Climate change fanned the flames of the Arizona wildfire

Out of America: As summers get hotter we will see more blazes like the one that killed 19 firefighters last week

Share
Related Topics

The show must go on – and so it was that Prescott celebrated Independence Day as usual last week, with parades and what it bills as "The Oldest Rodeo in the World", first held in 1887. This year, however, the festivities in the one-time frontier town in Arizona's high desert were darkened by tragedy. Just four days earlier, 19 of the town's finest young men had died in the deadliest single incident for US firefighters since the New York terrorist attacks of 9/11.

They were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots – part of the local fire department, to be sure, but one of 100 Hotshot teams across the country, engaged in the arduous and highly skilled work of bringing wildfires under control. Most were in their 20s; many had started families. All were resilient and super-fit, capable of running 10 miles in their boots while carrying a 40lb pack. But last Sunday afternoon, those skills were not enough to save them.

The unit was combating a blaze near Yarnell, a few miles south of Prescott. It appeared no big deal, a fire covering a mere dozen square miles or so. But at around four in the afternoon a thunderstorm struck, with lightning and viciously swirling winds. In an instant a towering wall of flame raced towards the Granite Mountain Hotshots, leaving them with no way to escape.

According to post-mortem reports, they perished from burns, carbon monoxide poisoning or oxygen deprivation, in some cases a combination of all three. There was just one survivor, a lookout posted a mile away who gave a warning but was forced to leave as the blaze approached. A few minutes later the place where he was standing had been incinerated as well.

Wildfires are part of the eco-cycle across vast swathes of the US. In moderation they are beneficial, clearing dead wood and undergrowth, helping coniferous forests to regenerate by heating cones to the point where they germinate. They are associated above all with the semi-arid upland and mountain tracts of the West – Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado and the like – but oddly, the very worst in American history occurred in usually temperate Wisconsin, on the shores of the Great Lakes.

Few know about the great Peshtigo storm on the night of 8-9 October 1871, when, after a dry and scorching summer, lightning set off an inferno that incinerated Peshtigo and a nearby town within two hours, killing at least 1,500 people. Survivors' accounts suggest what happened was akin to the man-made firestorms inflicted by the Allies on Dresden and Tokyo in the Second World War, fuelled by storm-force winds created by the intensity of the fire.

Compared with Peshtigo, which devoured 1.2 million acres of land (almost 1,900 square miles), the Yarnell disaster was small beer in geographical terms. But the result for anyone close was the same. The dynamics of wildfires are unpredictable and lethal – never more so than in an Arizonan summer cocktail of bone-dry conditions, rugged terrain and triple-digit temperatures. Throw in a storm generating fierce "outflow" winds that veer in any direction, and anything can happen.

Nothing suggests that standard safety rules were broken. Photos texted by the firefighters before the calamity show they were cutting containment lines along the edges of the fire – not, far more dangerously, directly across its path. It seemed "innocuous, a little ol' puff of smoke", Jim Paxon, an expert in wildfire management, told the Arizona Republic newspaper. But suddenly the thunderstorm arrived. A soft breeze gave way to 50mph gusts that switched the direction of the fire and gave it terrifying speed.

More alarming even than the fire itself is the trend it represents. Wildfires are increasing in both number and ferocity. Barely a decade ago, they devoured around three million acres a year. Today, the average is more than double that; in 2012, 9.3 million acres, or 14,500 square miles (almost a third the area of England), went up in flames.

One reason is the climate change that propels other extreme weather events. America's West is becoming both drier and hotter: witness the near-record 120F (49C) temperatures in Arizona's capital, Phoenix, last weekend. Moisture that used to fall as winter snow on the mountains today increasingly comes as rain, which evaporates more quickly. In future, say climate specialists, we can expect still fiercer and longer summers, and shorter, wetter winters.

Demographic pressures are taking a toll too. For half a century, America's population has been shifting south and west. New housing is springing up where wildfires have always been a risk – which also raises an ethical question: should firefighters be asked to risk their lives protecting buildings that should never have gone up? A similar argument applies to new homes on exposed coasts where hurricanes are a constant risk. Ocean views, like magnificent wilderness scenery, carry risks all too often overlooked.

Then there's the problem of money. The government spends some $2bn (£1.3bn) a year on firefighting, compared with $250m only 20 years ago. Now there's the famous sequester, trimming spending virtually across the board for "non-vital" federal agencies. Individual states too are feeling the pinch. Cutting back on routine forest management such as brush clearance makes devastating fires more likely.

Today, a ceremonial procession of 19 hearses, each accompanied by a motorcyle escort, will carry the bodies of the perished Granite Mountain Hotshots the 80 miles from Phoenix to Prescott, where a memorial service will take place on Tuesday. Word is that President Obama himself may attend. As for the Yarnell fire, it is now mostly contained. But across the country, some 20 other wildfires blaze, one of them not far from Prescott itself.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot