DiscoverRevealAmerica’s ring of fire

America’s ring of fire

Update: 2017-06-17
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Last fall, Reveal reporters predicted that wildfires would spread to new parts of the country, and  to more densely populated areas. Now, we revisit that hour with a new story about Kansas, a state that’s battling not only wildfires, but also significant underfunding of its forest firefighter team.


Head over to revealnews.org for more of our reporting.


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from the Center for investigative reporting in PR X This is reveal I'm Allison today we're going to revisit our fall because it will soon be wildfire season in many parts of the country and in some places it's already start so what does it take to make a CD burner in nineteen sixty one Bel Air found out it sits in the hills above Los Angeles and when a wildfire swept through neighborhoods there was and I L A Fire Department documentary made in the sixties was time for disaster plans with the trees and brush become crackling dry it shows seems that shocked people at the time of great wooden roofs and yards filled with overgrown vegetation that Fed claims as the fires swept through an exclusive neighborhood thousands fled their homes as fire crews struggled to contain the blaze they bought the one hundred and thirty dry Chaparral won the all within the city about one hundred craft by experts as the past the burning ground cover in the West and the cover of one of the greatest concentrations of high value homes in America series hundreds of homes were destroyed in the sixty one hundred acre fire store that still ranks among the twenty most damaging fires in California history by historian Stephen pine calls this the beginning of a new era in fighting wildfires the Bel Air fire really was a real stunner to have what was nominally City bar like this when most of the Industrial World you had to have an earthquake or war be able to shatter the system sufficiently to burn our chances of doing the fifty five years since Billy Byrd wildfires in city limits have become way more common but the question is why just how widespread are they that's what Eric cigar out wanted to find out he's a data journalist and revealed he spent about a year analyzing data at his desk and reporting in the field to figure out why more Americans are at risk of losing their homes and even their lives to wildfire there but in some way he carries with him when he heads out to cover fires so err yeah so in this bag we have some of the fire dinner we took with us on a road trip to Southern California it's a big jumble of mass here so we bring our fire boots when fire retardant pants and shirts gloves helmet and a fire shelter was a fire shelter to serve the fire shelters kind of the last resort for a firefighter in trouble in the wildfire situation and the way it works is the yank it out and they unfold this big massive thing in the to get under it read and so they get under it I've heard it called things like jiffy Pop bag shake and bake is like a jiffy Pop so we'll see the point these things they kick it up put on a fall down on the ground covered by and they're not supposed to get out no matter what doesn't is not even reporting on wood fires for a long time right yeah I've started reporting fires in the early two thousands and turn and I went so far as to go ahead and get trained as a wildland firefighter at least take the basic training levels what are you seeing differently because now you're just focused on where you look at the whole country right and this allows me than to go ahead and use my expertise as a data reporter to look at some of the data sets are out there covering this sort of issue and analyze some of the trends are saying basically fires are getting larger throughout the United States particularly in the West but throughout the United States we see an increase in fire size development have anything to do with all of this that does actually the population growth is huge in these areas right now and that's an issue so fires are now you are out getting a lot bigger and is spreading beyond the Wes happening all over the country because people are settling these wild areas actually see more damage to homes and more lives loss that's when Derek back in Los Angeles County where nowadays it's always fire season since the Bel Air fire there've been more than fifteen hundred other fires in California's most populated county he arrived in mid July last year just in time for what was known as the Sand Fire named after nearby seen K This is a hot fast fire and canyons were scattered neighborhoods dot The Angeles' National Forest three of us from reveal ride in a rented SUV along roads lined with Chaparral it to Bush the sweats flammable oil when it's warm we stopped where the road cuts through the hillside on the other side is just a wall of smoke back into a parking space and leave the engine running in case we need to leave quickly nearby a group of firefighters is planning the air attack or trying to keep it from Duff and the wind died down low in the end of the latte from the San Marcos Fire Department will the man had a fire is running the slop over said the fire from getting us the we have air support in their painting was to return soon a heavy lift helicopter hovers and low dropping loads of neon pink retardant from the sky by accident I get a mouthful the fire to The Even with the ground in their fight I can still see fire lurking around the mount friends including up on the ridgeline eye can see the fire torch into some larger brush about fifty feet away the catch of the Lehi case from the hillside as for the next to me who'd just on the other side of the hell a suburban neighborhood pushes into the wild area the the the directional or firefighters or position on the hill round infatuated called a sack ready to defend homes or something so post apocalyptic about a suburban neighborhood on the sunny day with no people sprinklers are running on the rooftops in a feeble attempt to keep their homes say the the firefighters lead to Schwab from Ventura County have partnered engines are scattered throughout the neighborhood just waiting for the fire hit I see other firefighters perched on rooftops they have a better view of the flames from there and can put any embers that fly their way home owners in this