Consumed by Fire

On the front lines of the Hayman blaze.

You can tell how important a person is by how many people are in his vehicle with him. At the bottom are the hand crews, about twenty of whom share a ride. At the top are the bosses, who get their own pickups.

There's such a thing as a "political fire." It's any flame within view of a road. It may be a threat to nothing but a few twigs, yet it still needs to be extinguished to put the public's mind at ease.

We like to rehearse lines in the unlikely event that a member of the media is released into the fire zone. "We've fought the fiery dragon," one guy offers. "Back from the fiery mouth of hell," I suggest. "It was like a blast furnace in there. I feel lucky to have escaped." We also practice poses; one man bent over at the waist, exhausted; another, draped over his back, fatigued beyond standing. We have an image to maintain.

 
Brian Stauffer
 
Up close, but not personal: Fire approaches a house in the Turkey Rock subdivision.
Up close, but not personal: Fire approaches a house in the Turkey Rock subdivision.

Midday, as we refill our water tank by the side of the road, a man in a black pickup truck drives by. "Thanks for all your work," he yells, and tosses us a bag of homemade cookies. It feels nice. Really.

Toward the end of the day, a plume of smoke begins to rise above a hill to the north of us. The fire has slopped over the bulldozer line that was being built to meet up with ours. We stand by the division superintendent as he orders up a massive air attack.

Watching it is a thrill. Helicopters with buckets at the end of long ropes drop their loads and then hover over nearby ponds like hummingbirds, dipping their containers into the water until they're full, then taking off for another run. The "heavies" -- the bigger birds -- look like giant mosquitoes, long hoses dangling out of massive tanks set between gangly legs. Two slurry bombers also spray red rain on the trouble spot.

After a while, we start to add up the cost of the operation we're watching. It makes Elton John look like a skinflint. Our final rough calculation -- taking into account manpower and air power -- comes out to somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000. All to put out a spot fire less than one acre in size.

At the same time, we grunts have been told not to attend the morning briefing until 0630, an apparent attempt to save money by delaying the start of our billable day by a half-hour. This is the government's idea of cost control.

One buddy of mine who attended a recent red-card class remembers a particular bit of advice the instructor offered: Wildland fires are all about two things: safety and money. It's true. Forest fires are devastating, but they're almost always a boost to the local economy.

No one argues that combating fires isn't expensive. It is. And for reasons that are not entirely clear, the cost of putting out forest blazes has skyrocketed in the past three years or so, says Bruce McDowell, who's just finished a study of fire-suppression costs for the National Academy of Public Administration.

This year has been off the charts. By the end of June, the federal government had already emptied its firefighting bank account of $321 million. Worst-case-scenario estimates warn that the cost could exceed $1 billion by the time the fire season ends this fall.

To be fair, firefighting is difficult to shoehorn into a budget. Because it's impossible to know how many fires there will be in any given year, federal budget czars take a ten-year cost average to forecast the upcoming season. But wildly unpredictable variables such as weather -- or just a couple of arsonists -- can throw such a projection totally out of whack.

It's also difficult to know what can be accomplished day to day on a fire. On big fires, we often need to wait for favorable weather -- cool and wet is nice -- before making any significant headway. Also, as a fire grows in size, there's little that firefighters can do except stay out of the way and take pictures. Yet this is also the time when manpower expands exponentially. And even if we're just standing around gawking, we still need to get paid.

On a smaller scale, fire protection is all about what-ifs. Fire departments are full of shelves and shelves of equipment that rarely gets used. Our tiny department recently bought a night-vision heat sensor for a relatively whopping $10,000. It's a ridiculous amount of money to spend on such a high-tech toy -- right up until the night a car flies off the edge of the highway and we use it to discover an injured kid lying twenty yards from the vehicle in the dark. Then it's priceless, even if it stays on the shelf for another two years gathering dust.

Wildland fires present a huge economic opportunity. The combination of high emotion and federal bureaucracy makes for a volatile -- and, ultimately, lucrative -- environment. A lot of the money goes to other government agencies, which, if you think about it, is peculiar. Every year, local and state organizations sign agreements with the federal government setting prices for the use of their manpower and equipment. Although it shouldn't, this price varies from department to department and, to a large degree, depends on the negotiating savvy of local chiefs.

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