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Sep 12, 2020

America’s ring of fire

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Wildfires are getting bigger, more expensive to fight and closer than ever to where people live. The consequences can be deadly. This episode examines how wildfires got so dangerous – and how people in some areas are fighting back.

We begin in California, where record wildfires have been burning across the state for weeks. For more than a century, Americans have been putting out wildfires as fast as possible, an approach that’s led to a buildup of fuel. Reporter Danielle Venton from public radio station KQED explores what humans can do to create a healthier relationship with wildfires. 

As the number of wildfires increases, the blazes also are causing more damage than before. Next, we learn from former Reveal senior data reporter Eric Sagara that this isn’t a problem exclusive to the western United States – more and more Americans are building homes in wildlands across the country. 

Then, former Reveal data reporter Emmanuel Martinez looks at the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona and what followed. That disaster took the lives of 19 specially trained firefighters, destroyed more than 100 homes and burned more than 8,000 acres. But it didn’t scare people away from living in Yarnell. Within three years, about half the homes lost in the fire were rebuilt, even though the threat of wildfire is still there. 

One Arizona town has a solution to its wildfire problem: It’s cutting trees to save the forest. Reveal’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports on how people in Flagstaff have transformed their fire department and landscape to prevent the dense forest surrounding them from turning into a ring of fire. Parts of this episode originally were broadcast Oct. 8, 2016.

Credits

Reporters: Danielle Venton, Eric Sagara, Emmanuel Martinez and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Scott Pham and Jennifer LaFleur

Lead producer: Ike Sriskandarajah

Editors: Kat Snow, Brett Myers and Cheryl Devall

Production manager: Najib Aminy

Production assistance: Amy Mostafa

Sound design, mix, and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. For the last few weeks, millions of acres across the United States have been burning. Dozens of large wildfires raging across the West. Some of the biggest are right here where I live. There was even something I'd never heard of, a firenado.

Newscaster:

Fires are burning out of control all over California.

Newscaster:

Some of the biggest fires in state history.

Newscaster:

Nearly 11,000 lightning strikes were reported.

Newscaster:

Heavy winds spread flames across the state.

Newscaster:

Fast-moving flames raging out of control.

Newscaster:

Turning more than 1,500 square miles into an apocalyptic hellscape.

Al Letson:

Here in the San Francisco Bay area, it's like we're living in a ring of fire. Even indoors you can often smell smoke from nearby fires, and where those fires end up can literally depend on which way the wind blows.

Danielle Venton:

I'm in an area where the fires are burning on three sides, to the north, to the east, and to the south.

Al Letson:

That's Danielle Venton from public radio station KQED. These fires have killed at least seven and destroyed thousands of structures across nearly a million acres.

Danielle Venton:

That many really large fires burning simultaneously, that's a new experience for me.

Al Letson:

Danielle's a science reporter. She remembers what it was like when she first started covering these massive wildfires in 2015.

Danielle Venton:

When those fires happen it felt like, "Where did that come from? That's wild. That's crazy." Then we had bad fires in 2016. We had bad fires in 2017. We had bad fires in 2018 and 2019 and 2020.

Al Letson:

There are two big reasons why wildfires have become more extreme. First, climate change is making things hotter and drier. Second, wildfires are natural. They're supposed to happen. For more than 100 years, we've done everything we could to suppress them, battling fires with everything from shovels and bulldozers to helicopters and giant air tankers.

Danielle Venton:

Because fire has been suppressed for so long, vegetation builds up, and that means that there is more to burn, so when fire does hit an area, it burns hotter and it burns out of control.

Al Letson:

For decades we've known that the way we deal with wildfires is wrong.

Danielle Venton:

Change is long and change is hard.

Al Letson:

Especially when that change means allowing those smaller fires to burn on a regular basis to get rid of that dense vegetation.

Danielle Venton:

Fire can be good. Low-intensity, mid-intensity fire protects us from bad, out of control fires. The answer to all of this fire is actually more fire.

Al Letson:

More fire. Seems like a strange thing to wish for, but it could be our only way out of this catastrophe that we caused.

Danielle Venton:

This is a human-caused problem. That means that humans can work to fix it and make it better. I don't mean that it's going to be easy and I don't mean that it's going to be quick, but it is possible for us to reexamine how we think of fire, how we treat it, and have a healthier relationship with it.

Al Letson:

Today we're going to look at how some communities are creating that healthier relationship with fire. It's something everyone in the country needs to worry about because wildfires are no longer just a problem of the West. They're moving into suburban communities all over the country. Before we get to that, Danielle searches the pass for examples of how the U.S. has dealt with major threats as inspiration for how we can bring about change now.

Danielle Venton:

Let's travel back in time to 1912 to the sinking of the Titanic. Despite the transmission of frantic SOS signals, help could not arrive in time.

Steven Biel:

From the moment the ship sank, it became clear that there hadn't been provision to save everybody's life on the ship.

Danielle Venton:

Steven Biel is a historian at Harvard who's written several books about the Titanic. He says the ship makers, from their perspective, took safety seriously.

Steven Biel:

In fact exceeded the number of lifeboats that they were required to have.

Danielle Venton:

That number was based on ship tonnage, not how many people were on board.

Steven Biel:

There was a huge outcry about this, and that's really what led to change.

