Quest for Megafire

Jon Foro on November 30, 2017


This past summer, Western Washington witnessed a sneak preview of the The End of the World As We Know It. There weren't trumpets or pale horses, but for about two weeks, the Sun hung fat and red against slate-colored skies, while a campfire smell infused the air and fine ash drifted into open windows, lightly dusting sills and bookcases. The elderly and the very young were encouraged to stay indoors as the Air Quality Index pushed into the Unhealthy end of the dial. Like apocalypse fiction, but real. The Road Lite: Great taste, less killing.

The sources of the smoke were two separate wildfires: One burning on Vancouver Island to the northwest, another just on the east side of the Cascade range, about an hour's drive from Seattle on Interstate 90. For California residents, this is nothing new. But as drought, invasive insects, and population growth turn boreal forests to tinder, devastating fires have become common and increasingly expensive, pushing both geographical and seasonal boundaries.

Edward Struzik is an award-winning writer and photographer with a thirst for nature and a bit of adventure. But while his previous books have explored the icy Arctic landscapes, his latest, Firestorm, chases fire. Starting with a 2016 conflagration that destroyed the Canadian town of Fort McMurray—biblically nicknamed "the Beast" by firefighters—Struzik travels the northern reaches of the continent from coast to coast, covering over a century of scorched earth where science, business, and politics have collided over and over again to produce ever-shifting policies of containment and prevention. Not just a remarkable history, the book also speculates about future where humans might not eradicate megafires, but thrive nonetheless.

Here Struzik presents a list of the 10 most wildfires along with insights into their impact and influence on policy, people, and the environment.

The Great Fire of 1910: Igniting a Culture of Fire Suppression


Two men who were injured in the Great Fire of 1910 (PG 8, Barnard-Stockbridge Collection, University of Idaho Library Special Collection and Archives)

The Great Fire of 1910 ignited on April 29 along the southern edge of the Blackfeet National Forest in northwestern Montana. Fires burned off and on along the Canadian border until August 20, when hurricane-force winds fanned the smoldering fires back to life all across the Rockies. Eighty-five people died. Nearly 8 million board feet of timber burned. Several small towns were destroyed. Trains carrying 9,000 troops were sent in to help. In the town of Wallace prominent men fought with women to get on the train that came in to rescue them.

There had been many devastating fires before this one. The 1825 Miramichi fires in New Brunswick and northern Maine burned more forested area. The Peshtigo fires of 1871 killed more people (1,700). The 1910 Hinckley fires in Minnesota destroyed more towns (14). But The Great Fire of 1910 transformed the way the US Forest Service fought fire for the next 80 years, and not always in positive ways. The decision to fight all fires from that point on would come back to haunt them. Fighting so many fires for so long created a surplus of old growth forest that are susceptible to drought, insects to disease and intense fires.

Chinchaga Fire of 1950: Where There’s Fire, There’s Smoke…Sometimes Thousands of Miles Away


The Wood Buffalo National park fire in 2014 was so severe that it completely removed what was left of the organic soil layer. Seeds are trying to grow on sand that doesn’t hold much moisture. Some vegetation is coming back, but there is almost no sign of trees. Photo: Ellen Whitman

The Chinchaga fires in northern Alberta burned for 222 days, torching a stretch of forest that was 175 miles long. No one got hurt. No homes were destroyed. But no fire in history triggered such widespread wonder and panic. Weather Bureau officials estimated that at one point the blanket of smoke was 400 miles long, 200 miles wide, and three miles thick.

The smoke traveled all the way to eastern North America and Europe. Street lights and lights at baseball stadiums had to be turned on at mid-day. Utilities couldn’t keep up with the demand for power. A blue moon at night caused a run on banks in Denmark. According to the New York Times, many feared that an atomic bomb had exploded; others saw it as a sign that the world was ending.

Public health officials didn’t fully appreciate the full impact of these big fires until a decade ago when epidemiologists began attributing mysterious spikes in hospitalizations to smoke that had migrated in from fires burning hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away.

