december 2017
Cover. Megafire by Michael Kodas.

“Megafire: The race to extinguish a deadly epidemic of flame.” by Michael Kodas. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Aug 22, 2017.

Reflection by Michael Kodas

I had never seen a wildfire when, as a young journalist, I heard about one breaking out over the police scanner in my car. I raced to the scene envisioning mountainsides covered with flaming forests, without considering the fact that the site where the fire was located in northern Connecticut had neither the mountains nor the forests to support such a blaze.

I hopped a couple of fences to get to the point where I could photograph a dozen men digging a line around a small grass fire. A few minutes later I found myself being dragged away from the blaze by a big man with a badge. I’d strayed onto the grounds of one of the state’s correctional facilities. All of the firefighters were prisoners and the man who tackled me was one of their guards.

As I was being dragged away, the wind picked up and the flames blew up, nearly overrunning one of the firefighters. As he ran for his life, I tried to aim a camera to capture the drama, fully anticipating that the guard would put a hand in front of the camera lens or handcuff me to keep me from doing so. Instead, he lifted me up and stepped back, allowing me to make a series of photos of the inmate escaping the flames. Then the fire subsided, the inmate went back to work and the guard pushed me back over the fence I’d jumped to get to the fire.

Getting thrown out of prison while attempting to cover a wildfire was, when I thought about it later, an indication of how naïve and clueless I was about the fires that burn on our vegetated landscapes. But in the coming years, I realized that the bigger misconception was that any wildfire worth responding to would be a huge conflagration with flames leaping hundreds of feet into the air burning thousands of acres of forest.

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Michael Kodas

When I began researching “megafires” I had a similar misconception. The very word, to me, implied something huge. The U.S. Forest Service, when it defined a megafire as any fire larger than 100,000 acres, encouraged my expectation that only big fires deserved the “mega” title.

Then, as I moved into a cabin in a park overlooking Boulder, Colorado on Labor Day, 2010, the Fourmile Canyon Fire broke out nearby. It was the first of four fires in four years that would break the “most destructive” fire record in Colorado. I covered each of those fires. But, although they did hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and destroyed more than 1,000 homes, none of them came close to meeting the Forest Service’s 100,000-acre size requirement to be classified as a megafire.

Then, just as the smoke cleared from the Black Forest Fire, the last of those record-breaking fires in Colorado, the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona killed 19 of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, AZ. It’s hard to imagine a fire with greater costs or impacts. Yet that fire burned less than 10 percent of the amount of land required to meet the Forest Service standard of a megafire.

In the meantime, we’ve seen a number of fires that exceed the Forest Service’s 100,000-acre megafire standard that burned largely in remote wildernesses where such fires have burned for centuries and where they are often helping to make the forests healthier, improve wildlife habitat and reducing the severity of fires that come after them.

By the time I’d finished my reporting, I had come to believe that small fires that destroy homes, deteriorate resources like watersheds, damage infrastructure like power grids or kill a number of residents or firefighters have the potential to be far more “mega” than the big fires far from human habitation — or the ones in my imagination. Mega, I realized, should be a measure of a fire’s impacts rather than its size.


Quotes from Megafire

“Fire in its myriad forms remains humanity’s most powerful tool and technology ….With the west certain to have much more fire, we’ll increasingly be faced with choices about what kind of relationship we have with it, rather than whether we allow it to burn at all.”


“The seed of mythology planted a century ago in the wreckage of the Big Blowup grew into a deeply rooted tree with myriad legends branching off it. One was that we could eradicate natural fire from forests and fields as if it were an unwanted pest. Another, written in the sky over the flames, convincing the public and politicians that planes and retardant could contain every forest fire. Yet another was that new technologies—better fire shelters, more powerful computers—could allow men and women to stand up to conflagrations that were growing larger, faster, and hotter. Then there was the dogma that loggers and grazing animals could take the place of flames in maintaining the forest. And finally there was the delusion that we could build our homes ever deeper into the nation’s most flammable landscapes without facing any consequences.

“If the deaths of Eric Marsh and the Granite Mountain Hotshots trimmed a few branches from that tangled tree of legends, it could save lives and homes in the future. Cutting down that towering tree altogether, however, will require America to see past the fantasies inspired by the dancing flames.”


Michael Kodas is deputy director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, award-winning photojournalist and reporter, and author of the book High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed.