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 Jul 7 - 13, 2011 
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News Feature

Flame Wars

A year unlike any other

By Elise Kaplan

The helicopter used by wildland firefighter Jessica Hall’s team, Sandia Helitack. Behind the chopper, the Monument Fire burns.
Jessica Hall
The helicopter used by wildland firefighter Jessica Hall’s team, Sandia Helitack. Behind the chopper, the Monument Fire burns.
The Coronado National Forest in southern Arizona looks like a scene from the apocalypse. Ashes rain down, and a thick, black column of smoke blots out the sun. The air is dry, and everything is ready to burn. Flames from the Monument Fire race downhill, charring the earth. The still-active fire has burned more than 30,000 acres according to InciWeb.org, a fire incident information system. Since its start on June 12, the inferno has roared along with other large Arizona blazes, including the Wallow and Horseshoe fires.

The Monument Fire in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest
Jessica Hall
The Monument Fire in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest
“At this point the fire behavior is like nothing we've ever seen,” says Jessica Hall, 31, a wildlands firefighter. “Although we know how to fight fire really well, and we've gotten really good at it, this type of season is so intense and unpredictable. A lot of our methods that would work another year are really ineffective.”

A number of factors influenced the severity of the fires this year, including dry weather conditions and an extended windy season. Hall says Arizona's humidity levels reached a new low, hovering between 1 percent and 5 percent this summer.

“We can slow the fire down the best we can, but in these conditions there's not much we can do to stop it,” Hall says.

Recent rain showers have been too scattered to dampen large blazes. Plus, rainstorms bring their own problems. When monsoon season hits, the areas that suffered the most fire damage lack vegetation to protect the soil from erosion.

“Since the air is so dry, having some humidity in the air would certainly help,” she says. “But there would have to be steady rain for a week all over the state for it to really stop anything.”

“This type of season is so intense and unpredictable. A lot of our methods that would work another year are really ineffective.”

Wildlands firefighter Jessica Hall

While water acts as the most effective force against structural fires, large forest blazes call for other tools. Wildland firefighters use chain saws to remove anything that can burn from the fire’s path.

“There would have to be steady rain for a week all over the state for it to really stop anything.”

Wildlands firefighter Jessica Hall

“Fire needs heat, fuel and oxygen,” Hall says. “If you take the fuel away, the fire won’t burn anymore. There's a lot of digging involved.”

Wildlands lack a convenient water source for firefighters to hook up to. Plus, Hall says it would take an ocean to put out a blaze that’s spread over hundreds of thousands of acres.

“It's kind of the same animal, but it's a completely different environment,” she says. “Our fires get to such a large scale that that kind of tactic isn't really effective for us.”

The wildland firefighters work from the outside in and eliminate any potential fuel source such as grass, wood, pines or other flammable objects.

Hall explains that a contained fire has stopped progressing but remains at risk of jumping the containment lines. The lines can vary between 6 inches to a mile in width, depending on the size of the fire.

“When the fires get that massive—even with hundreds of people on them—there's no way to ensure that they're not going to cause any more damage or spread any more until there's snow on them,” she says.

A fire can burn for months before the firefighters deem it “out.” Out means there's no heat left on the scene and no chance of re-ignition.

As of press time, the Monument fire was 98 percent contained according to InciWeb. Highways often act as containment lines, but a strong fire can jump over two lanes of tar.

Outside of Sierra Vista, Ariz., Hall's team had a close call when the fire front leapt over the highway and flared up 50 feet to create a tunnel of flames around their truck. “In the sense that we all love what we do, it was kind of neat,” she says. “But then we get back to the airport and find out how many structures were lost, and all that adrenaline goes away.”

The No. 1 priority for all firefighters is saving people and buildings from harm. “Watching a fire race down a hill and take out 80 structures, you feel so helpless,” Hall says. “You feel like you're there to help, and all you want to do is stop that from happening, and there it is happening in front of you.”

Occasionally people believe they can wait out a fire without leaving their home despite evacuation orders. This move endangers their lives, as well as the firefighters who have sworn to protect them, Hall says.

“The government can say evacuations are mandatory, but we can’t come and force you out of your house,” she says. “I don't care how great a garden hose you have on your roof, it's not going to help. We've got airplanes and big helicopters and hundreds and hundreds of people and huge fire engines, and we're not doing as much good as we want to.”

When the heartache and frustration get overwhelming, Hall reminds herself of why she chose this job six years ago.

“I get paid to work in the forest. I get to play in the woods for money,” she says. “We get to go to some of the most beautiful places on the planet and see them and actually go into places that a lot of people don't get to see.”

 
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