SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, California—It’s the morning of June 13, and Ben Jacobs, a former elite wildland firefighter, is hiking through a forest in California’s Sequoia National Park. Though smoke is all around him, and fires are working through bushes and trees nearby, Jacobs is unconcerned. So are the rest of the almost 90 firefighters under his command who are spread around this part of Redwood Canyon. Nobody is doing anything to extinguish the smoldering embers underfoot. One is warming a tinfoil-wrapped muffin in the coals. Another, lounging against a tree that’s around 3,000 years old, stops Jacobs to commiserate over the Dodgers’ most recent loss. “F--king Giants,” Jacobs says. He’s in a bit of a mood.
In a few minutes, Jacobs, a small man of 58 with glasses and sharp features weathered by a life outdoors, meets up with Tony Caprio, fire ecologist for the park. Caprio stares blankly at the white smoke bubbling up from a mat of pine needles. The burn looks scabby. Some needles are ash, but most are only partially blackened. A log next to him hasn’t caught fire at all.
“Hoping this takes off some,” Caprio says to Jacobs. “I’d like to see some of these heavies get going.”
Jacobs and the firefighters’ cool can be explained by the fact that they want the canyon to burn. He and Caprio are the architects of one of the country’s most progressive prescribed burning programs. A couple days ago they set 40 acres of America’s most treasured forest ablaze. Their goal today is to light another 720, a pinhole on the quilt of flammable Western lands, on fire, but with the woods damp from an un-forecast thunderstorm that hit two nights ago and the humidity up around 60 percent, nothing is quite going to plan.
Prescribed fires are human-lit blazes designed to mimic the effects of natural wildfires by thinning out forests. After a century of a national policy to aggressively extinguish wildfires that would have burned saplings and brush, saving larger trees from exposure to hotter flames, America’s woods have grown thick with plants. The extra fuel is adding to a mounting crisis of climate change, beetle infestations, and human incursion into wildlands that is busting budgets, destroying billions of dollars’ worth of property and killing firefighters like the men and women working for Jacobs and Caprio. Most fire managers consider prescribed blazes, such as this one in Sequoia National Park, the single most effective antidote to pending disaster. But for a mess of ecological and political reasons, they’re incredibly hard to pull off.
Planning this burn took Jacobs, a fuels management specialist, 13 years—a third of his career. Apart from the bureaucratic tangle, the conditions for a prescribed burn need to be just right. Around us, manzanita thickets, incense cedar, and white fir create a ladder of flammable material that reaches from ankle height 285 feet to the top of the sequoias. Caprio says regular fires here used to keep the number of trees to around 50 per acre. Now, he estimates, there are around 3,000. To burn off some of that excess fuel without killing the sequoias and creating a megafire like the Rim, which rendered 250,000 acres of forest 70 miles north of here into spent matchstick in 2013, takes a light touch and weather conditions—warm, not hot; dry, not drought—different from what Jacobs faces this morning.
Jacobs gives Caprio a what-a-mess head shake and swings his rhino—a hoe-like tool—into a rotten log. He grabs a handful of punky wood from inside and twists it like a dishrag. Water squirts out, and the ash at Jacobs’ feet hisses. Jacobs came out of retirement to execute this burn. Now he has only three days remaining in the window given him by the San Joaquin Valley Air District, which has to approve all prescribed fires in the area, to finish the blaze. There’s nothing to do but wait for the weather to dry out.
“Maybe this afternoon,” he says hopefully.
FULL COVERAGE: Fight for the Forests
When the U.S. Forest Service instituted a policy of immediate suppression of all fires in the early 20th century, it upset a natural cycle of burning and rebirth. Giant sequoias, for example, won’t release their seeds until a fire’s heat opens up their cones; some species of beetles breed only in smoldering wildfires. Nowadays when forests burn (and all forests eventually burn), the fires are hotter than the forest species are accustomed to. Hotter flames penetrate thick bark that withstood fire for centuries; trees that shed their lower branches so they don’t catch in small fires see their high branches ignite, which spreads the flames farther and faster.
The task of forest managers today is figuring out how to make America’s woods resilient in the face of an uncertain future. Climatologists predict the West will get between four and six degrees warmer by century’s end under a business-as-usual emissions scenario. In California, a single degree of warming is associated with a 35 percent increase in fire activity. Most experts think there’s little hope of returning the woods to their historical fire regime but aim to get as close to it as the public will tolerate. The lodgepole forests outside Nederland, Colorado, for instance, only burned every 100 years in their natural cycle. But those fires, like the one that leveled eight homes there in July, destroyed entire forests completely, which is not an environment people move to Colorado for.
