As my wife Chelsea and I drove through Arizona on our annual pilgrimage from California to Montana, orange smoke billowed along the darkened horizon, signals of hearts shattered and landscapes scorched. Days earlier nineteen hot shot firefighters died together as they battled the intense blazes near the mountain town of Yarnell. It was the most lethal wildfire America had witnessed in 80 years.
The Yarnell flames were so erratic and intense the team became suddenly trapped, and despite each of the men deploying their individual fire shelters, all fighting the flames that day perished. The lone survivor was out fetching a truck for his crew, only to return to the gruesome scene to find his buddies were gone. It was the single deadliest incident for firefighters since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Fires like the one that charred the small Yarnell community are only growing in size and ferocity in the West. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the number of wildfires every year in the U.S. has remained relatively steady, but their size has increased dramatically. In 1987, a little over 2.4 million acres burned across the country whereas 2012 saw over 9.3 million acres go up in flames. That’s more than the size of Rhode Island and Maryland combined and it’s a trend many see as only increasing as more droughts plague Western states and climate change continues to rear its ugly head.
“Today, western forests are experiencing longer wildfire seasons and more acres burned compared to several decades ago,” says Todd Sanford, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “The greatest increase has occurred in mid-elevation Northern Rockies forests, which are having higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier snowmelt. These conditions are linked to climate change.”