area have little fires like this many of clear brush around their houses to create what firefighters call defensible space the the the properties where they don't see that that it's it's difficult for us and it makes it dangerous dangerous and expensive in California cost seventeen dollars an acre to put out fires were wild man meets homes the Agriculture Department's inspector general reports that's more than twice what it cost to fight fires in force without Steven Klein has written twenty books examining all this we know how to keep houses from burning wood know that for a long time problem is more people than ever choose to live near nature to find out just how many people that is I analyzed a database from the University of Wisconsin has millions of records to help me pinpoint warehouses mingle with wildland found that more than a third of the nearly sixteen million homes built in the US since two thousand our places at risk of wildfires fires only ten percent contained with some twenty thousand evacuees are allowed to return home owner Shirley is one of them I asked her what does all this look like people have never seen a wild fire if the roles that loses its unpredictable at times exactly three different directions at the same time and in the winds would change and swirling use teenage hoping and praying it isn't getting it you know anybody this is the third one I can remember there was actually real threatening director in the past yes three times I restate its wonderful neighborhood it's wonderful community and we took her to and you know the odds are really so after three fires were still here as we drive away past the blackened landscape a column of smoke rises in the dirt brown sky to twelve days for firefighters to contain this and fire killed a man destroyed eighteen homes burned more than forty thousand acres and stripped the hillsides of every living thing The The The The one who fires like this don't happen to learn more or to see Wally Covington who heads the ecological restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University he looks like it all out orgy grandfather was a twinkle in his eye his research is change the way American smash force through technique she calls tree cutting down trees to from the forest setting controlled burns that kind of thing always tells me the hundred acre fires use to be outliers freak occurrence got to be a thousand acres people say well still some unusual events really dry year lightning hit the wrong place and so on but once it got into the every year during her out million acre millions of acres burning teacher and people said whoa something's bad here something to the two of us can swap the force divided by dirt path on one side large sin trees opines with or geo Park open landscape this is the way while the service for should look on the other side younger darker pine stand and what people call a darker patch dance like the hair on the back of a dog this is what many forced look like today while he studies the two sides and his outdoor laboratory where he tries to restore the forest to explain why he cures across much of stuff from a tree that began growing sixteen hundreds the rings in the stomach of the story of force policy over five hundred years in the middle of the stomp the tree was young its wings are wide indicating healthy growth then lightning struck in seventeen fifty seven from that time forward you can see the stump is lined with scars from fires all their seventeen seventy three seventeen eighty five eighteen o three so this force is supposed to burn every two to seven years under natural conditions that's eighteen thirty nine in eighteen fifty seven all told he can fires from seventeen fifty seven to eighteen seventy six then the fire stopped shortly after eighteen seventy six cattle and livestock raising began in earnest after and serious over grazing only point out the tree's rings got there as it continued to grow that's because I had to compete with more vegetation for the nutrients needed to stay alive this made it more vulnerable to insects drought and fire conditions like this affect millions of trees throughout the country this over grazing was actually encouraged by early foresters as a way to keep fire out of the force because fire was seen as the enemy now scientists say climate change will alter Fire TV throughout the United States what appeared to be wet or dry periods Trier storm to bring less rain and snow instead we'll see more lightning sparked wildfires and wind can drive flames with explosive force the story has still nationally than one where the stupid Westerners are putting houses for other farmers and that's true Steven Klein knows from experience he spent fifteen years as a wildland firefighter he's where he knew to keep his vacation home safe from a fire five years ago but if the climate change models are correct we're going to start seeing the fires go to where the houses are and that's going to be increasingly be on the east at that point it becomes a national story there's a lot of information about wildfires because there's more federal land there and the federal government keeps track of all that that the we know less about wildfires east because state and local fire agencies don't always track the same information that either we do have shows that seventy percent of wildfires occur outside of Western States one estimate says local firefighters responded nine hundred while first each day on average we also know many local departments are prepared for wildfires these fires are probably smaller than what we see on TV maker here maker there small grass fire by the side of the road may not seem like a big deal until reaches out of control politicians and were carried by an unexpected gust of wind that's what happened in South Carolina three years ago it never even crossed my mind that I can potentially lose everything to a fire Judy Aldridge has come to burn a fire had been more than seventy thousand fires interstate between nineteen eighty two and twenty thirteen he drove from one straight to the next trait you could look down and see flames imagine two story condo search for units in each building and there's nothing but flames and black smoke flames jump from bush to bush and building to building the melted the white picket fences that lined the streets I mean usually we get our smaller brush fires but