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Hamstrung heroes?

A devastating wave of fires underscores perilous choices of when to attack and when to retreat. There are those who say that safety concerns keep wildland firefighters from charging as hard as they once did, Douglas Gantenbein reports.

October 28, 2003|Douglas Gantenbein

THE WEST HAS BEEN CATCHING fire for months. More than 350,000 acres in Montana. At least 85,000 acres in Arizona. National fire-alert status at its highest level. In September, when lightning sparked a small blaze in northern Utah, the Logan Hotshots hit it fast, chain-sawing through pone trees, hacking through brush with their Pulaskis, shoveling away flammable duff. One hard push, they figured, and the small but hot fire would be out.

Hotshots are tough hombres, and just a few years back the Logans would have cut line around the backcountry fire until they had it surrounded, whether it took eight hours or 48. But after a 16-hour shift, they hiked an hour down the mountain to sack out for eight hours. Those are the rules.

"Rather than knock the fire out in one shift, you have to hike back to your personal gear, sleep for a while, then hike back in and go to work," says John Platt, a wiry 31-year-old Logan Hotshot.

Wildland firefighting used to be war, an all-out assault until the enemy either died or surrendered. Lately, some veterans say, it's more of a job than a mission. Society's increasingly low tolerance for wartime-like loss of life is transforming the profession.

The risks either way

This was not a subject a cautious person would have brought up Saturday evening in the Del Rosa area of San Bernardino.

A fire as fierce as anyone can remember had swirled down through the chaparral-clotted foothills. Above the wind's shriek came the thunder of toppling walls, the roar of gas pipes shooting flames 12 feet into the darkness and the kaboom of propane tanks exploding. Now, as if the dozens of homes destroyed on its first run through these neighborhoods had merely whetted an appetite, the fire seemed to be working itself into a new rage, sending a tall hedge of flame rearing up on a steep unburned hillside to the east.

Most living things had logically fled. But through the blacked-out streets rumbled a parade of fire engines from agencies as far away as Hesperia and La Habra. Red lights flashing, headlamp beams brown in the soot, they pushed resolutely into the wind, toward the fire. The already tired and dirty people inside the trucks were charging forward, doing what they became firefighters to do -- what firefighters have been doing on front lines across Southern California for days now.

Yet after the adrenaline settles and the crews return to their stations to debrief and tell war tales, at least some will return to a simmering debate.

The current conflagrations in Southern California involve both city and wildland firefighters, but it's the issue of wildland firefighters losing their edge that has singed the grapevine for several years now, discussed among firefighters and argued on the pages of their professional journals. The charge is that wildland firefighters -- from the elite smoke jumpers to the novice "Type 2s" -- lack the gung-ho spirit of 20 years ago. They don't work as hard on the fire line. They don't go after fires as aggressively.

Whereas crews used to spend days in the sticks eating only what they carried or what helicopters could sling in, they now return after each shift to fire camps that are sometimes more like summer camp, with catered steak dinners, laundry service and hot showers instead of soot-caked bodies and C rations.

Larry Humphrey, an outspoken 30-year veteran and the commander at the Summerhaven fire that destroyed more than 250 Arizona homes in June, sees increasing caution. "We're becoming less aggressive when we fight fire," says Humphrey, who works for the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona. "There's a trigger point for engagement, and a trigger point for disengagement." And fire teams yo-yo between attack and retreat. To Humphrey, it's an aggressive crew that stays alert and safe.

Dan Buckley, a mustached 45-year-old who manages fires in Yosemite, says teams just quit the fire line while battling the 500,000-acre Biscuit fire in Oregon in summer 2002. "Even if they were doing critical work, they'd just get up and leave," he recalls. "It was crazy."

Doubts among the elite arise at a bad time. The West is in its fourth straight severe fire year, with at least $1 billion spent each year to suppress fires burning across 4 million, 5 million, even 6 million acres. Persistent drought is a factor. So is the success in extinguishing past fires. Young trees and brush fuel big, hot fires that destroy watersheds or overrun towns unless someone cuts off their fuel source.

Wildland firefighters work fiendishly hard doing that, clearing fuel from a fire's path in rugged terrain, in 90-degree temperatures or hotter, surrounded by rattlesnakes or grizzlies or fire-weakened trees that silently collapse.

The fires themselves are up to 100,000 acres and more -- and awesome. Marching at the pace of a brisk walk, devil's dreadlocks of flame shooting 400 feet, temperature a hellish 2,000 degrees, a fire needs only a firm tailwind to run down a firefighting crew.

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