At the beginning of what’s expected to be a record-breaking wildfire season in California, a photo of a firefighter who has battled flames in Big Sur’s Willow Fire is becoming a symbol of the foreboding 2021 wildfire season.
Justin Grunewald, his face and clothing covered in ash, appears exhausted, resting for what was likely a brief moment amid a stream of grueling days.
Grunewald is what’s known as a hotshot, a member of a U.S. Forest crew trained to battle wildfires under the most dangerous conditions. As a captain with the Mill Creek hotshots, he has been hiking miles daily to access the remote Willow Fire that has grown to nearly 3,000 acres in a week.
“In the wildland arena, the hotshots are the All Stars,” said Steve Rasmussen, a spokesperson for the Willow Incident. “The Los Padres National Forest where the Willow Fire is…it’s very steep, rugged terrain, inaccessible in many parts. For several days now hot shot crews were flown into remote areas to access the fire and they’re also hiking in. It’s hot, it’s dry, it’s steep, it’s rugged, it’s dangerous and they train for it.”
So sad that this year was a brutal start of the wildfire season in California. Last year was bad also and the fires touched different parts of the PCT that this year hikers had to go around with getting a hitchhike or simple road walk around it. Next year there will be closures and alternative routes if the PCTA can get agreements with landowners to bypass some of the places where there is a fire closure so the area can start to heal. The size of the fires was crazy especially the Dixie Fire. California closed all state and national parks leaving all the people trying to hike the PCT Southbound… it made them have to leave the trail and go home or move to other trails not affected to still get some hiking in. So sad for everyone who lost homes and also the devastating effect on wildlife and the land itself.
New York Times Article About Fighting The Dixie Fire
By Brent McDonald, Sashwa Burrous, Eden Weingart and Meg Felling
October 11, 2021
SUSANVILLE, Calif. — One grew to a size larger than Rhode Island and leveled a Gold Rush-era town. Another swelled to a quarter million acres as it came within a few miles of Lake Tahoe. Another burned down 900 buildings and was the first ever to reach a million acres.
In the past two years, California has found itself under siege from more large-scale fires burning with greater intensity than at any time on record. Giant blazes are tearing across the state with greater speed and frequency, destroying towns and sending smoke hurtling hundreds of miles away. Nine of California’s 20 largest fires have occurred since 2020, according to Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency. Four of them are still burning. The fires have forced state and federal officials to marshal armies of people and resources at all cost.
The Dixie fire shows that as wildfires have grown in size, so has the magnitude of the effort to combat them. But as government budgets become strained and extreme drought and the effects of climate change alter the landscape, battling megafires — massive blazes that spread quickly and burn at high intensity — is increasingly costly, raising questions about the long-term sustainability of the firefight.
In late August, New York Times journalists shadowed emergency crews in a remote forested area of Northern California as they battled the Dixie fire, which at nearly a million acres is the second largest fire in state history. Over several weeks, the operation grew to a scale rarely seen before: Thousands of personnel were deployed, as well as hundreds of bulldozers, aircraft and other equipment, along with millions of gallons of water and flame retardant. Officials spent more than $610 million over three months to bring the fire under control — by far the most expensive suppression campaign in California history, according to the head of Cal Fire.
At the height of the operation, 6,579 people worked around the clock to battle the Dixie fire.
The command center at the Lassen County Fairgrounds appeared like a small town that sprung up overnight. It was filled with offices in trailers, catering stations, fueling areas, laundry services, sleeping tents and parking spots for many of the 569 fire engines and 194 water trucks working on Aug. 16, when the operation was at its peak.
Each morning at 7 a.m., hundreds of firefighters, bulldozer operators and pilots gathered under a poplar grove for a daily briefing. Some crew members wore sweatshirts bearing the names of past big fires like badges of honor: Creek fire, Camp fire, Lightning Complex. Dixie already had one, too.
At the time, the Dixie fire, one of a growing number of wildfires that had broken out across the American West, spanned five counties, threatening nearby communities and spewing smoke into the atmosphere. Kristen Allison, a 25-year veteran firefighter who was stationed 70 miles away, struggled to comprehend the scale.
“Fifteen years ago, a 100,000-acre fire would be the largest fire of your career. Now, we have one-million-acre fires,” Ms. Allison said. “We’re the size of Rhode Island, working toward Delaware.”
“Meanwhile, there are five other 100,000-acre fires burning right now in Northern California,” Allison added. “Even if we had all the resources we wanted, we would not be able to contain these fires.”
At the fire’s peak, 198 bulldozers worked to contain it, helping cut 1,792 miles of fire breaks.
