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Apocalyptic Wasteland: From the Frontlines of the Wildfires Out West

“We call the fire's destruction ‘the black.’ I've seen burnt-over heavy machinery, foundations of houses, and it's common for the chimneys to be the only thing left of the houses, so imagine a neighborhood of chimneys.” - Nathaniel Harp, Wildland Firefighter, PCT 2019

If you live in the Western US, know anyone in the Western US, or have even heard of the Western US, you know that large swaths of it have been ablaze every summer in recent memory, and it seems like it’s getting worse every year. Fire season extends longer, impacts more land, and requires more manpower to fight. I’ve seen the impact range from people’s homes burning down to wilderness areas closing, to thru-hiking seasons cut short. It made me wonder what it looks like to be face to face with these blazes. 

I spoke with two wildland firefighters to grasp what these fires, which continue to destroy our public lands, are like up close. Both Nathaniel Harp and Alex Chmiel are thru-hikers and wildland firefighters. Both are fighting to save the forests from destruction while also immersing themselves tranquilly in their beauty. The intensity with which they spoke of fires showed no limits.

 There is no environment I know of, minus maybe war, that is as fast-paced or shocking as wildland firefighting when things are really popping off.

“There is no environment I know of, minus maybe war, that is as fast-paced or shocking as wildland firefighting when things are really popping off,” Alex said. “One moment you may be doing mundane patrols of a state park on a dry weekend afternoon, then the next moment finding yourself deeply entrenched for weeks on end with crews across the country battling one of the most destructive forces of nature. When working a big fire, the environment is often chaotic and hectic, and the work intense.” 

Photo from Alex Chmiel

Above: Photo from Alex Chmiel

 

2020 was the most active year on record for fires on the west coast. 2021 is right on its heels and we aren’t even through September. Five of the six largest fires in California history took place in 2020. Over 45,000 fires have burned 5.7 million acres so far in 2021. In history, there have only been three years during which more than 10 million acres of land burned in the United States: 2015, 2017, and 2020. Wildfires are getting worse and more frequent. Every year more land burns and the trajectory doesn’t seem to be slowing.

               

Acres of U.S. Land Burned by Wildfire

Above: The annual amount of land burned by wildfires in the U.S., according to National Interagency Fire Center data

 

It wasn’t the number of wildfires that caused the most concern in 2020, but the intensity. Factors such as drought, heat, and wind exacerbated the effects of both man-made and lightning-caused fires. The 10,274,679 acres that burned represented over a 50% increase from the rolling ten-year average. 

But wildfires don’t only impact our public lands and remote areas of the country. 2020 was a record year for poor air quality. By the end of September, 1 in 7 Americans had experienced at least one day of hazardous air quality conditions. This is nationwide, in the west it is much higher. I live in Montana, and we were in the hazardous air quality zone for weeks. 

I asked Nathan what it’s like to fight a wildfire. “Fighting fire is an adrenaline rush. We have a saying in fire, ‘fight fire aggressively having provided for safety first,’ a very strenuous but rewarding job. My crew is a 20-person type 2 hand crew, which is led by a Crewboss and made up of four Sawyers (my job) who run chainsaws. Then you have the rest of the crew equipped with hand tools--pulaskis, grubbers, hazel hoes, reinhards, and mcclouds. We dig a hand-line, which in most scenarios is a 10ft cut with the saws, and a 2ft scrape down to mineral soil with the hand tools. We use this method for Hotline, direct line and indirect line. 

Beachie Creek Fire (taken by one of my family’s neighbors)

Above: Beachie Creek Fire (taken by one of my family’s neighbors)

 

Fundamentally the technique of digging fire lines has remained unchanged for decades. The strategy is to dig down to the bare, mineral dirt to remove any fuel for the fire to use to spread. It is a labor-intensive job that requires numerous teams (like Nathan described above) to create perimeter. But, the wind can change and the conditions suddenly shift, which is what makes fires so unpredictable. The Beachie Creek Fire in Oregon in 2020 was started by lightning deep in the wilderness. It smoldered harmlessly for weeks before a sudden windstorm fanned the flames and sent it burning through the wilderness. 

Apocalyptic wasteland, the only thing I can think of after a fire. Entire stands of trees standing dead and scorched, choking ash swirling about in contrast to the blue sky. Erosion runs rampant with no ground cover to support even the smallest rainfall and animals are eerily absent. 

Fire is one of nature’s most intense forces, but the true devastation is best stated by someone who has seen its immediate effects. When asked what a fresh burn looks like, this is what Alex said: ”Apocalyptic wasteland, the only thing I can think of after a fire. In time, animals will return, of course, and bring with them seeds to restart the cycle of life; flowers will bloom, grass will sprout, and mycelium will spread. But this all takes time and before this beautiful birth of the land restarts, all we see is destruction. Entire stands of trees standing dead and scorched, choking ash swirling about in contrast to the blue sky. Erosion runs rampant with no ground cover to support even the smallest rainfall and animals are eerily absent.” 

Smoldering Fire Photo Credit Fred Garmire

Above: Smoldering Fire Photo Credit Fred Garmire
by Jeff Garmire
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