Danielle Venton:

New safety regulations worldwide within two years.

Steven Biel:

One of the things about the stories of disasters is that we don't want them to be meaningless. We want some good to have come from this, so that whatever the disaster is will never happen again.

Danielle Venton:

Californians are in a similar moment now. The campfire ripped through the town of Paradise last November, the deadliest fire anywhere in the United States in 100 years. It killed 85 people, more than the Loma Prieta earthquake, and left a path of ash and ruin that shocked people across the state.

Female:

It literally looks like a war zone.

Female:

Totally scorched hillside, trees that have fallen over.

Danielle Venton:

Many are asking, can we make sure this doesn't happen again?

Scott Stevens:

That's a challenge, because there's at least 100 Paradises out there.

Danielle Venton:

Scott Stevens is a fire science professor at UC Berkeley. He says millions of people in the state live close to wild lands.

Scott Stevens:

There are so many smaller towns, a lot of small towns all over southern California, northern California, where we have these conditions. We have conditions of high fuel loads, very difficult ways to get in and out of communities.

Danielle Venton:

Fire has always been part of California, but the state is experiencing increasingly deadly and catastrophic fires. 2017 was the worst year on record until the fires of 2018. Does it have to be this way?

Scott Stevens:

No. It could be better.

Danielle Venton:

Californians could have safer homes, healthier forests, cleaner air, even in the face of unpredictable wildfires.

Scott Stevens:

If this became a priority enough for health, for our kids and our grandkids and everybody else, it would just happen. It's not something that's impossible.

Danielle Venton:

It does mean asking tough questions about how we live in this state, questions such as are there places where we shouldn't rebuild, do we fine homeowners who don't clear vegetation, and can we agree on how to manage forests? Grappling with these questions will call on Californians to evaluate competing priorities, but we've done it before. Think about what it was like to be in a restaurant before public smoking bans.

James Repace:

People simply took it for granted that the indoor spaces were going to be contaminated with tobacco smoke.

Danielle Venton:

James Repace is an anti-smoking advocate who helped get some of the first non-smoking bills passed in the late 1970s. He says at the time, the thought of telling people they couldn't smoke wherever they liked was unthinkable. That started to shift when public information campaigns taught people about the dangers of breathing tobacco smoke.

Male:

Why do people smoke, Yogi?

Male:

According to the statistics, they'd be better off if they didn't.

James Repace:

You might have the right to smoke, but you don't have the right to let your smoke make other people sick. It's a hierarchy of needs.

Danielle Venton:

Everyone's need for health triumphs over some people's need to smoke. Slowly, through grassroots pressure and political will, today there is less heart and respiratory disease.

James Repace:

It did take a generation, but with respect to climate issues, we don't have a generation. Time is running out.

Danielle Venton:

Climate change is already making our fires more destructive, but it's not the first time humans have tackled an ecological crisis after the damage began.

Male:

Ozone hole, how we save the planet, Wednesday.

Newscaster:

Environmental Protection Agency is tackling the acid rain problem with new rules.

Danielle Venton:

We improved food safety, banned leaded gasoline, and cleaned up polluted rivers. Scott Stevens thinks Californians can do it again with wildfire.

Scott Stevens:

There really is hope in this state. There's hope for our ecosystems that are more fire-resilient, better adapted to climate change. I think there really is hope and there is a way to step forward.

Danielle Venton:

In the case of the Titanic, change happened because people wanted to stop that kind of disaster from happening again. In the case of smoking bans, people reexamined their values. Drew Dellinger is an author who studies the Civil Rights movement. He says to move society in new directions, people also need to picture what the future could be.

Drew Dellinger:

If you think of Martin Luther King, the speech that he gave after the first successful day of the bus boycotts, he said there will come a time in the future where people will look back and they'll say that there lived a group of people who were willing to stand up and inject new meaning into the veins of civilization. It requires a sense of imagination and possibility and what can be.

Danielle Venton:

Can we imagine a California where we're unlikely to lose entire towns, where fire is not a force that destroys neighborhoods, it's a tool to keep forests healthy? Scott Stevens says it's about reframing a fundamental relationship.

Scott Stevens:

It's going to become really people and the land. It really is that simple. People and the land, can they work together.

Danielle Venton:

Ultimately, Stevens says, whatever is good for the land we live on will be good for us. It's a simple idea, but working with fire and working with land requires a radical rethinking of how we build and how we live together.

Al Letson:

That's Danielle Venton, science reporter for KQED in San Francisco. From here, we go inside a wildfire that forced evacuations from 10,000 homes.

Eric Segara:

We've got flames on either side of the road, including up on the ridge line. I can see the fire torching through some larger brush about 50 feet away. I can actually feel the heat on my face from the hillside that's burning next to me. Woowee.