Yellowstone Fires of 1988: Bringing New Life to Aging Forests


Steven Henry NPS

The Yellowstone fires were sandwiched in between two of the biggest wildfire events of the second half of the 20th century. The biggest by far was The Black Dragon fire that burned along the Siberia /Manchurian border in 1987. More than 60,000 men were dispatched to fight it. Two years later, fires in Manitoba burned 10 percent of the Canadian province. At one critical point, Canada’s Defense Minister was woken up in the middle of the night to approve the dispatch of military aircraft to the region.

But it was the 240 fires that burned in Yellowstone National Park that had the biggest impact on wildfire management. Those fires put fear in the hearts of decision makers and a public that had all but forgotten—or had never heard of—the Great Fire of 1910. For weeks, the Yellowstone fires made the front pages of newspapers and magazines all across the country. The Los Angeles Times made it the lead story on thirty-two occasions. Everyone, including President Ronald Regan, thought that a national treasure was being destroyed. They were wrong. Yellowstone’s forests recovered nicely, and wildlife such as grizzly bears and elk benefited from the new crops of roots, berries and trees that rose up from the charred forest floor. The Yellowstone fires opened the door to a “let burn” and “controlled burn” strategies

Oakland Hills Firestorm of 1991: Lessons for Living near Forests


Photo: San Francisco Chronicle

The Oakland Hills fire lasted just three days and burned only 1,600 acres. But it was and still is one of North America’s most devastating wildfires. As the forest burned along streets and highways, people abandoned their cars and started running without any clue where they should go. Sports fans watched in wonder as ash rained down on Candlestick Park where the San Francisco 49ers were pummeling the Detroit Lions. Twenty-five people died, 2,500 homes and 40 apartments were destroyed.

The fire exposed gaping holes in wildfire management. Urban firefighters were ill-equipped and not sufficiently trained to deal with a wildland fire such as this. There were not enough pump stations, hydrants and reservoir water. The planting of highly combustible, non-native trees around homes fueled the flames. The lack of effective communication tools led to public panic. Since then, new building codes, better communications systems, and more training, the situation has improved in some, but not many places.

Hayman Fire of 2002: Fire Contaminating Water Supplies


The stick held here demonstrates how high water levels rose in just 45 minutes during the flooding that took place after the 2002 Hayman fire. (Michael Stevens USGS)

The 138,000 acre fire started on June 2 and burned out of control for six weeks in the Colorado Rockies. For a short time, a squall of white ash transformed the city of Denver into an early Christmas scene, albeit one that was filled with acrid smoke instead of fresh mountain air and snow. In a single day, the fire made a 19-mile run. The biggest impact of the fire was on the region’s water supply.

Once trees catch fire, they unleash ash, sediments and various noxious chemicals. And heat from fires undermines soil stability. Without trees, vegetation and a stable soil structure to absorb the heavy rains that followed, Colorado rivers and streams degraded by ash, debris, heavy metals and other contaminants flooded through a watershed that serves 75 percent of the state’s residents. More than 60 scientists were deployed to deal with the situation. Approximately 175,000 trees were planted. Fifteen years after the fire, the water problems persist and the blue-ribbon South Platte River trout fishery has not fully recovered. The Hayman fire has put many wildfire-vulnerable cities such as Portland, OR and Victoria, BC on high alert searching for ways to protect their water.

Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, South Canyon Fire of 1994, and Yarnell Fire of 2013: Sparking Investment to Keep Firefighters out of Harm’s Way


Yarnell wildfire: U.S. Forest Service photo

On August 5, 1949, a fire started in a fir and pine forest on the north-facing side of Montana’s Mann Gulch. Twelve smokejumpers and one fireguard died as a result of mistakes, misinformation, miscommunication, and a lack of understanding of how fires behave. Their deaths underscored the need for more wildfire science and better firefighting strategies. New fire rating systems were put in place and better models were developed to help firefighters understand how fires spread.In 1994, it was clear that a reinvestment in wildfire science and firefighting strategies was required. The South Canyon Fire in Central Colorado was a relatively small one. But the smoke and flames that swept across Storm Mountain that summer killed 14 firefighters. Once again, the deaths exposed the weakness of a firefighting strategy that was in need of an update. In the years that followed the National Weather Service doubled its staff of fire weather forecasters. Firefighters were equipped with new tools such as mummy bags and old tools such as radios to protect them from the smoke and flames.

The Yarnell fire, which killed 19 firefighters in June 2013, was yet another reminder that putting protection of property over safety would inevitably result in tragedy as more people are allowed to live, work and recreate in forested landscapes that are getting hotter and drier thanks to climate change.

