In early May, as my plane banked on approach to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., a plume of smoke fanned out below from Banning Pass. The fire that time was the Summit fire, a bad enough blaze – about 3,000 acres burned, one house destroyed, two firefighters injured – but one that evoked a much worse fire. Six years earlier the Esperanza fire in Banning Pass took the lives of a five-man Forest Service engine crew.
Banning Pass is Riverside County’s principal fire ground, a favorite haunt of both fire and arsonists, and the two conspired together in the Esperanza fire on Oct. 26, 2006, with horrendous results. For the first time in history, an entire Forest Service engine crew was lost to flames. The man charged with starting the fire, Raymond Lee Oyler, became the first person to be convicted of murder for setting a wildland fire. He was sentenced to death.
The Esperanza fire, though, had a silver lining: There was only one civilian injury, a minor one. After 24 people died in a colossal 2003 firestorm in Southern California, most of them because they waited too long to evacuate or just chose unlucky routes, those living in the Golden State’s fire country took the counsel of their fears. When the Esperanza fire broke out three years later, in the dead of night, many residents left long before the official evacuation order.
The Summit fire was “out of season.” It started not in the fall, the peak of fire season in California, but on May 1, normally a time of cool temperatures and moisture. But out-of-season has become the norm for wildland fire across the country these days.
And other locales are becoming the new Southern California, famous for fire. In a grim example this week, the nation reacted in horror as the worst tragedy to strike a wildland fire crew since the early 20th century took the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain hotshots, the most highly trained of fire crews, in Yarnell, Ariz. A friend with half a century of fire experience sent me an email the next day: “I remain in a state of shock. It is the Esperanza fire all over again: drought, high temps, strong winds, chaparral, and a crew in an indefensible position.”
There will be more Yarnell Hill and Esperanza fires, with their attendant danger and high risk, though let us hope not with matching death tolls. We are in a new world with wildland fire, and it’s getting worse. Fire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer. Again and again we hear from firefighters, “These are the most extreme fire conditions we’ve ever seen.” Those on the fire line over the last decade tell us global warming is real. States set new records each year for destruction of property and acreage burned.
The reasons are many: bad land use decisions, long-term drought, hotter temperatures, insect damage, more people building houses in previously wild areas. I’ve marked the worsening of fire seasons for the last 20 years as I’ve crisscrossed the country writing books about major wildland fires, beginning with the 1994 South Canyon fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado and most recently the Esperanza fire. The loss of 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain stood as a marker until Yarnell Hill. As I drove west on my journeys this year in June, starting from my home in Washington, D.C., my first stop was Colorado.
Twenty years ago Colorado was known the “asbestos forest” for its resistance to fire. That’s no longer true. When I reached Colorado in early June, there was smoke in the sky and headlines about a “killer fire.” Two residents died in the Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs apparently while preparing to evacuate; the case is under investigation. The fire eventually blackened 21 square miles and consumed more than 500 homes, making it the most destructive fire in terms of property in Colorado history. The previous record was set the year before when the Waldo Canyon fire – within sight of the Black Forest – took more than 300 homes.
As I write this from my family cabin in northwestern Montana, and the nation mourns the loss of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the West is enduring a record-setting heat wave. Temperatures range from the high 90s where I am to 115 in the Southwest. The Yarnell Hill fire remains out of control. There currently are 20 other large fires burning across the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 1.5 million acres have burned thus far this year. Though that’s below the 10-year average of 2.4 million acres for this date, the fire season is just getting into full swing.
Wildfire will never give up its ancient role as a creature of the wild, its power to destroy and defy expectations. And these days, it’s on the loose.
John N. Maclean’s latest book is “The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57.”