Al Letson:

That's next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

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Female:

Reveal is supported by Candid, a 501c3 nonprofit organization. Every year, millions of nonprofits spend trillions of dollars around the world. Candid finds out where that money comes from, where it goes, and why it matters. That starts with asking questions, like are small nonprofits at risk of shutting down, do corporate donors care about racial equity, or how concerned are foundations about the future of democracy. Learn more at candid.org/questions.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Each year, about 500,000 acres burn from California wildfires, but this year throughout the state, more than two million acres have already burned. Two million, and it's only September. Where I live in the San Francisco Bay area, there was one day recently when people were walking around with flashlights all morning long because the sky was dark and orange. It felt like the apocalypse was at hand. Of course wildfires are nothing new, but the season is becoming longer, the fires more intense, and the damage more deadly. We first started looking at this trend back in 2016. Our data reporter at the time, Eric Segara, had been obsessed with wildfires for years. He'd even gotten some training as a wild land firefighter. He was equipped to cover the fires from his laptop and on the ground. Today we revisit a story Eric brought us back in July of 2016. He'd traveled to Los Angeles County just in time for what was known as the Sand Fire, named after nearby Sand Canyon.

Eric Segara:

This is a hot, fast fire in canyons where scattered neighborhoods dot the Angeles National Forest. Three of us from Reveal ride in a rented SUV among roads lined with chaparral. It's a bush that sweats flammable oil when it's warm. We stop where the road cuts through the hillside. On the other side is just a wall of smoke. We back into a parking space and leave the engine running in case we need to leave quickly. Nearby a group of firefighters is planning the air attack.

Andrew Violante:

We're trying to keep it from jumping this ridge line.

Firefighter:

Step on the south side down low in the canyon.

Eric Segara:

That's Andrew Violante, from the San Marcos Fire Department.

Andrew Violante:

The main head of the fire is running north, and we're trying to keep this slop-over side of the fire from moving this way. We have air support in the air painting this whole ridge line with retardant.

Eric Segara:

Soon a heavy lift helicopter hovers in low, dropping loads of neon pink retardant from the sky. By accident, I get a mouthful.

Eric Segara:

The fire retardant. It tastes just like dish soap.

Eric Segara:

Even with the ground and air fight, I can still see fire lurking around the mountain.

Eric Segara:

We've got flames on either side of the road, including up on the ridge line. I can see the fire torching through some larger brush about 50 feet away. I can actually feel the heat on my face from the hillside that's burning next to me. Woowee.

Eric Segara:

Just on the other side of that hill, a suburban neighborhood pushes into the wild land area.

Eric Segara:

There's flames to just about every direction you look.

Eric Segara:

Firefighters are positioned on the hill around an evacuated cul-de-sac, ready to defend homes. There's something so post-apocalyptic about a suburban neighborhood on a sunny day with no people. Sprinklers are running on the rooftops in a feeble attempt to keep their homes safe.

Firefighter:

To me it's just wasting water.

Eric Segara:

Firefighters like Dave Schwab from Ventura County have parked their engines. They're scattered throughout the neighborhood, just waiting for the fire to hit. I see other firefighters perched on rooftops. They have a better view of the flames from there and can put out any embers that fly their way. Homeowners in this area have lived with fires like this. Many have cleared brush around their houses to create what firefighters call defensible space.

Dave Schwab:

They're giving us a fighting chance to help. It's the properties where you don't see that that it's just difficult for us, and then it makes it dangerous for us.

Eric Segara:

Dangerous and expensive. In California it cost $1,700 an acre to put out fires where wild land meets homes. The Agriculture Department's Inspector General reports that's more than twice what it cost to fight fires in forests without people. Stephen Pyne has written 20 books examining all this.

Stephen Pyne:

We know how to keep houses from burning. We've known it for a long time.

Eric Segara:

The problem is, more people than ever choose to live near nature. To find out just how many people that is, I analyzed a database from the University of Wisconsin. It has millions of records to help me pinpoint where houses mingle with wild land. I found that more than a third of the nearly 16 million homes built in the U.S. since 2000 are in places at risk of wildfires. The Sand Fire's only 10% contained when some of the 20,000 evacuees are allowed to return. Homeowner [Sherilyn] Gomez is one of them. I ask her, what does all this look like to people who have never seen a wildfire?

Sherilyn Gomez:

It twirls and it moves. It's unpredictable. At times it's going three different directions at the same time. The winds would change and swirl. You're just hoping and praying it isn't going to get anybody. This is the third one I can remember that was actually real threatening.

Eric Segara:

Have you evacuated in the past?

Sherilyn Gomez:

Yes, three times.

Eric Segara:

How come you stay?

Sherilyn Gomez:

Why do we stay?

Eric Segara:

Yeah.

Sherilyn Gomez:

It's a wonderful neighborhood. It's a wonderful community. We take our chances. The odds are, after three fires, we're still here.

Eric Segara:

As we drive away past the blackened landscape, a comb of smoke rises in the dirt brown sky. It would take 12 days for firefighters to contain the Sand Fire. It killed a man, destroyed 18 homes, burned more than 40,000 acres, and stripped the hillsides of every living thing. Why do fires like this still happen? To learn more, I went to see Wally Covington, who heads the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. He looks like a tall, outdoorsy grandfather with a twinkle in his eye. His research has changed the way Americans manage force through techniques he calls treatment, cutting down trees to thin the forest, setting controlled burns, that kind of thing. Wally tells me that hundred-acre fires used to be outliers, freak occurrences.

Wally Covington:

Then it got to be 1,000 acres and people said, "Still, it's an unusual event. It's really dry here. Lightning hitting the wrong place," and so on. Once it got into every year, year in and year out, million acre, millions of acres burning each year, then people said, "Something's bad here. Something's wrong."

