Great walls of fire

It's high season for forest fires. And across the United States and the Mediterranean thousands of men and women and their high-tech equipment are ready to go to blazes
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Woody Grantham is on his way to the South of France. The dry, hot summer on the Riviera attracts many of his fellow Americans every year in search of sun, but Woody's interests are a little different. He is in search of fire. He and his colleagues are making the trans-Atlantic trip in a C-130 Hercules fire-fighting aircraft which will spend the summer waiting for forest fires to break out in the parched, lavender-scented hills above the Mediterranean.The fires in Florida may be dying away, but this is just the start of the most dangerous part of the year for firewatchers around the world.

July and August are peak season for fires in the American West, where the worst wildland blazes claim thousands of acres of forest every year. In the Mediterranean, Greece and Italy are already fighting heavy fires and there will be more. So Mr Grantham's company, International Air Response, is taking its act on the road for the summer, hopping in their C-130 from Arizona to Detroit to clear customs, then on to Gander in Canada, the Azores and finally Marseilles.

The US has a century of experience in dealing with wildfire, and it exports that expertise around the world. America is an elemental country with destructive whirlwinds, epic earthquakes and torrential floods, and its fires come on the same scale. Norman McLean describes a wildfire out of control in "Young Men and Fire", the classic book on the subject. "Viewing total conflagration is literally blinding, as sight becomes sound and the roar of the fire goes out of the head of the gulch and away and beyond, far away," he writes. "You hear the roar of the fire as a roar of an animal without the animal or as an attacking army blown up by the explosion of its own ammunition dump."

In the past month over 2,000 fires in Florida incinerated half a million acres, drawing in 6,000 firefighters from 44 states. But by the standards of the vast infernoes that sweep the great forests of the West, this is not exceptional. The 1988 fires which devastated Yellowstone Park, started by a June lightning strike, were only extinguished when snow fell three months later. Nearly 40 per cent of the 2.2 million acre park burned, and the bill for damage came to $111m. In 1996, the worst year in recent history, 7 million acres were burnt across the nation.

The US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the state firefighters are ready and waiting for the onset of fire in wilderness areas, with a network of fire lookouts and aerial patrols. As soon as smoke is spotted they pour manpower and resources into the initial attack, in an effort to put out the fire before it becomes uncontrollable. In the most remote areas, the first on the scene will be the Smokejumpers, an elite force of young men and women who parachute in to tackle the fire in its earliest stages.

"We are the initial attack forces," says Dave Mueller, a Smokejumper from Boise, Idaho. "Most of the fires we deal with you will never hear about." He and his colleagues are equipped with protective gear and basic tools, including the pulaski, a combined axe and shovel. This is not work for the timid. Sometimes the Smokejumpers follow storms in their aircraft, waiting for the lightning to strike and start fires, and then parachute down to extinguish them.

After the Smokejumpers come the engines, accompanied by tractor ploughs and bulldozers to build or widen firebreaks, and giant air tankers to control the spread of the blaze. The aircraft fly in at 150-200ft, high enough to feel the heat. "It's usually hot anyway, around 100 degrees, so you're kind of hot no matter what," says Ron Hunter of Aero Union Corporation, a company that operates air tankers. The heat produces unpredictable turbulence, so it is far from a smooth ride.

"Whenever you're around a forest fire, it gets kind of bumpy," he says. The planes fly to the side of the fire, dropping their liquid load to prevent it spreading and help the firefighters on the ground to get the blaze under control. They use a mixture of water and a fire retardant like ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser, mixed with a gum thickener that helps the liquid stick to trees. "Water on its own is no use," says Mr Grantham. "The fire can feed off the oxygen in it."

