They hustle into the brush, searching for new fires, hoping their names won't go down on the list of those who gambled and lost. After a while they filter back out, finding nothing, satisfied that for now they have gotten away with it.
This is how we deal with fire in America, in small wagers. Fighting fire with fire, trying to prevent the landscape from doing what even firefighters say it wants to do: burn.
Wildfire advances by transforming vegetation into fuel. As plant matter heats, it releases compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and other flammable elements, which react with oxygen to release more energy, starting a chain reaction. Air around the fire warms and rises, sometimes creating winds that fan the flames. Extremely hot fires can manufacture their own weather systems, feeding and driving themselves, covering ground far faster than a sprinting human. Sudden wind shifts have pushed fire onto firefighters who believed they were safe.
The Western wildfire season generally begins in late spring and lasts into fall. Like other seasonal disturbances—hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms—we have learned to fear its approach. Red walls of flame, leaden pillars of smoke. But fire is the one natural event we regularly treat as though it were alive and battle vigorously as if it were an invading host. There are no hurricane fighters, no tornado-fighters.
More and more, we lose. While fire in densely populated California draws the most attention, forests and rangelands throughout the American West are burning at unprecedented rates. In 2006, wildfires burned 15,000 square miles across the country, a record nearly matched last year. Two-thirds of the burned acreage was in the West. One obvious cause is a decade of drought and warmer temperatures. Mountain snow melts earlier, and winter storms arrive later, extending the fire season in some regions by several weeks. Vast tracts of drought-weakened forest have succumbed to insects and disease, turning trees to tinder. In response, we have bolstered our fighter ranks, padded them with private contractors, provided them more hoses and axes and trucks. Annual federal spending on firefighting has leaped from $1 billion when the recent drought began in 1998 to more than $3 billion last year, with even greater costs forecast for the future. But the drought is only one part of the burn equation.
"The more money we spend, the worse it gets," one fire scientist told me last summer. "If that's not a condemnation of our fire policies, I don't know what is."