Eric Segara:

The two of us stand in a swath of forest divided by dirt path. On one side, large, centuries-old pines with orange yellow bark dot an open landscape. This is the way, Wally says, forests should look. On the other side, younger, darker pines stand in what people call a dog hair patch, dense like the hair on the back of a dog. This is what many forests look like today. Wally studies the two sides in his outdoor laboratory, where he tries to restore the forest. To explain why, he carries a cross-section of stump from a tree that began growing in the late 1600s. The rings in this stump tell the story of forest policy over 500 years. In the middle of this stump the tree was young. Its rings are wide, indicating healthy growth. Then lightning struck it in 1757. From that time forward, you can see the stump is lined with scars from fires. There's 1773, 1785, 1803. This forest is supposed to burn hey two to seven years under natural conditions. That's 1839, 1857. All told, 18 fires from 1757 to 1876. Then the fires stopped.

Wally Covington:

Shortly after 1876, cattle and livestock grazing began in earnest out here and serious overgrazing.

Eric Segara:

Wally points out the tree's rings got thinner as it continued to grow. That's because it had to compete with more vegetation for the new trees that need it to stay alive. This made it more vulnerable to insects, drought, and fire. Conditions like this affect millions of trees throughout the country.

Wally Covington:

This overgrazing was actually encouraged by early foresters as a way to keep fire out of the forest, because fire was seen as the enemy.

Eric Segara:

Now scientists say climate change will alter fire activity throughout the United States. Wet periods will be wetter, dry periods drier. Storms will bring less rain and snow. Instead, we'll see more lightning that sparks wildfires and wind that can drive flames with explosive force.

Wally Covington:

The story has still nationally been one where stupid Westerners are putting houses where there are fires. That's true.

Eric Segara:

Stephen Pyne knows this from experience. He spent 15 years as a wild land firefighter. He used what he knew to keep his vacation home safe from a fire five years ago.

Stephen Pyne:

If the climate change modelers are correct, we're going to start seeing the fires go to where the houses are, and that's going to increasingly be on the East. At that point it becomes a national story.

Eric Segara:

There's a lot of information about wildfires in the West, because there's more federal land there, and the federal government keeps track of all that data. We know less about wildfires in the East, because state and local fire agencies don't always track the same information. The data we do have shows that 70% of wildfires occur outside of Western states. One estimate says local firefighters respond to 900 wildfires each day on average. We also know many local departments aren't prepared for wildfires. These fires are probably smaller than what we've seen on television, an acre here, an acre there. That small grass fire by the side of the road may not seem like a big deal until it rages out of control. All it takes is an ember carried by an unexpected gust of wind. That's what happened in South Carolina three years ago.

Jody Aldritz:

It never even crossed my mind that I could potentially lose everything to a fire.

Eric Segara:

Jody [Aldritz's] condo burned in a fire. There have been more than 70,000 fires in her state between 1992 and 2013.

Jody Aldritz:

You drove from one street to the next street, you could look down and see flames. Imagine two-story condos, there's four units in each building, and there's nothing but flames and black smoke.

Eric Segara:

Flames jump from bush to bush and building to building. They melted the white picket fences that line the streets.

Jody Aldritz:

Usually what we get are smaller brush fires, but other than that, it hadn't ever been this huge danger that we had heard of.

Eric Segara:

Jody left behind a puppy called Puck and pretty much everything else.

Jody Aldritz:

Baby pictures, things from high school, some of the things as a woman you old onto a certain outfit because you remember an event that was special to you that you wore that to, things like that that I can't ever get back.

Eric Segara:

After the fire, she trained to become a volunteer firefighter and got a better understanding of just how the much the homes and the people who live in them are at risk.

Jody Aldritz:

I don't know if I'm more aware of it now, but I do feel like the number of fires have increased each year.

Eric Segara:

More fires mean more homes are likely to burn. There's no getting around that, says Jim Hubbard. He is the man in charge of wildfires for the Forest Service.

Jim Hubbard:

I would say that we will continue to lose buildings and homes. There are just some that aren't going to be saved.

Eric Segara:

He says saving the lives of residents and firefighters has to be his agency's top priority.

Jim Hubbard:

That means there are some places at some times that we won't be able to save the buildings.

Eric Segara:

Stephen Pyne says leaders need to cultivate the political will for change around wildfire policies.

Stephen Pyne:

I wonder, how did cities quit burning? It's because there were political decisions about building codes, fire insurance standards. There were fundamental issues that were not left to the market, not left to individual or developers' whims. Until we have a political decision on that scale, you're not going to solve the problem. In cities, every fire you put out is a problem solved. In wild lands, most wild lands, every fire you put out is a problem put off.

Eric Segara:

The U.S. Forest Service owns 100 million acres of overgrown land that need treatment. More than half is at high risk of fire. The agency spends $300 million a year to thin the forest. That covers about 3% of the work it needs to do. Doubling the budget wouldn't come close to finishing the job. What will it cost?

Jim Hubbard:

What I can tell you is more money than is likely to be available. We will never have enough money to treat all of the land.

Eric Segara:

Within budgetary limits, Jim Hubbard of the Forest Service is careful not to make any promises his agency can't keep.