other than that it had never been this huge danger that we had heard I don't really find a puppy called park and pretty much everything else baby pictures things from high school and you know some other things as a woman you hold on to a certain outfit because you remember and then was special to you that to things like that I can ever get back to the fire she trained to become a volunteer firefighter and got a better understanding of just how much the homes and the people who live in them are at risk I don't know if I'm more aware of it now but I do still like the number of fires have increased each year more fires mean more homes are likely to burn there's no getting around that says Jim Hubbard is the man in charge wildfires for the four service I would say that we will continue to lose buildings and homes there are just some that aren't going to be saved he says saving the lives of residents and firefighters has to be his agency's top priority that means there are some places that sometimes that we won't be able to save the buildings still entices readers need to cultivate the political will for change around while for policies I wonder wat hundred cities quit burning it's because they were political decisions about building codes fire insurance standards that were fundamental issues that were not left of the market not left to individual or developers whims and until we have a political decision on that scale you're not going to solve the problem and cities every fire you point out is a problem solved and while Lance most wild lands afar you put out is a problem put off new use for service calls one hundred million acres of overgrown land and treatment more than half is a high risk a fine beaches he spends three hundred million dollars a year to thin the forest that covers about three percent of the work that needs to do doubling the budget would come close to finishing the job what will it cost what I can tell you is the more money is likely to be available we will never have enough money to treat all of the land within budgetary limits Jim Hubbard of the four services careful not to make any promises his agency can't keep we can eliminate fire and we can't restore the forest with just a ten thousand acre treatment but we might be able to reduce the risk to community with that treatment for service officials decide where to treat using a risk analysis tool called sounding term especially when the decisions they make mean that some places will burn but they don't analyze the risk of every treatment so there's no way to tell if what they're doing is preventing home from burning now certainly be done nationally regionally and now we're trying to make sure that the forests and the district's understand how to use the tool and I wouldn't say where they're everywhere but it's coming fast Jim says the four services fallen short of a stream and calls the last couple years because the still forming alliances with private military and state landowners we can do a lot of treatments but if we want to be effective it requires all of this acknowledging the problem that we will need to manage unplanned wildfire in ways that we haven't passed the the uh thanks to reveal their cigar for bring this a story now nationwide the new normal is longer fire seasons the wildfires spreading to new parts of country kids is seeing its biggest wildfires in recorded history and find them with less funding than any other state that's what we had next to reveal from the Center for investigative reporting NPR the the the the the the the the the the Center for investigative reporting in PR eggs this does reveal a mallet first recorded this hour back in the fall we were predicting wildfires spreading to new parts of the country to places where housing developments up well that's starting to come true the case in point chances this spring the state experienced the largest wildfires in its recorded history hundred thousand acres of land have burned it this year the fires that were burning evacuations place from Texas and Oklahoma to Kansas the buyers are some of the biggest this state has ever seen during grazing land to cattle causing in damage for people like Kansas rancher Jean Kerr me anything like it Williston fireballs it would mean ugly it was loud even though it's facing some of the biggest wildfires in the country Kansas has a small is funded for service that is well you can fit every full time chances for Service firefighter in a single truck Ross Hauck fire management coordinator is one of theirs there's four of us in the state for service to Kansas for service has four people in the fire program in the state as big as Kansas should they be more of you yes there should be we put together a schematic that we think over time we need to fill positions and I think at full capacity would be somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve to thirteen people the director of the Oklahoma for services in Kansas for service is different from every state and nation Oklahoma has eighty four as fire fighters Kansas has just four full time Oklahoma's budget is fifteen million Kansas is three hundred thousand why is Kansas different and will attempt to change it well when we talk about Oklahoma it was the same kind of events that happened in Oklahoma that happen in Kansas this year that spurred those eighty five employees and forty five dozer hse to get into their arsenal so that the government level quite frequently the hse funny shes our knee jerk reactions we have a major outbreak in fire and the Legislature says Oh we need to find money to support fire suppression and that's what happens when you need to reduce the severity of fires like these well we're working on several issues right now Kansas is one of the probably the few stays that doesn't have an aviation plan and us for services they want us to have plans so when something like this happens and we need aerial resources we have this plan already in place frequencies are established for radios and everybody knows SWAT everybody's doing the thing is the initial response is always going to be by the volunteer fire departments when the local cheeses this is overwhelming I can handle it then we need to have a system in place that we don't have to wait a couple of days to get these resources and the way to prevent that lapse in time is to have that same kind of spending authority at the