Fighting Fire With Fire

The Fourth of July is a day when members of fire companies all over the country, myself included, dust off their dress blues and shine up the trucks, in preparation for local parades and all the other Independence Day festivities.  It’s usually a day of great camaraderie and celebrations, but this year, we’ll be marching with soberness and sadness, as we think about the 19 firefighters who lost their lives fighting the wildfires in Arizona.  Whenever a fire-related disaster occurs, it feels personal to anyone who’s ever entered a burning building or raced to push back a wall of fire from a parched forest.  We know what a daunting adversary fire is. While there’s an undeniable rush of adrenaline that comes with tackling a major blaze, as any firefighter will confirm, those who’ve experienced it know that this is no game.  A mere shift in the wind can unleash the full fury of fire.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were an elite group, thoroughly trained in how to manage wildfires, the hardest kind of blazes to contain.  And yet, even with all their training, their bravery and their instincts, a change in the direction of the wind gave the fires the upper hand.

The Hotshots were skilled professionals, but the methods they used were the ones we all learn, even those of us who are volunteers.  A firebreak, which the Hotshots were attempting to build in Arizona, is one of the basic tools that we use to contain raging blazes.  The idea is to dig a deep trench around the flames — to stop their forward progress.  A second technique is to beat fire at its own game by removing what it can devour.  To do that, fire companies use a technique called a back fire — a counter-intuitive approach that preemptively stops a fire’s forward progress by intentionally igniting the inner edge of a fire to consume any fuel in its path.  A fire can’t survive without something to burn.

Both these techniques are used to hold back advancing fires, and as we saw in Arizona, a storm front combined with wind can make doing that not only difficult but also life-threatening.  That’s why forest managers use a third technique — controlled burns — to help stop fires before they even start.  To eliminate fire’s food –underbrush, dried leaves and branches — we lay down an accelerant along a defined line and lighting it with the wind to our backs. We use controlled (also called prescribed) burns a lot where I live in western New Jersey, which has vast tracts of forests and green spaces.  During droughts, we, too, are susceptible to wild fires, so controlled burns ahead of time can literally be lifesavers.  (To donate to a fund for the Hotshots’ survivors and others affected by the Yarnell, AZ fires, here’s a link: www.unitedwayyavapai.org.)

 

©Michael Yamashita

Creating a firebreak using a back fire.

©Michael Yamashita

Controlled Burn, starting a fire using gasoline in a drip can to remove the fire’s food, dried leaves and branches on the forest floor.

©Michael Yamashita

©Michael Yamashita

©Michael Yamashita

Hot and sweaty work in heavy smoke conditions.

©Michael Yamashita

©Michael Yamashita

A firebreak acts as a barrier to stop or slow the spreading fire by creating a gap in the combustible materials that feed the flames, here created along a country road.

 

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Where There’s Smoke …1997 All Over Again.

As Colorado fights some of the worst wildfires in that state’s history, fires are also raging in Indonesia again and the polluted haze caused by them is the worst since I photographed the story, Indonesia’s Plague of Fire for National Geographic in 1997.  The fires we covered then, caused by the annual (illegal) burn-off of fields, forest and plantations designed to clear large tracts of land for new planting, are counted among the world’s greatest environmental disasters. They spread as far as Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore.

Unfortunately, despite laws enacted since then to prevent agricultural burn-off, this year’s fires are even worse, bringing down a shroud of poisonous smoke that again threatens Indonesia’s neighbors. And because most of the fires rage underneath the land surface, igniting the rainforest’s under-layer of highly flammable peat, fighting them is exponentially harder.

Singapore, which prides itself on its healthy “green” status, is particularly hard hit. The choking smog there has surpassed 1997’s record levels. Today, Singapore reported the highest levels of pollution ever recorded, topping out at 401 on the pollution standard index (PSI). An index reading above 300 is considered hazardous and potentially life threatening to the ill and the elderly.

The 1997 fires, which were worsened by the effects of dry El Nino conditions, ravaged millions of acres. Even cities far from the source of the fires were enveloped in a thick, dense, noxious cloud. As soon as we arrived in Sumatra, writer Lew Simons and I, equipped with respirator masks, plunged into the murky haze that made it hard to tell day from night. As a volunteer firefighter back home in New Jersey, I am all too familiar with the toxic effects of smoke.  We’re outfitted with SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) and get training in HazMat dangers. But what we saw, or couldn’t see, in Indonesia was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.  Air pollution levels skyrocketed, and trying to see, much less shoot through the smoke and soot was a challenge. However, the swirling fog and ash made for moody, almost ghostly images that were a record of the massive cost of the fires and the tragedy of lost land and lives.

 

©Michael Yamashita

Ingredients for an environmental nightmare: late monsoon rains; the use of fire to clear land, practiced here by a farmer in Kalimantan; and industrial-scale deforestation. The resulting smoke from fires in Indonesia poisoned Asian skies.

©Michael Yamashita

Palms sway in a dense haze of smoke.

©Michael Yamashita

Traffic gropes through a veil of toxic haze in Palembang on the island of Sumatra. On this morning in late October 1997, the air pollution index registered 800, indicating dangerous air quality. Fearing panic and political embarrassment, Indonesian authorities were slow to declare an emergency.

©Michael Yamashita

The lofty lights of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, dim under a cloud of smoke blown in from the forests of Borneo and Sumatra, the site of most of Indonesia’s unchecked fires.

©Michael Yamashita

Desperate officials ordered that all high-rise buildings have water sprayed from their heights to dissipate the choking haze. At worst, before rains came in November and doused the fires, the pall spread over eight countries and 75 million people, covering an area larger than Europe.

©Michael Yamashita

No one is wearing masks in the heavy haze at the main market next to Musi River. API 800 lasted for 4 months.

©Michael Yamashita

A shipment of surgical masks reached Jambi, Sumatra, but such masks provide little protection against particle-laden haze.

©Michael Yamashita

With local health clinics overflowing with patients complaining of breathing difficulties, two weekend soccer teams play as if nothing is amiss in haze-shrouded Palembang. Some 48 million Indonesians were stricken by the smoke.

©Michael Yamashita

A ravaged piece of rain forest in Kalimantan, leveled by loggers months earlier, becomes the new home of Dayak farmer Abdur Rani. Planting cassava on ground he cleared and fertilized by fire, Rani will also grow rice before moving on in a few years, following an age-old pattern of life in the tropics.

©Michael Yamashita

Slash and burn farmers planting rice on land that was burned two weeks ago. They will plant in a new area next year.

©Michael Yamashita

When clear-cutting stops, debris burning begins, as loggers in Kalimantan finish off remnants of rain forest to make way for an acacia tree plantation and its quick payoff in pulpwood. The government outlawed large-scale burning in 1995, but developers openly defy the ban.

©Michael Yamashita

Rows of oil palms start off fast in a 30,000-acre tree farm wrested from Sumatran jungle. But drought and haze-reduced levels of sunlight caused crops and trees to wilt, resulting this year in widespread food shortages and a suspension of palm oil exports.

©Michael Yamashita

Farmers clearing and burning brush at a rice pond.

©Michael Yamashita

Pulmonalogists from Jakarta treating a patient with haze related illnesses at Gandus Public Medical Center.

©Michael Yamashita

Spearheading the international response, a C-130 Hercules from Wyoming Air National Guard unleashes a 3,000-gallon water barrage on a dense peat fire in southern Sumatra. Several soakings slowed the blaze and prevented it from spreading into a wildlife reserve, home to endangered rhinoceroses.

©Michael Yamashita

Mike with writer, Lew Simons.

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