The Yarnell Hill Fire – One Year Later

Certain wildfires have literally changed the nature of firefighting in the US. Such fires, often at the cost of numerous lives and substantial property damage, have increased our understanding of fire behavior as well as procedures for fighting wildland fires more safely and efficiently. 

The 1910 Big Blowup fire, 1949 Mann Gulch fire, and the 2013 Yarnell Hill fire all fit in this category. The Big Blowup in August 1910 (1910 Fire – Forest Service History) burned over 3 million acres in northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana. The fire also resulted in 87 deaths (most of them firefighters), and the total loss of several towns in the area. The fire was eventually extinguished, not by the over-matched Forest Service, but by a cold front that delivered steady rain. The Big Blowup fire resulted in a paramilitary organization for the US Forest Service’s fire fighting forces, and a policy of suppressing all fires as quickly as possible. In fact, the enormous losses from the Big Blowup resulted in policies designed to remove fire from the landscape entirely. Dr. Stephen Pyne published an essay discussing this change in policy, from “let it burn” to “put them all out” (1910 Fire – “The Source”).

In August, 1949, the Mann Gulch fire in Montana (Mann Gulch – Forest Service History), (Mann Gulch – General) took the lives of 13 smokejumpers when high winds caused the fire to expand; at one point covering 3,000 acres in 10 minutes. Norman Maclean told the story of these heroic fire fighters in Young Men and Fire (1992). During the fire, the foreman of the smokejumpers, Wagner Dodge, saw that his group could not outrun the advancing fire, and burned an open, grassy area to provide a refuge in which his crew could survive. Mr. Dodge’s actions added a new tool for firefighter survival, that of “burning out” fuel in an area, and then using the area as a refuge.The US Forest Service designed new training techniques and safety procedures that again changed how wildland fire fighters attacked blazes. This fire also resulted in a new emphasis on research in fire behavior and fire ecology.

Last year’s Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona has also provided valuable lessons in wildland fire behavior and fire fighter safety, but at an enormous cost since 19 Hotshot fire fighters lost their lives. The Los Angeles Times has published a two-part series on that fire which details both the heroic dedication of those who fought the fire and the tragic losses that were suffered. This article (LA Times – Yarnell Hill Fire) is definitely worth a read!!


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