Wild, Wild Western Fires

Wild, Wild Western Fires

October 1st, 2013 by Andy Johns in Getout Features

Jim Dale remembers exactly when Mother Nature made things clear to him.

He had always heard about big, bad western wildfires, but after training and fighting forest fires in Tennessee, he thought he had a pretty good idea about what they were like.

A slurry bomber drops red retardant on a Coal Seam fire west of Glenwood Springs, Co. About 3,000 Glenwood Springs residents were evacuated from their homes.

Then, in 1995, he was sent to fight a fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, where the year before a blaze known as the infamous South Canyon Fire had killed 14 firefighters.

A mass evacuation was underway and FEMA had already been called in by the time Dale arrived from Cookeville, Tennessee. The fire seemed to be under control as it neared the de facto firebreak of Interstate 70. Dale and others expected it to die down. Then he discovered just how unpredictable western fires can be. "It jumped four lanes of Interstate 70 as well as the Colorado River and ignited the north side," he remembers. "I knew I was not in Tennessee any more."

While wildfires can be tragic in the Southeast, fires in the West usually dominate the headlines each summer-and for good reason. "Out there, I've seen the humidity at 1 percent," says Jeff Keener, a forestry specialist in DeKalb County, Alabama. "A fire could just blow up, basically. I've seen fires outrun vehicles."

Area foresters like Keener and Dale usually accept voluntary deployment from federal agencies on Western fires each summer. This fire season, teams from Tennessee and North Georgia have been sent to Utah and Oregon. And the unpredictable, swift-moving flames that greet them there - especially in light of the 19 firefighters killed in Arizona on June 30-are enough to make anyone wish for home.

WILD, WILD WEST

Chattanooga, which promotes itself as the Boulder of the East, can be happy that it's got the climbing and paddling opportunities similar to the Colorado town but not the risk of a catastrophic fire.

Members of the California Air National Guard disconnect the fire retardant fill hose from the Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) installed on a C-130J Hercules. The system is capable of dispensing 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in under 5 seconds.

Firefighters say the topography, climate, vegetation and remoteness of Western states like Colorado, Texas, Arizona and Utah make them the ultimate breeding ground for wildfires.

"Out West, their fires are a lot more intense," Keener explains. "Fires out there burn a whole lot hotter than they do here."

As anyone who has ever tried to start a campfire with green logs knows, fuel plays a big role in determining a fire's size. Oak and hickory forests in Tennessee and North Georgia are slower to catch fire and usually slower to burn than the chaparral and brush in the arid parts of the West. A light coating of dew on a Tennessee morning goes a long way to keeping the fire danger down.

"We know we're in trouble (out West) when we get outside and our lips start cracking open," Dale says. "When we walk across the ground and the fuel is real crackling and crunching, we know it could be a bad day."

The Southeast's humid climate also helps, compared to the dry air in places like Nevada and New Mexico. "I've seen the humidity at 2 percent or lower out there," says Jackie Wooden, a forestry aid based in Rhea County. "Here we almost never get below 10 percent."

Dry air means dry fuel, which can mean a rapidly moving fire. Wooden has gotten to see plenty of scenarios like that play out-often from closer than he would have liked. On a detail in Oregon in 1988, he and his fellow crew members were suddenly told to drop what they were doing and run immediately to their truck about two miles away. "We had to throw our tools down in a pile and run," Wooden remembers. "You could see the flames and you could hear it. It sounded like a train coming through the woods."

Space and sparse populations can also help a fire grow quickly. "Much of the land in the West is so remote, the authorities may not even know there is a fire," Dale says. He remembers the aftermath of one fire in West Texas that he describes as "total annihilation."

"When the fire runs through the country down there, there's really nothing to stop it," he explains. "The only residue left on the ground was white ash. It looked like a snow had come through."

EASTERN DOESN'T MEAN EASY

Firefighters are quick to explain that a fire doesn't have to be out West to be unpredictable-and deadly. Keener remembers fighting a fire two years ago on Sand Mountain that blew up from 10 acres to 150 acres in two hours. He was on a dozer in thick smoke digging out a firebreak when he got a call on the radio to pull out immediately.

Fire fighters wait as a helicopter dumps water on the Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest near Yosemite National Park. winds gusting to 25mph forced the deployment of hundreds of firefighters to protect local communities.

"There've been several situations where you just say 'Oh, Crap!'" Keener says. "If I had kept going, it could have burned right over me. You just can't outrun a fire like that. It can be moving 30 miles an hour and I can't run 30 miles an hour. That was the one that really put me in my place."

Sometimes, the tables are turned and Western crews are brought east, like in 2001 when fires on Graysville Mountain and the Pocket Wilderness in Rhea County burned for days. A Texas crew and retardant bombers had to be flown in to help Wooden and others.

Wooden says that though fire deaths are less likely in the Southeast, the 19 firefighters killed in Arizona are a reminder to their brethren across the country to take their work seriously.

"It could happen here," he says. "You have several people working on the fire and the wind changes and it runs a different way. You never know when something like that could happen here."

'ALL THE BIG ONES ARE ARSON'

Like too many wildfires, the two in Rhea County in 2001 are believed to have been started not by nature or accident, but intentionally.

"Pretty much all of the big ones are arson," Wooden says of Southeastern fires.

Dale, a 35-year forestry veteran who flies fire detection flights over much of East Tennessee including Hamilton County, agrees. He explains that some fires are started to cover up other crimes and some are "just out of meanness."

In 1999, Dale spotted a number of fires in Smith, DeKalb, White and Putnam counties. Each of the fires-a staggering total of 112 in one afternoon-are believed to have been started by one man, who is now serving a 19-year prison sentence. "It's the most fires I'd ever seen in my career," he says.

In another case, Dale says, a man in his 60s was arrested for starting fires along the sides of several roads on the Cumberland Plateau. Investigators determined he was driving with a lit propane torch in the floorboard lighting sparklers and flinging them out the windows. "He said he was bored," Dale says, still exasperated years later.

As the Southeast's fire season begins in mid-October, the men battling the flames may not have to worry about fires the size and scale of those out West, but it's safe to say they will still have their hands full.

HOT SHOTS

The Southern United States is home to four Interagency Hotshot Crews, operating from bases in Harrisonburg, Virginia; Jackson, Mississippi; Asheville, North Carolina; and the Cherokee National Forest crew based in Unicoi, Tennessee.

In all, there are more than 105 Interagency Hotshot Crews spanning the United States, and all but five of them operate west of the Mississippi, mainly covering the regions of the Northwest, Southwest, California and Alaska.

According to the USUS Forest Service, Interagency Hotshot Crews are diverse teams of career and temporary agency employees who uphold a tradition of excellence and have solid reputations as multi-skilled professional firefighters. Crews are available for each fire season and are employed by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, various Native American tribes and the states of Alaska and Utah. Their physical fitness standards, training requirements and operation procedures are consistent nationwide. Their core values of "duty, integrity and respect" have earned Hotshot crews an excellent reputation throughout the United States and Canada as elite teams of professional wildland firefighters.