Anaktuvuk River’s Tundra Fire of 2007: Ticking Climate Bombs


Massive slumping that took place in the years following a tundra fire (E. Miller)

Cold as it is for most of the year in the Arctic, wildfire is nothing new to the region. Fires routinely burn in the interior of Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. No one, however, expected the normally soggy tundra on the north slope of Alaska to burn as it did in 2007. That fire accounted 40 percent of the area that burned in the state that year. This frozen landscape had not burned in a significant way for 5,000 years.

Ash and soot from the fire blackened glaciers. Perennially frozen landscapes were transformed into mud and slumping hillsides. Tundra vegetation that is key to the survival of caribou and other Arctic animals has given way to woody shrubs that are more suitable to moose. Scientists liken tundra fires such as this to a ticking climate bomb.  Approximately two billion kilograms of soil carbon were liberated, equivalent to what the entire Arctic absorbs and stores each year. As these fires burn bigger and hotter, climate warming will accelerate.

Black Saturday Fire of 2000: Preparing for Catastrophe


Australians have suffered through several catastrophic fires. The Black Friday fire of 1939 killed 71 people. The Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 killed 75 people. But the country had never seen anything like the bush fire that killed 173 people in February 2000. This time, the government had a plan in place. Residents could either leave early, or they could stay and defend. The government got the first part right. The second part was flawed because many people were not prepared to deal with the massive fires when they swept through.

Black Saturday burned a hole in the souls of those who deal with fire in Australia. In the search for answers, a government inquiry recommended abandoning the stay or leave policy and suggested instead a “Code Red” which advised people when to leave, where to go and how they might get there when a potentially catastrophic wildfire threatened. In the end, the Code Red plan was adopted, but the Leave Early or Stay and Defend policy was maintained. Flawed as the policy is, most places in Canada and the United States fall far short of that kind of preparedness.

The Beast of 2016: Dragons in the Forest


Courtesy: RCMP Fort McMurray

On May 3, 2016, a rapidly spreading wildfire around Alberta’s oil sands capital in Fort McMurray sent 88,000 people fleeing their homes, offices, hospitals, schools, and seniors’ residences. Thick smoke turned day into night. Embers rained down on cars and trucks as people headed south to the city of Edmonton or north to the safety of oil sands camps.

The fire was unique in one way, mind-boggling in others, and breathtaking for the way it behaved in its first week. On May 4, a number of new fires ignited in a cluster 35 kilometers southeast of a pyrocumulonimbus cloud that had formed from the hot air rising from the fire. It was a lightning storm generated by that fire cloud that was responsible. This does happen. But no one has ever heard of lightning causing new fires so far in advance of the main fire.  

The fire ended up being the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history and one of the most destructive North American wildfires in modern times. But it also demonstrated that bigger, hotter fires will be difficult, and sometimes impossible to control. More surprises were bound to come as they did in the summer of 2017 when the mother-of-all pyrocumulonimbus clouds formed over fire raging in British Columbia.

The Worst Fire Season Ever: Bigger, Hotter Fires are Coming


Kootenay National Park fires in 2003. (Niddrie: Parks Canada)

The 2003 fire season in western North America was the wake-up call that tested the limits of the resources needed to keep residents, tourists, timber leases, pipelines, oil rigs, and other assets out of harm’s way.

Since then, a number of new records have been set. In 2015, five of the top ten fires burned in the traditionally soggy Northwest. That had never happened in modern times. In 2017, tens of thousands had to be evacuated from cities, rural homes and from national parks.

In 1995, the budget for fighting fire made up 16 percent of the US Forest Service’s budget. It rose to the 50 percent level in 2015 and could reach close to 70 percent by 2025. If Congress does nothing to address this disparity, programs that are dedicated to protecting watersheds, cultural resources, and education programs will take a $700 million hit.

There are solutions. More money for FireSmart and FireWise programs will make municipalities more resilient. A re-investment in fire science will help fire fighters deal with bigger, hotter blazes. Controlled burns and prescribed burns need to be ramped up. Forested watersheds need enhanced protection to protect water supplies. Programs are needed to tell people when to leave and where to go when a potentially catastrophic fire looms.

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