The signs are ominous and, to John Maclean’s way of thinking, obvious, even way up here in Montana.
“I think we’re into a whole new world, and a not very pleasant one,” Maclean said Monday from his family cabin on the west shore of Seeley Lake.
The loss of 19 members of a Hotshot crew fighting a wildland fire in central Arizona on Sunday was as tragic an event as any that the author from Washington, D.C., and Montana has detailed in four books on the subject.
A sudden shift of wind in extremely hot and dry conditions appears to have led to the disaster. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in nearby Prescott, are believed to have deployed state-of-the-art aluminum foil emergency shelters designed at the U.S. Forest Service’s Technology and Development Center in Missoula – a last resort that didn’t help.
Those shelters are said to protect up to 600 degrees.
“A really intense fire will get up to 1,600 degrees,” Maclean said. “The simple explanation right now is it looks like an act of nature. The fire won this time.”
Maclean spent more than five hours Monday answering media inquiries, and the awful fates of the firefighters in what he termed “a horrendous event” was foremost in his thoughts.
“The bigger picture is that these acts of nature have become more frequent and more violent, and it’s not going to stop,” he predicted. “It’s not going to get better. It’s going to get worse, and one of the reasons it’s going to get worse in the Northwest where we are is that there’s too goddamn much timber out there that ought to be cut or burned deliberately.”
Timber sale after timber sale, and prescribed burn after prescribed burn, are being stopped, he said. The woods are full of tinder. Couple that with longer and hotter fire seasons due to a variety of reasons, including climate change, beetle kill and drought and the outlook isn’t rosy.
Most people don’t realize it, but on his recent drive from the East to Colorado and Montana, Maclean learned firsthand that the Midwest is revisiting the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.
“There are dust storms that block out interstate highways, there are photographs of tsunami waves of dust. It’s just like the 1930s,” he said. “People ignored the Dust Bowl in the 1930s just like they are ignoring it now, until a great big cloud blew all the way across the country and landed on New York and Boston.”
He also likened the current conditions to those of 1910.
The so-called Big Blowup of August 1910 in Idaho and Montana burned more than 3 million acres and resulted in the deaths of some 85 designated wildland firefighters. In those terms, Sunday’s Yarnell Hill fire disaster is the worst since then.
Maclean’s next book, which won’t be out for a few years, will include a study of the Griffith Park wildfire in Los Angeles in 1933 that claimed the lives of 29 firefighters. Media reports on Monday were calling the Arizona fire the deadliest since then, but Maclean said it’s not an apt comparison.
The deaths in ’33 were of the men of a Depression-era road crew, hired by Los Angeles’ Department of Charity and pressed into duty fighting the Griffith Park fire.
“They were not designated firefighters,” the author said.
Maclean, who retired in 1995 after 30 years as the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, helped see that his father Norman’s last manuscript was published after the elder Maclean’s death in 1990. “Young Men and Fire” scrutinized the Mann Gulch disaster in 1949 that killed 12 smokejumpers.
John Maclean has since written a highly acclaimed treatment of the South Canyon, or Storm King, fire in Colorado in 1994, which killed 14 firefighters, including crew chief Don Mackey of Hamilton. He detailed the Rattlesnake fire in California in 1953 that claimed 15 lives, and the Thirtymile fire in north-central Washington in 2001, when four firefighters died.
Maclean arrived in Montana in June to vacation and promote his latest book about the arson-caused Esperanza fire in 2006 in California, which was released earlier this year and immediately drew interest – and a contract – from Legendary Pictures, which intends to adapt it to a full-length feature film.
The Arizona fire, Maclean said Monday, is “an echo of Esperanza and it’s an echo of the South Canyon fire in ’94.”
Those were “big wind” events that occurred in chaparral-like vegetation, in times of drought and extreme heat, although the two previous fires couldn’t rival the temperatures that soared well over 100 degrees near the small town of Yarnell, Ariz., over the weekend.
More details were emerging by the hour, but the Yarnell Hill fire raged uncontained on Monday and had destroyed homes or more.
Maclean said it’s “probably not a bad time” to revisit a long-standing debate about the need to protect structures when conditions are at their worst. The priorities of firefighting are life first, followed by property and forest values.
“But perhaps it should be taken into account on a formal policy level now that we are in a different world,” he said. “If you ask people to defend homes and structures that run a risk inherently higher than they used to be, you should take that into account whether you’re going to do it.
“That doesn’t mean you don’t do it. It means you start taking this into account in a risk analysis and do it more seriously. And that is no disrespect to the Hotshots who were killed.”