“The longer we keep fire from the landscape, the harder it is to get it back” has become an adage in the fire services, one that Dan Buckley, the National Park Service’s fire director, echoes: “We have to manage the overstocking of fuels we have now, or we’re liable to cook off ecosystems that are never going to recover.”
One method of restoring forests is with partial logging. The administration of George W. Bush floated that idea as the Healthy Forests Initiative in 2003 and was pilloried by environmentalists and others who saw in the forest management strategy a nefarious plot by timber companies that had donated to his campaign; it never got off the ground. Another way is mechanical thinning—going in with tractors and chain saws. But that’s expensive, and half-tracks don’t leave a light footprint; nor can they go just anywhere. Managed fire—letting naturally occurring fires burn under close supervision—is less of an option as there is zero appetite for torched houses and $237 billion worth of homes tucked into nearly every forested pocket of the West. That leaves prescribed fire.
But it’s the most controversial of these landscape fuel treatments.
One problem is the public doesn’t trust that firefighters can control the flames they light. In Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 2000, an escaped prescribed burn destroyed 400 homes and cost $1 billion by the time it was all done. Tight budgets are creating even less wiggle room for forest managers. Last year was the costliest ever for firefighting, with the most acres burned on record. It was also the fifth time since 2000 that record has been broken and the 16th year in a row the Forest Service has spent very near $1 billion or more fighting fires. As the federal agencies pour money onto wildfires, they have less of it to spend on the preventive measures—prescribed fires, thinning—that scientists say are the best way to control fire size and limit firefighting spending. These days, there are no easy answers.
“There’s all this criticism and fear about prescribed fire—it’s too smoky, too dangerous. Everybody has the luxury to sit back and complain about the smoke in the air,” says Mark Finney, a research forester for the Forest Service. “Professionals bear all the responsibility for trying to persuade the public that we have to take actions today or see extreme wildfires tomorrow.”
Wet clouds are piling up against the Sierra foothills. “Yeah, those f--king things,” Jacobs says. It’s noon, and the humidity has to drop another 20 percent before the woods become dry enough to carry fire. Jacobs and a small group of firefighters are perched on a granite outcrop with a long view of Redwood Canyon transitioning into the grasslands of the San Joaquin Valley 5,000 feet below and 20 miles away. While Jacobs waits for the conditions to dry out, he kindles a cooking fire and brews a cup of coffee in his Sierra cup while he fields radio calls.
“We need bar oil,” he tells a dispatcher, requesting that chain saw fuel be helicoptered in for the firefighters. Then, to clarify, he says, “Like, I go to the bar and order oil.”
Jacobs says he found prescribed fire like others find religion. After a decade as a member of a hotshot crew—firefighters who may spend 120 days out of the year fighting the most destructive blazes—he grew disillusioned with the job: “We were putting out fires that we should have let burn.” Fed up, he accepted a position at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks in 2002, managing fuels through landscape treatments instead of keeping them from burning, and stayed in his “dream job” until he retired last year. Two weeks ago, when the weather conditions aligned, the Park Service flew him back to Sequoia from his home in Washington, D.C., to burn this patch of forest. He’s one of just 218 firefighters nationwide qualified to ignite prescribed fires of this complexity.
“We really ought to be burning all of this,” Jacobs says, pointing down Redwood Canyon but meaning most of the West. Why land managers can’t is no mystery to him. Today’s operation, named the Goliath Burn after a log that could plug a train tunnel, is the final piece of a 3,500-acre prescribed fire project in Redwood Canyon that Jacobs and Caprio started back in 2003. They broke the area into seven units, about half of which hadn’t seen fire in 120 years of recorded history. Each was already partially circumscribed with trails, roads, or creeks, which serve as fuel breaks, and was close enough to roads that firefighters could access the unit on foot. They made each unit smaller than 1,000 acres to minimize smoke and maximize control and planned to burn one at a time, moving clockwise around the canyon so that each fire created a fuel break to help control the next. Once the perimeter was secure, Goliath, the most remote of the units, would be surrounded by blackened fuels and lit last. “We wanted to call it the Big EZ,” Jacobs says. “But management thought that was a bad omen.”