Jim Hubbard:

We can't eliminate fire and we can't restore the forest with just a 10-000-acre treatment, but we might be able to reduce the risk to a community with that treatment.

Eric Segara:

Forest Service officials decide where to treat using a risk analysis tool, a cold-sounding term, especially when the decisions they make mean that some places will burn. They don't analyze the risk on every treatment, so there's no way to tell if what they're doing is preventing homes from burning down.

Jim Hubbard:

It's certainly being done nationally, regionally, and now we're trying to make sure that the forests in the districts understand how to use the tool. I wouldn't say we're there everywhere, but it's coming fast.

Eric Segara:

Jim says the Forest Service has fallen short of its treatment goals the last couple of years, because it's still forming alliances with private, military, and state landowners.

Jim Hubbard:

We can do a lot of treatments, but if we want to be effective, it requires all of us acknowledging the problem that we will need to manage unplanned wildfire in ways that we haven't in the past.

Al Letson:

Thanks to Eric Segara for bringing us that story that originally aired back in 2016. We should say, the data Eric worked on was from 2000 to 2016, but what he found is still true today. We should also mention that one of the people Eric spoke to, Wally Covington, has since retired from his job at Northern Arizona University. We've seen what happens when a wildfire tears through a city or town, but what happens next? When we come back, we'll hear how developers have profited off of wildfires and rebuilt homes in places that stand a good chance of burning down again.

Vito Austin:

I've only put 3,500 into it. I sold it to the neighbor for 3,500 more!

Al Letson:

You're listening to Reveal.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. When we talk about wildfires, think about that warning on your rearview mirror, "Objects may be closer than they appear." People in Yarnell, Arizona, about 90 miles northwest of Phoenix, learned that the hard way back in 2013. Their town became a national example of how expensive and dangerous it can be to try and tame a wildfire. The Yarnell Hill Fire took the lives of 19 specially trained firefighters, Granite Mountain Hotshots. Fire also destroyed more than 100 homes. Back in 2016 when we first aired this story, houses were already being rebuilt, even though they were at risk for future wildfires. Here's reporter Emmanuel Martinez.

Emmanuel Martin...:

The Yarnell Hill Fire started on a Friday with a lightning strike. It was small at first, about half an acre, and it wasn't supposed to get much bigger. It was far enough from town that it caught Brian Smith off guard.

Brian Smith:

I got calls, "Is there a fire?" I kept looking around and I seen no fire.

Emmanuel Martin...:

Brian is a lanky retired chemist who wears glasses held together with Scotch tape. He's lived in Yarnell for almost 10 years. It's a rural town in an unincorporated part of Yavapai County. Brian ended up here because of his dad.

Brian Smith:

He was tired of the desert. It's hotter than hell. Then he retired up here because of the breeze actually. It's so peaceful here.

Emmanuel Martin...:

A sign on the edge of town describes it as a place where the desert breeze meets the mountain air. Those same breezes can turn into powerful gusts of wind without warning. On top of that, the region was bone dry. 50 years had passed without a major wildfire. When the 2013 fire started, it threatened two neighboring towns. Two days later, a thunderstorm hit the area. Its 40-mile-an-hour winds carried the fire straight towards the weeds, bushes, and trees that brushed against many of the houses in Yarnell.

Brian Smith:

The sparks and embers started coming this way. This time of the year things were pretty dry. Wherever they landed, just poof, it exploded.

Emmanuel Martin...:

One of those embers landed on Brian's porch and ignited it.

Brian Smith:

I went and watered it, and then bushes started exploding all around me in embers. I thought, "Holy Moses, it's the burning bush. It's time to get the hell out of here."

Emmanuel Martin...:

First though, Brian had to run back inside. He was taking care of his terminally ill 84-year-old cousin at the time.

Brian Smith:

I got her ID and my ID and we left. We left everything. We left it to whatever happened was going to happen.

Emmanuel Martin...:

Authorities had issued evacuation orders for Yarnell on Sunday afternoon, before the fire reached people's homes. Brian says he and his cousin waited for hospice workers who'd promised to pick them up. When nobody arrived, Brian slung his cousin's arm over his shoulder and walked outside in shorts and flip-flops to a landscape on fire.

Brian Smith:

I was pretty well determined that I was going to get her out of here and whatever it took.

Emmanuel Martin...:

It was slow going. The flames around them were as high as a two-story house. They had to slog about a quarter of a mile through thick black smoke before they found help. Along the way, Brian heard tires and propane tanks explode. He and his cousin did not get burned, but their lungs took a beating.

Brian Smith:

Then I spent the next six hours in a hospital, so I didn't really know what had happened until after they released me.

Emmanuel Martin...:

It wasn't safe to go back for about a week. When Brian returned home, he saw the porch was charred, but his house was still standing. The rest of town wasn't as lucky. The fire left a quarter of houses in Yarnell in ashes. To another man in town:

Vito Austin:

It looked like hell.

Emmanuel Martin...:

That's Vito Austin, a general contractor. In the three years since the fire, he and others have jump-started a lot of the home building around Yarnell. We meet up with him outside a house he's working on.

Vito Austin:

Vito, nice to meet you.

Emmanuel Martin...:

How are you? How's it going? Emmanuel.

