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Published: July 2008

Fire Season

Fire By Truck

Under Fire

From the Rocky Mountains to the coast of California, wildfires are burning bigger, hotter, and closer to home. Why is the West ablaze?

By Neil Shea
Photograph by Mark Thiessen
Both National Geograhic Staff

The young men wade through thigh-high grass beneath the firs and ponderosa pines, calmly setting the forest on fire. They carry torches, dispensing burning droplets of gasoline and diesel fuel. With flicks of the wrist they paint the landscape in flame. The newborn fires slither through the grass and chew into the sagging branches. Every few minutes a fir ignites, flames devouring it in a rush of light, the roar of rockets. It is over in seconds. Only a smoking skeleton remains. The men, firefighters, enjoy this immensely.

"Did you kill a tree, man?"

A big grin. "Yeah."

"I love that sound."

It is 11 a.m. on a Saturday in July, and Idaho is ablaze. More large wildfires burn here now than anywhere else in the nation. Columns of smoke wash over the state, evacuation warnings following. This fire, called Lucky, burns in the Boise National Forest, a couple hours' drive north of the capital. Like many fires in the West, Lucky was started by lightning. After two weeks it has scorched some 1,400 acres. It is not the biggest fire in Idaho. But Lucky has potential, firefighters say, as if they were speaking of a gifted child.

For hours they light fires with torches and hand-thrown flares the size of beer cans. In theory, backburning starves an advancing wildfire by eating the fuel in its path. But fire is sly. There is almost always some way for it to spread. And backburning is risky. Tales abound of burns that swelled out of control, and the men who took the blame.

Later in the afternoon the firefighters stand around admiring their work. Blackened acres stretch before them. Suddenly, on the hillside above, a shear of noise and a shudder in the earth. A huge tree has collapsed, its roots burned through. The firefighters are unfazed. They laugh and tease and lean on their axes. Then the wind shifts. A whisper from the north. The laughing stops, the men look up. Glowing embers, little incendiary bombs, glide overhead into unburned forest.

"Damn."

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