The Fourth of July is a day when members of fire companies all over the country, myself included, dust off their dress blues and shine up the trucks, in preparation for local parades and all the other Independence Day festivities. It’s usually a day of great camaraderie and celebrations, but this year, we’ll be marching with soberness and sadness, as we think about the 19 firefighters who lost their lives fighting the wildfires in Arizona. Whenever a fire-related disaster occurs, it feels personal to anyone who’s ever entered a burning building or raced to push back a wall of fire from a parched forest. We know what a daunting adversary fire is. While there’s an undeniable rush of adrenaline that comes with tackling a major blaze, as any firefighter will confirm, those who’ve experienced it know that this is no game. A mere shift in the wind can unleash the full fury of fire.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were an elite group, thoroughly trained in how to manage wildfires, the hardest kind of blazes to contain. And yet, even with all their training, their bravery and their instincts, a change in the direction of the wind gave the fires the upper hand.
The Hotshots were skilled professionals, but the methods they used were the ones we all learn, even those of us who are volunteers. A firebreak, which the Hotshots were attempting to build in Arizona, is one of the basic tools that we use to contain raging blazes. The idea is to dig a deep trench around the flames — to stop their forward progress. A second technique is to beat fire at its own game by removing what it can devour. To do that, fire companies use a technique called a back fire — a counter-intuitive approach that preemptively stops a fire’s forward progress by intentionally igniting the inner edge of a fire to consume any fuel in its path. A fire can’t survive without something to burn.
Both these techniques are used to hold back advancing fires, and as we saw in Arizona, a storm front combined with wind can make doing that not only difficult but also life-threatening. That’s why forest managers use a third technique — controlled burns — to help stop fires before they even start. To eliminate fire’s food –underbrush, dried leaves and branches — we lay down an accelerant along a defined line and lighting it with the wind to our backs. We use controlled (also called prescribed) burns a lot where I live in western New Jersey, which has vast tracts of forests and green spaces. During droughts, we, too, are susceptible to wild fires, so controlled burns ahead of time can literally be lifesavers. (To donate to a fund for the Hotshots’ survivors and others affected by the Yarnell, AZ fires, here’s a link: www.unitedwayyavapai.org.)