Vito Austin:

Emmanuel.

Emmanuel Martin...:

Nice to meet you.

Emmanuel Martin...:

He did not see the area until after the fire was out and all the vegetation was burned away.

Vito Austin:

Every other lot you looked at looked like something just whipped through there and destroyed everything they had and left the skeletons, meaning the washers, the dryers, the refrigerators.

Emmanuel Martin...:

The fire also left the foundations, plumbing, and electrical wiring. Luckily for contractors like Vito, it's easier to rebuild on properties like that. He described Yarnell before the fire as landlocked, meaning nobody wanted to sell their houses. Now, after the fire:

Vito Austin:

This is a land of opportunity.

Emmanuel Martin...:

Neighbor calls Vito Yarnell's monopoly man because he knows a good deal when he sees one, like the empty lot he spots while we're talking.

Vito Austin:

I'm going to buy it.

Emmanuel Martin...:

[inaudible 00:32:49].

Vito Austin:

No, I'm going to clean it up and build a house on it.

Emmanuel Martin...:

In many parts of the U.S. there are few restrictions on where people can build or rebuild. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin studied this. They found that about a quarter of the houses lost in wildfires are rebuilt within five years, so homeowners are either willing to face the risk of wildfire or they're new to the area and they don't know what they're in for. In Yarnell, about half of the houses lost in the fire are in some stage of rebuilding. Vito says a home that's burned down can sprout worthwhile possibilities on the same land.

Vito Austin:

If you can pick up a piece of parcel and it has a septic system in it and it has the water and it has a little mother-in-law house already on it, and flip it by building a nice home and help rebuilding the community.

Emmanuel Martin...:

The county can't stop people from building in places that have burned down and might just burn again. If somebody owns a piece of land, it's up to that person to decide whether to rebuild. Local government hasn't made new zoning rules since the 2013 fire, but it does require new construction to meet fire codes that require materials that prevent fires from spreading. When homeowners don't choose to rebuild, it opens a door for developers, big companies, and small-timers like Vito to flip and profit from abandoned properties.

Vito Austin:

These are all new.

Emmanuel Martin...:

When Vito explains the math behind this, he gets pretty excited.

Vito Austin:

I've only put 3,500 into it. I sold it to the neighbor for 3,500 more!

Emmanuel Martin...:

Vito hopes to buy from people who've chosen to move away from Yarnell, but most homeowners aren't going anywhere. That includes Brian Smith.

Brian Smith:

This is just for my wife and my grandkids and my family. This is it.

Emmanuel Martin...:

The memory of those 19 firefighters who died on June 30th, 2013 still haunts him.

Brian Smith:

I didn't even know that until later. Then they were all about the age of my grandchildren.

Emmanuel Martin...:

Most of those men were in their 20s.

Brian Smith:

Those kids ... Wow. I can't say much more.

Emmanuel Martin...:

The Yarnell Hill Fire burned more than 8,000 acres and caused more than eight and a half million dollars in property damage. He sums up the way he feels about surviving the fire to me and my colleague Eric.

Eric Segara:

You're not afraid of fire again?

Brian Smith:

No, I'm not afraid of nothing.

Al Letson:

Thanks to Emmanuel Martinez for that story. What does it take to put the fear of God into people who live in areas prone to wildfires. For Flagstaff, Arizona, it took a catastrophe so big that the town couldn't ignore the threat any longer. It happened in June of 2010. It got a lot of coverage from local TV stations like ABC-15 in Arizona.

Newscaster:

Flames from the Schultz Fire are approaching people's backyards.

Newscaster:

The fast-moving Schultz Fire has certainly left its mark, and what has taken days to burn will now take decades to recover.

Al Letson:

During the Schultz Fire, 15,000 acres burned and 1,000 people were evacuated. No one died at the time but a couple weeks later, monsoon rains triggered a deadly landslide. See, really hot fire like this one basically melts soil into glass. Water beads right off. When there's enough rain, it runs right down the mountains into the town.

Newscaster:

Families in Flagstaff cleaning up after floodwaters rush through that area, catching many off guard. Dozens of homes damaged and even a 12-year-old girl was killed, but the worst may still be to come.

Al Letson:

Instead of waiting for things to get worse, Flagstaff did something different. People there voted overwhelmingly to invest in a safer landscape. That meant thinning the forest, teaching people to clear brush and get rid of anything around their houses that can fuel a fire and completely transforming their fire department. Now when you think of a firefighter, you tend to think of them as rushing around with those big red engines. That's the job, right? In Flagstaff these days, the job sounds more like this.

Firefighter:

Beautiful.

Al Letson:

Some firefighters spend 90% of their time on prevention, thinning dense, unhealthy forests. It's a radical shift. Reveal's Ike Sriskandarajah hung out with the Flagstaff Fire Department a few years back. Here's that story from 2016.

Skyler Lofgren:

It's a little muddy out there, so it's probably give or take in our truck.

Ike Sriskandara...:

I'm out here with Wildland Fire Supervisor from the Flagstaff Fire Department, Skyler Lofgren. He's energetic, funny, and fire-experienced.

Skyler Lofgren:

You can see where our decals got burnt off a little bit. See that?

