BOISE, Idaho — At nearly every community meeting on the U.S. West’s firefighting efforts, residents want to know why crews don’t simply put out the flames to save their homes and the valuable forests surrounding them.
It’s not that simple, wildfire managers say, and the reasons are many, some of them decades in the making and tied to climate change. The cumulative result has been an increase in gigantic wildfires with extreme and unpredictable behavior threatening communities that in some instances didn’t exist a few decades ago.
“How do we balance that risk to allow firefighters to be successful without transferring too much of that risk to the public?” said Evans Kuo, a “Type 1” incident commander assigned to the nation’s most significant and most dangerous wildfires. “I wish it wasn’t the case, but it’s a zero-sum game.”
More than 20,000 wildland firefighters are battling some 100 large wildfires in the U.S West. Their goal is “containment,” meaning a fuel break has been built around the entire fire using natural barriers or manmade lines, often created with bulldozers or ground crews with hand tools.