Much of the fight against the Dixie fire was a gruelling and dirty effort to head off future burn: As many as 89 hand crews on a single day burned ground cover and carved so-called line breaks — barriers to slow or stop the progress — through the forest. Bulldozers, many of which were operated by contractors for upward of $7,000 a day, cleared wide swaths of trees and flammable vegetation. Strike teams laid those dozer lines with fire hose and stood guard, often through the night, to prevent the fire from jumping over.
Fueled by a combination of high winds, mountainous terrain and dry conditions, Dixie shows how the scale of wildfires has dramatically increased. In 2010, 72,000 fires in the United States burned 3.4 million acres; last year, 59,000 fires burned 10.1 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Trying to put out Dixie sometimes felt like an exercise in futility. It routinely leapt over breaks, and a team led by Sarah Collamer, a Cal Fire equipment boss from Santa Cruz, worked to clear them.
Air attack — deploying planes and helicopters to drop water and retardant — is often the costliest part of any large wildfire operation.
Aircraft have dropped about 21 million gallons of flame retardant mixture on the Dixie fire, at a cost of $4.62 per gallon. The aircraft themselves cost more than $1 million a day in the initial weeks of the fire.
“They call me the most expensive man on the fire,” said Matt Stanford, the air operation branch director at Cal Fire base camp. “Every day, costs come in, and I’m on the top of the heap.”
Some critics argue that retardant, a mixture of water and phosphate salts often used as a fertilizer, does more damage than good. The U.S. Forest Service restricts use around waterways to avoid fish kills and algae blooms.
Despite the trade-offs, air attacks are the most visible show of force and can cover lots of ground quickly. The candy-coloured liquid retardant lingers long after water has evaporated and is more effective at lowering a fire’s intensity so that crews can engage on the ground.
When the smoke thickens, planes are grounded, forcing aviation chiefs to use large helicopters that can fly under the smoke — though they hold smaller quantities of water or retardant. Under heavy smoke conditions, helicopters, too, are grounded.
“You get pressure from the public and politicians to put aircraft on the fire,” Mr. Stanford added. “I’m doing battle on the ground being told, ‘Why aren’t you flying?’”
In all, 78 helicopters and 77 planes were deployed to the Dixie fire.
Even before the Dixie fire was close to contained, Cal Fire began diverting resources from it. While crews were using drip torches to burn off dry ground cover that could feed oncoming flames, some personnel were reassigned to the Caldor fire, which was racing up the Sierra Nevada mountains toward South Lake Tahoe, one of California’s premier tourist destinations.
The Caldor fire stopped within just a few hundred meters of South Lake Tahoe, and the town was spared.
California pays for large wildfire responses through an emergency fund with no set limit on spending. In recent decades, the percentage of the U.S. Forest Service budget spent on wildfires increased to 50 percent from 20 percent, and in 2021 the Forest Service received a $2 billion budget for wildfires. State and federal officials threw every resource possible at both megafires.
Timothy Ingalsbee, who co-founded Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, a group that pushes for stronger land management practices, has argued that over the long term many of the tactics employed by emergency crews hurt forest land, which benefits from periodic controlled fires.
“We’re fighting fires under the worst conditions rather than lighting fires under the best conditions,” Mr. Ingalsbee added. “There are 10,000 firefighters on the line in California, trying to keep people safe. What would those 10,000 be able to do to apply fire in the winter or spring to yield the best ecological effects — and a very different set of costs?”
Thom Porter, who leads Cal Fire, said he supports more wildfire prevention strategies but that the reality during this high fire season doesn’t allow for it.
“The efforts that we put in are absolutely necessary,” Mr. Porter said. “There is no choice but to fight a fire when the fire is going. We’re seeing entire centers of towns burn up, historic centers of towns, like Greenville,” he added, referring to the city that burned.
Since July, California has spent $1.1 billion trying to put out fires.
President Biden, who has called wildfires “a blinking code red for our nation,” has made fire suppression a priority of his infrastructure bill, pledging to increase federal funding and military assistance. During a joint conference with Gov. Gavin Newsom in September, the president said the bipartisan bill would include $8 billion for wildfire resilience and promised to provide California with “every resource available to keep families safe.”
“It’s a great starting point” Mr. Porter said, adding that he welcomed more investment by the federal government while acknowledging that it’s impossible to put out megafires under certain weather conditions, no matter the number of firefighters and flame retardant.
As of Sunday, fires had burned more than 2.8 million acres across the state. The end of fire season is still weeks away.
These two graphs from the New York Times blows me away…
Hiking Through The Smoke
Like many summers with bad fires… the smoke can be very bad and the state agencies recommend people to close their windows at home and don’t do anything active or strenuous outside. When you are thru-hiking… that is your “every day”… so it’s incredibly tough to deal with.
Hiking in the smoke has pushed lots of hikers off-trail to come back another year. Some hikers stuck it out and got off trail on days it was really bad with the smoke. No idea what our year will be like.