Ike Sriskandara...:

He's pointing at the Flagstaff Fire crest on the side of his truck. It melted off because the fire he was at was so hot. Responding to fire is less and less part of the job.

Skyler Lofgren:

Right now we're looking at about 10 to 12 folks cutting limbs off of trees, and they're dropping trees down onto the ground.

Ike Sriskandara...:

A crew of city firefighters is out here every day cutting down small and medium ponderosa pines.

Skyler Lofgren:

Now he's making sure his cuts are lined up, so that tree's going to drop exactly where he wants it to. Right where he wanted it, next to the pile. When people think a city fire department, this is probably the last thing that would come to their mind.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Skyler's not your typical city firefighter. He worked for Wally Covington's Research Institute. For years he collected data on forests throughout the Southwest and knows the dangers and unhealthy forest can pose.

Skyler Lofgren:

The biggest threat for the city of Flagstaff is wildland fire. The number one threat.

Ike Sriskandara...:

The problem is, we don't see that threat for what it actually is. The 70,000 people who live in Flagstaff, they're a hiking, mountain biking, outdoorsy crowd, and they love that their town is encircled by the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the country. They, like most of us, see lots of trees and think, "That's a healthy forest." Firefighters like Skyler see that same forest as a potential ring of fire around the city, the byproduct of 100 years of timber policy that promoted dense growth and forest management that suppressed all fire from the forest. The trick is getting the people of Flagstaff to see it that way. Unlike most of the places we visited this hour, they were able to recognize that threat and act on it.

Skyler Lofgren:

We've had this whole social change of Flagstaff from, "Cutting any tree is bad," to now, "No, we need to cut. We need to take out some trees so we don't lose all of our trees."

Ike Sriskandara...:

In a landmark vote, the residents of Flagstaff approved funding to cut down trees to save the forest and their town. It was a forward-looking decision to turn back the clock on their ponderosa pines.

Skyler Lofgren:

Looking back in the past, pre-settlement times, this forest was described more savanna-like, which if you think about that, thinking of ponderosa pines and then savanna-like. They said you could ride a horse at 40 miles an hour through the woods and not hit a tree.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Now Skyler's team is turning this modern forest back into frontier savanna. Most of the clearing is done with logging machines, but the fine detail work can only be done with the painterly touch of a hand-operated chainsaw.

Skyler Lofgren:

We don't want a uniform landscape. We try to make it what we call clumpy groupy. We determine within a group-

Ike Sriskandara...:

Clumpy groupy?

Skyler Lofgren:

Yep, clumpy groupy. It's a scientific term. It's wild. It's a prescription.

Ike Sriskandara...:

That sounds like a-

Skyler Lofgren:

Let's make some cookies here. I want some clumpy groupy cookies right now. We're out here on the site, and we say this is a group, and within this group we want clumps.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Clumpy groupy is the opposite of a dark, dense forest. There's lots of open space around clumps of trees. It's also fire-safe. If lightning strikes in a clumpy groupy forest, the fire sweeps along the ground, clearing underbrush, dead things, and lots of little trees. Right now, the forest still has dense patches of these small trees that would be explosively flammable. Young pines are sometimes called ladder fuels, because flames climb up one tree, jump to a slightly bigger one, until they reach the tallest treetops. That's when a mild fire turns into a dangerous wildfire. There's only so much Skyler and his team can do out here to reduce the risk to people and property. Residents have to chip in to protect their own homes. As he drives us back toward town, we pass a neighborhood nestled into the forest. Skyler points out the window. Some residents aren't doing themselves any favors.

Skyler Lofgren:

If there was a fire to start in here, this is going to get hot. He's stacked up firewood all against his wooden fence that leads all the way to his home, and it's right up underneath trees.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Basically there's a trail of kindling leading right to their doorstep.

Skyler Lofgren:

We would say, "What we would recommend, sir, is maybe not piling that firewood underneath all these trees, against this wooden fence that leads to your home. We would recommend piling this maybe uphill, up slope, and away from any trees, in an open area, so if there was an ember to land in there, it wouldn't consequently burn up the wood, burn up the forest, burn up your wooden fence, and then your home."

Ike Sriskandara...:

Educating homeowners so they don't make stupid mistakes is a full-time job here for Jerolyn Byrne.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Your last name's Byrne. That's pretty good.

Ike Sriskandara...:

I think she's gotten that before.

Jerolyn Byrne:

Yes, it's very good.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Jerolyn is a dedicated specialist at the Flagstaff Fire Department, who helps neighborhoods adapt to fire. Some of the most desirable neighborhoods here push into forests. Now all over America, developers keep building further and further out into wildland. People who want to live in the beauty of nature with the amenities of a nearby city keep moving in.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Where are we right now?

Jerolyn Byrne:

Right now we're in Pine Canyon. This neighborhood from the ground up used fire-wise construction.

Ike Sriskandara...:

By fire-wise, she means the planners of this neighborhood used fire-resistant building material. They created several entry and exit points for firefighters. They made sure the yards here are clear of dry leaves and brush around each house.

Jerolyn Byrne:

If a fire were to come through this neighborhood, they would be pretty well protected. There's a lot of defensive space. They have great access here.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Federal, state, and local agencies partner to set these standards. There are more than a thousand communities recognized as fire-wise.

