that range. It requires cutting and chipping piñon and juniper, whacking brush, and raking needles and duff."

http://www.azcentral.com/news/arizona/free/20130701yarnell-fire-resources-difficult.html

The same article notes that the Arizona legislature has budgeted $3 million for each of the last four years for fire suppression. That means fighting fires, not preventing them by land-management. It appears that no additional funds are allocated by the state for fire prevention. Also, note that this funding is for the entire state, not the Yarnell area.

In determining the area that needed to be thinned, cut, and otherwise subjected to preventive land management, note that the Yarnell fire grew more than 10 times overnight from 800 to 8,400 acres.

http://www.kptv.com/story/22732023/deadly-yarnell-hills-fire-explodes-to-8000-acres

Such a fast spreading fire suggests that this is a minimum acreage figure for fire prevention land management in the Yarnell area since lightning fires could have broken out at any point in the overall area. Arguably, a smaller area could be managed by means of firebreaks around the most densely populated areas, but this is the figure I will use here in arriving at a cost estimate.

Because expert opinion has deemed the Yarnell area to be "near the top of the scale" ($1,000) in terms of cost per acre for preventive management, I'm going to use $850 per acre as a cost figure.

Simple arithmetic shows that the cost of managing 8,400 acres of such area runs to just over $7,000,000 which is more than twice the total state-wide, state-allocated budget for firefighting (both prevention and suppression) on state trust land.

So, at a glance the agency responsible for managing the land where the fire occurred is woefully underfunded.

Beyond the obvious, and avoidable (but insufficiently budgeted) failure in fire-preventive land-management in the Yarnell area, the question has been raised whether fire-fighting practices and/or administrative decisions are to blame. There is some evidence that conditions were exceptional and that the firefighters were not committing egregious errors:

http://www.azcentral.com/news/arizona/free/20130702yarnell-hill-fire-investigation-final-moments.html

However, a close reading shows that many of the opinions given in the article are based on secondhand information and on assumptions about what "should" or "would" have happened had actual conditions matched the assumptions of the consultant.

The previous Arizona record was six firefighters killed in the Dude Fire of 1990. But that was 23 years ago, and drought conditions have been severe in much of the state in the years since then, while training has improved in response to that fire. Granted that wildfires can "create their own weather systems" and that shifting winds can cause fires to move very quickly over tinderbox areas, the state has had plenty of raging wildfires in tinderbox areas under a wide variety of weather conditions since then. One might have expected at least a scaled-down version of Yarnell to have happened since then, but it hasn't. So, it may be early to conclude that conditions were accurately reported, that the firefighters received the information, and that those who did receive it shared it and acted upon it properly in making decisions.

In response to the "reddit" comment:

Local and topical issues obviously demand a timely and specific response; that Mr. Talton did not create an essay devoted to the more general thesis that poor settlement planning is rampant nationally and under a wide variety of circumstances, is irrelevant.

Nor is it wrongful to criticize the hypocrisy of politicians who sabotage public services by means of their control of public budgets, because they have a fundamental aversion to government and a desire to "starve the beast", but who beat their chests, tear their hair, and wave little flags whenever the opportunity for self-aggrandizement occurs.

Finally, in a situation where the facts are uncertain and where public acceptance of "unavoidable tragedy" is the norm, somebody needs to publicly offer an alternative view and to encourage dispassionate scrutiny of the circumstances. If the "Rogue Columnist" isn't prepared to do this, who is?

P.S. Even if you reduce my estimate for the cost of fire prevention in the Yarnell area by a factor of 5, the cost for that alone is nearly half of the entire state's budget for firefighting (prevention and suppression) on state trust land. So, obviously the agency responsible for fire-preventive land management on nearly 9.3 million acres of state trust lands is woefully underfunded.

All those subdivisions in the forest should bewarned that they are not the priority during a major fire. Good zoning should limit their proliferation, but there is the pressure from well connected developers who can make millions and move on. The firefighters are pressured to save the homes. The book "The Thirtymile Fire" is an excellent book on the deadly forest fire. Many field supervisors retired as a result of this fire. It affects fire management today. Too many people in the forest. They cannot be protected.

Nailed it!

As a practical matter, what if property insurance rates were based on fire risk factors? It appears that this is a needed discussion . . . .

I've heard the identification of the bodies is very difficult. Most were burned down to their bones.

Property insurance rates are based on fire risk factors. Have been for 200 years.

A location like Yarnell would have rates five to ten times higher than metro Phoenix.

Conversely, general liability rates would be lower in Yarnell versus metro Phoenix. Or like Mike would state. Too many people in the city. They cannot be protected.

Wish you hadn't gone to the "shake and bake place," but other than that, you pretty much nailed it

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