“Megafire: The race to extinguish a deadly epidemic of flame.” Michael Kodas.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Aug 22, 2017. http://www.hmhco.com/shop/books/Megafire/9780547792088#
Review by Richard McCrea
In Megafire, Michael Kodas, deputy director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado and an award-winning journalist, succeeds in examining large wildland fires in the United States and other countries, and how they are impacting our environment, and society. Megafire is sweeping in scope and a real page turner.
The author’s objective in reporting on the fires was to learn what was driving fires to be so much larger, faster, hotter and more destructive. And he brings his own story with fire to help shape the frame: “I covered my first forest fire nearly 30 years before the Valley Fire  burned my brother’s home. I fought fires in the Rocky Mountains a decade before the Fourmile Canyon Fire blazed outside Boulder. But the new fires were different from the ones I’d photographed, reported on, and fought years before.”
Kodas melds interviews from the fire ground with scientific studies and outlines the multiple impacts from megafires. Megafire, the book, brings us directly and personally to the fire scene with interviews of firefighters, fire managers, researchers and the general public. Kodas, who was a firefighter himself, scouted the fires of the last decade and returned with a rucksack full of interviews, ideas, perceptive insights and research information that cover the challenges we have been facing due to the ever-increasing size, duration and intensity of the flames. His well-honed pen delves into what we are probably going to face in the future, which is probably even larger fires than we have experienced the last decade or more.
Kodas succinctly defines the term “megafire” and details how fires are becoming much larger, spreading rapidly, blazing for longer durations, burning with greater intensity and greatly impacting the forested environment and the wildland urban interface. The larger tragedy is the effects on families who have lost their homes or loved ones to the flames. Kodas goes on to say “Since the turn of the millennium four different years saw more than 9 million acres burn–record amounts of land that were unthinkable just a few decades ago.”
At a 2011 conference in Florida, Jerry Williams, the former director of aviation and fire with the US Forest, gave a speech and coined the term megafires. At that conference scientists predicted that in some years the amount of land burned in an average year would be seven times larger than in the 1970s. Williams, who led a study of eight large fires for the UN around the world. observed that “It seems like every year we are a ‘worst one.’ And the next year we see a worse one yet. They’re unbounded.”
The main setting of Megafires is Colorado and takes place during the epic fire sieges of 2010 to 2015 but Kodas also evaluates other large fires in several states across the west and foreign countries. Indeed, Colorado has seen some of the worst blazes and the State broke its record for the largest fire ever, four times in four years, beginning in 2010. Other areas of the US and countries have seen similar patterns and the trend of more acres being torched each year is well documented. Since 2000 more than a dozen US States have reported the largest wildfires in their recorded histories.
The author provides four main arguments why fires are getting larger:
- The management of our forest lands has left many of them overloaded with far more vegetation or fuels than naturally grew in them.
- The wildland urban interface continues to rapidly expand into flammable landscapes providing another fuel load in the form of homes and infrastructure.
- The warming and drying climate has primed many wildland fuels to burn and has expanded fire seasons by months.
- Political and economic decisions intended to deal with wildfires drove the flames as often as they snuffed them.
Kodas also explores how the financial costs of fighting fires has exploded during that last decade while at the same time funding for treating hazard fuels has been reduced. From 1995 to 2015 spending on wildfires increased from around $300 million to $1.5 billion annually and the trend continues upward. Between 2002 and 2014, the Forest Service and the Department of Interior diverted $3.2 billion from research, forest health, and recreation to fighting fires.
Megafire concisely recounts one of the most gunch-wrenching episode of our firefighting history, with the Yarnell Hill tragedy of 2013 when 19 members of the Granite Hotshot Crew were overrun by a ferocious wall of flame, in a fuel choked canyon. Kodas states:
“As I chased fires across Colorado and around the world, each conflagration illuminated at least one of the drivers of the world’s crisis of fire. But all of them came to play on Yarnell Hill, Arizona, where a small blaze killed the greatest number of professional wildland firefighters in US history. Whereas my first trip to research what was bringing an exponential increase in wildfires to the planet had left me with more questions than answers, my last stop showed what is at stake if we fail to answer them.”
Megafires was a fascinating read because the personal interviews and the on-scene reporting which makes the reader feel like they were there. Scattered through several chapters are statistics and references to research publications that support the theme of this book. The future of the wildland fire fight seems pretty clear if changes aren’t made and we need to sharpen our shovels and management plans and push the big reset button on public policy.
One of the maxims of firefighting is Standard Firefighting Order # 2: “Know what your fire is doing at all times.”
The author has more than succeeded in his reconnaissance of the fire landscape, providing us with a complete picture of what our fires have been doing for the last decade or more. Larger fires may mean even higher firefighting costs, significant environment degradation, and increased human tragedy if we continue on our current path.
Throwing even more money at conflagrations, torching hazard fuels reduction budgets instead of managing hazard fuels, reducing the federal firefighting workforce while thoughtlessly stuffing more houses in the woods — these are certainly not the answers. What we learn from Michael Kodas and Megafire echo our own experiences, all of which tell us that we need to dispel such myths as the 10 AM policy and the illusion that large fires can be suppressed by just chucking more firefighters and air tankers into the fray … and instead we need to anchor our land and fire management practices to the bedrock of solid science and research.
Reviewer Rich McCrea works as a wildland fire management consultant and freelance writer. He worked 32 years with the Department of Interior in fire management and forestry, starting out as a seasonal employee with the Forest Service and a member of the Helena Hotshot Crew, then moved on to permanent positions with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a Forester and Fire Management Officer, including over 24 years as a fire behavior analyst.