Jerolyn Byrne:

We feel comfortable as firefighters coming into this area and being able to defend these homes.

Ike Sriskandara...:

This is the gold standard.

Jerolyn Byrne:

This would be a gold standard neighborhood, yes.

Ike Sriskandara...:

The people of Pine Canyon have to be gold standard.

Jerolyn Byrne:

Should a fire start to the south of Flagstaff here, they would be the first community that would be impacted.

Ike Sriskandara...:

It can cost hundreds of dollars to hire someone to cut down a dead tree on your property. Maintaining that cleared space can take time and money. As I looked around it, Pine Canyon's manicured lawns with driveways full of BMWs and Benzs, I had to ask Jerolyn, is it only possible to have a gold standard fire-wise community, does it need to be a wealthy community?

Jerolyn Byrne:

That is a good question.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Most of the time, it does. For lower-income communities that can't afford to keep up with maintenance, Jerolyn doesn't ticket people. Instead, she offers cash prizes for the best designed fire-safe yards.

Jerolyn Byrne:

We really try to just encourage a more positive feedback loop with that code to be-

Ike Sriskandara...:

More carrot than stick.

Jerolyn Byrne:

Yes, more of the carrot, less of the stick.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Other than that, Jerolyn relies on local building code that require new development to manage their own thinning and keep their property clear of fuels. She understands that public outreach only works as part of a bigger picture.

Jerolyn Byrne:

We can show them and then we can educate them, but the idea is just we're doing prevention on a grand scale, on this landscape scale.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Prevention work isn't just happening in neighborhoods like the one Jerolyn's in, or city-owned land like that tree thinning operation. A large part of it is happening on federal Forest Service land.

Matt Millar:

We don't have to walk all the way down there. I just wanted to come out here and show you the area that we're going to be treating over the next couple years.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Matt Millar is another program director from Flagstaff's Fire Department. He takes us to the base of the dry lake hills in the Coconino National Forest.

Matt Millar:

The overall goal of the project is to reduce the risk of large, high-intensity, catastrophic fires and the flooding that can happen after a large fire.

Ike Sriskandara...:

We're close to where the Schultz Fire happened. That's the one that burned 15,000 acres back in 2010 and triggered a fatal landslide. Now this place is still a risk.

Matt Millar:

There will be a lot of trees that will be removed here, which will really change the way that the forest looks.

Ike Sriskandara...:

By the time Matt's done, they may remove more than half the trees, the small and medium ones in particular, but it doesn't stop there.

Matt Millar:

Phase two will move to the top of the mountains. Eventually this whole area will have been treated.

Ike Sriskandara...:

He's pointing to a peak about 10,000 feet up. Logging machines can't reach there, so they'll need to use helicopters that thin out the trees on the highest, steepest slopes. It's ambitious and expensive, but it's part of the same plan nearly three quarters of the town voted to approve.

Matt Millar:

The people of Flagstaff are very aware of the hazards of catastrophic fire, and they're very proactive in casting a vote to approve a $10 million bond to do this forest thinning work, which I think is a really unique situation.

Ike Sriskandara...:

They improved it because economically it makes sense. A captain of Flagstaff Fire put it like this. His department spent $8,000 on passing a bond worth 10 million aimed at preventing 500 million in damages. Remember, fires in these areas, where the wild meets the residential, are crazy expensive. The Schultz Fire alone, which didn't actually burn a single structure, cost $12 million to fight another 140 million in recovery costs like property damage.

Matt Millar:

When I think about some of the larger fires that cost $100 million or more, I think about the amount of preventative forest treatments that could be done using that money.

Ike Sriskandara...:

Matt's new on this project. Before this he worked for years as a Hotshot. They're sort of like the Navy Seals of firefighting. They drop in and work on putting out some of the biggest, most dangerous fires in the country. In the off season, he was going to school to get his master's degree in environmental science. Now he appreciates the slow, preventative work of thinning trees of the mountain.

Matt Millar:

I think the prevention side is you can work for many years and the effects may not be apparent right away, whereas when you work on the suppression side, if you go to a fire and you work there for a few weeks, you can see your progress daily.

Ike Sriskandara...:

When the fire's gone.

Matt Millar:

Exactly. That's rewarding, absolutely. I just try and remember that from my view maybe that's not the right thing I should be doing. I think I know enough now about fire ecology and the importance of fire and the landscape that I really enjoy working on this project because of what the end goals are.

Ike Sriskandara...:

The goal, keeping the next big wildfire from happening. Now this city's approach won't work everywhere, and the money to try new preventative measures won't always be there, but for now, Matt looks over the forest. Most of the slender trees he's cutting down are younger than he is. If what he's doing works, the trees that remain could be around for another 600 years.

Al Letson:

Thanks to Reveal's Ike Sriskandarajah, who originally reported that story back in 2016. A huge thank you to KQED in San Francisco for their reporting on the California wildfires. Our show was edited by Brett Myers, Kat Snow, and Carol Duvall. Like was our lead producer. Eric Segara and Emmanuel Martinez reported, with contributions from Scott Pham and Jennifer LaFleur. Our sound design team for this one was the Justice League, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Claire C Note Mullin, with help from Fernando My Man Yo Arruda and Amy Mostafa. Christa Scharfenburg is our CEO. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camarado, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Riva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

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