Feeling the Burn

For her fascinating and topical new book, ‘Wildfire,’ author Heather Hansen spent a year embedded with Boulder’s dedicated Wildland Fire Division.

betasso-preserve-fire

Firefighters watching the edge of a prescribed fire at Boulder County’s Betasso Preserve. Photo by Dave Zader

When journalist Heather Hansen was doing research for a 2016 book commemorating the centennial of the National Parks Service, she repeatedly heard about one thing: fire. “I traveled 20,000 miles going from park to park,” she says, “and in the West in particular, fire came up again and again.” The reason? “Fires are getting bigger, costlier, deadlier and more destructive, and we’re on an upward trajectory,” says the award-winning author. “And if that’s true and we’re not doing a great job on the national level of winding back the clock on that, what kind of future are we looking at, and what factors do we actually have influence over? It turns out that there is quite a bit that we can do to affect our own fate.” To get answers to those questions, Hansen spent a year with the City of Boulder’s Wildland Fire Division for her new book, “Wildfire: On the Front Lines with Station 8,” learning about the challenges facing fire crews in the “wildland-urban interface” that is increasingly common in the West. We went to the source to learn more.

What are the most common misconceptions about wildfires?
“That they can be and should be extinguished at all costs. A pretty prominent forest ecologist in Montana who works at the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab said that he asks people all the time, ‘What kind of relationship do you want to have with fire?’ And they say, ‘Well, we don’t want any at all.’ That’s reasonable. We don’t want fire to burn down our houses. We don’t want it to burn down our playgrounds. And we certainly don’t want it to kill anybody. But one of our main ways out of this, what’s called the fire paradox, is to have as much good fire as we can, which we achieve through planned or prescribed burns.” 

One thing you discovered in your research is that firefighting is so precise. Did that surprise you?
“It did. I knew nothing about the surveillance plans that are used. That’s something that Colorado has done a lot with—and Colorado fire teams are invited out of state to do the same kinds of flyovers they do here. It blows my mind when you sit in a plane and see the kind of precision they have. They can say to someone on the ground who doesn’t see an ember fire starting, ‘Turn to the west and walk 30 feet from your truck,’ which they can see from a plane. It’s extraordinary. It’s much more scientific than I imagined it would be, but fire is also more unpredictable.”

How so?
“You look at a fire like the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona in 2013. With all of the technology, all of the understanding, all that expertise, boots on the ground, an elite crew, and still they didn’t know what the fire would do. In that case, the fire took an unexpected turn, and the firefighters were going toward a known safe zone, but they just didn’t make it. They wanted to get off the mountain they were on, maybe because the fire was threatening communities, in some cases neighbors, and they wanted to go help. One Boulder firefighter told me, ‘Going into the woods can be dangerous. Going into the woods when they’re on fire is exponentially more dangerous. If you want to stay safe in wildland fire, don’t leave the station.’ ”

What were the main things you learned from being so close up to a major fire?
“I got a sense of how focused the firefighters were on that operation and getting the resources they needed. They didn’t think about ‘Does my dog at home need to be let out?’ or ‘Do I need to cancel plans for that concert tomorrow night?’ It’s pretty incredible to watch all the resources come together to fight a fire like that, especially when it gets bumped up in severity level. Just the food and the showers and the other resources for residents, it’s like building a new town.”

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Rain moving into an area burned during Boulder’s 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire. Photo by Dave Zader

 What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
“People need to try to remember that we are all invested in our fate, and there are many things we can do to affect that, even if we can’t do anything about weather or topography. If a fire comes, you can’t tell it not to burn uphill. You can’t tell the wind not to blow. But the third element in what affects fire is fuels, and we can do a lot about fuels. People can make sure their property is defensible, and that makes a difference. They can look at the materials their houses are made of, the vegetation that is nearby, eliminate flammable lawn furniture and firewood stacked up against a house, move their propane tank. I’ve been in the Missoula fire lab and seen a house that was built under all the right conditions and even when embers were thrown at it, there was not much damage.”

How does one know if a house is safe?
“There are a lot of resources through the Colorado State Forest Service. They have an extraordinary website that homeowners can go on to assess their own risk. They even do home visits to tell people what they need to do to make their home defensible. And in Boulder, there is a nonprofit called Wildfire Partners that will spray-paint trees or shrubs near your house that have to go; there are similar programs around the state.”

GET THE BOOK
“Wildfire: On the Front Lines with Station 8” (Mountaineers Books, $25) by Heather Hansen
mountaineers.org
amazon.com

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