Many of the firefighting aircraft are museum pieces, clunky radial-engined workhorses from the great days of aviation like the DC-4s and C-54s - planes that flew in the Berlin airlift 50 years ago. Some of the planes, ironically, are the same types that once dropped napalm or defoliants to deforest the highlands of Vietnam. But the Forest Service has said it wants the fleet upgraded, and aims to have all of the aircraft turbine- powered by 2002. Increasingly the firefighters are using C-130 Hercules, an ageing aircraft but still the main transport used by most western air forces, and P-3 Orions, maritime patrol aircraft. One group wants to convert A-10 Warthogs, the ugly, stubby-winged but brutally effective ground attack planes that made their name in the deserts of Iraq. In these post-Cold War days, you can even hire Russian Ilyushins, part of a 600-strong fleet that the now-private company has put on the market.

America's war on fire goes back almost a century, and the country turned to aircraft as early as the Twenties in an effort to reach distant conflagrations deep in the forest. It now has a fast, high-technology armoury to deploy in an emergency. California, for example, has 16 800-gallon air tankers of its own, three massive 2,000-gallon private contract tankers, 11 helicopters and 13 light planes. It can appeal to neighbouring states, to the region, and then nationally for assistance, through the National Interagency Fire Centre in Boise. It can bring in people and machines from across the nation, from Canada, from the National Guard and the armed services.

Yet the fires of 1996 stretched even these resources to breaking point. They started in January in the south and did not burnt out until October. At the height of the blazes, in August, more than 21,000 civilian and National Guard fire-fighters were on duty with Marine and Army battalions.

There is something desperately romantic about the combination of fire and human endeavour. Flying the tankers is heroic work, though the men who do it say that they are not scared. Charles Bushey, a Montana fire- fighter, estimates that 136 tanker pilots have lost their lives in the last 50 years. The fire jumpers also face huge odds. One incident - the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, in which 13 jumpers lost their lives - inspired both a feature film, Red Skies of Montana, and Norman McLean's book. He describes the unique esprit de corps that binds jumpers together, these "tough young guys, pointed towards the woods for life". He writes of their "sense of belonging to a highly select outfit, somewhat like the Marines, who know what they are talking about when they speak of themselves as the proud and the few."

It can be terrifying, but "the excitement outweighs the danger", says Mr Mueller, who counts a broken back amongst his injuries. At 37, he is one of the oldest Smokejumpers, and says he will give it another two years. "But then, I said that two years ago," he says sheepishly.

This Herculean effort, and its romantic image, has its critics. The massive assault that the US has launched on fire is deeply intertwined with the greater urge to control nature, and with an emphasis on military technology and military methods, writes Professor Stephen J Pyne, one of the foremost authorities on the subject.

"Fire control by the federal government began when the US cavalry rode into Yellowstone Park in 1886. They were greeted with fires, which they fought." Yet this is highly irrational: "Warfare is not a good model for fire practices," he says, and though money, men and machines have been poured into fire-fighting, it is often to little effect. The Yellowstone firestorm sucked in huge resources "with no appreciable effect on fire size or behaviour", says Pyne. And the suppression of fire, which plays a vital role in the ecosystem, has had a catastrophic effect on the wildlands. He calls America's strategy "an environmental tragedy".

There has been a rethinking as the lessons of past seasons are learnt. In the early days fire-fighters worked by the rule of 10: a fire had to be limited to 10 acres, or under control by 10 o'clock the following day. "That put a priority on getting fires out without looking at the cost of doing so," says Denny Truesdale of the Forest Service. "If a fire's in a real wilderness, it's doing very little damage."

Cost has been one consideration in the new thinking; but in the last decade there has also been more thought given to the virtues of fire as an essential part of the natural cycle of destruction and regeneration. Without small and regular fires, there is a build-up of brush and dead vegetation in forests that amounts to a hidden bomb. Today's fires tend to be larger and more severe, precisely because fire has been so effectively suppressed in past years.

And the after-effects of fire can also be beneficial. Ten years on, Yellowstone Park has emerged from the inferno healthier and thriving. Regrowth has been far more rapid than expected, animals are feeding on fresh new food supplies, and the new forests are likely to be fireproof for a century, now that the deadfall has burnt off. The Forest Service even carries out its own prescribed burning. "We've lit more fires so far this year than we've put out," says Mr Mueller. "People have started to recognise the fact that we need fire," says Mr Truesdale.

"We need to burn."