state level that allows us to bring in those resources in advance and have them pre positioned during very dry times in the spring when our fire occurrence happens on daily basis so in the last two years Kansas has had some of the biggest fires in the country is this new normal the last two years have been I would say very abnormal historically as we look back we burn on average about one hundred and forty thousand acres annually so to have one fire that was in the three hundred thousand acre range another fire in the five hundred thousand acre range those are extreme fire behavior does everybody in in Kansas is where a fire I don't think there's a maze that a very long that doesn't understand that fires do happen the fires of this magnitude though a lot of us that have never seen virus the size of the Anderson Creek Fire of two thousand sixteen and the Starbuck fire two thousand seventeen I would say that the fire in Reno County referred to as the Highland Fire was the first major fire that impacted the development area yes we've lost some structures over the was the that impression but to burn into a housing unit like it did in my recollection anyway this is the first time what do you think is causing this I would be sticking my neck out I think to say I don't like to use the word climate change because that raises all kinds of issues I do think that we're we may be into a time when bit warmer winters twenty years ago for sure something was that they had a fire in January he would have an absolute surprise because it just didn't happen the last two big fires we've had that we're moving it all away from thirty to forty five miles an hour we're so fortunate we have not had a firefighter fatality in and these big fires this year we think with the limited funding and the firefighters that you have that are full time that this is just a matter of time before something catastrophic happens as far as like the loss of life oh yes I say that quite comfortably that it's not a matter of if we will lose some but maybe two or three people in our truck it's a matter of when it's gonna happen it's going to happen one of the things we have to change from our vantage point is the concept that it's just a grass fire this is old time cliche that is kind of time wore on the grass is producing hundreds of bt use of energy at that flame front that is just as fatal Aceh hundred foot tall pine tree burning let me ask you how long we've been a firefighter thirty seven with the partner I started when I was a Junior High School in nineteen sixty six you have to love it in order to have stuck with that law it started out when we my wife and I move out into the country and we needed fire fighters to protect our homes my contribution to the community was to be a firefighter sense than it has become a kind of a passion of mine I do it because I feel my community needs my assistance and I'll continue to do it until at least I think I'm too old to sixty nine in the fall so that tells you something my sister pretty well I try to stay in pretty good shape to go out on federal fires sand be on the far line you have to carry forty five pounds of weight three miles into it in forty five minutes and last year anyway I was still able do that excellent Nels Ross Hauck one of the four full time firefighters with Kansas for service the piece was produced but she's kind Roger thanks to Brian Thompson from Kansas whose service was helped restore the the we see what happens when a wildfire tears to a city or town but what happens next when we come back we'll hear how some developers profit of wildfires rebuild homes and places the stand a good chance of burning down to only put thirty five harden church her right shoulder to the neighbor for thirty five harm all of the you listening to reveal the the the the Center for investigative reporting in PR this is revealed now let's we talk about wildfires objects may be closer than the AP People in yarn o Arizona about ninety northwest of Phoenix learned that the hard way back in two thousand thirty eight and became a national example of how expensive and dangerous it can be to try and contain a wildfire Cornell Hill Fire took the lives of nineteen specially trained firefighters granite Mountain Hot shots that was the most deaths of wild land firefighters since the nineteen thirties the fire also destroyed more than homes Jess Ford from two thousand and thirteen today and surprisingly development in the area is going strong homes are being rebuilt even though the threat of wildfire is still there reveals Emanuel Martinez takes us there the yarn oh hell fire started on a Friday with a lightning strike it was small at first about half an acre and it wasn't supposed to get much bigger it was far enough from town that caught Brian Smith off guard call Sister of fire and I kept looking around I see no fire brain is a Linky retired chemist who wears glasses held together with scotch tape he's lived in your now for almost ten years it's a rural town in an unincorporated part of a Pike County Brain ended up here because of his dad he was tired of the desert is hotter Hell and he retired a pure because of the breeze actually so peaceful here a sign on the edge of town describes it as a place where the desert breeze meets the mountain air those same breezes can turn into a powerful gust of wind without warning on top of that the region was bone dry fifty years had passed without a major wildfire when the twenty thirteen fire started in two neighboring towns two days later a thunderstorm hit the area its forty mile carried the fire straight towards the weeds bushes and trees that pressed against many of the houses in your now the sparks and embers started coming this way this time of year things are pretty dry so who exploded one of those embers landed on Brian's porch and ignited it I went and watered at the end of Bush's start exploding tonight Holy Moses it's it's the burning bush it's time to get the hell out of here first low brain had to run back inside he was taking care of his terminally ill eighty four year old cousin at the time I got her ID and we laughed we left everything just we left that the so whatever happened was going to happen authorities had issued evacuation orders for yarn now
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America’s ring of fire

The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX