On the Front Lines of America’s War on Fire

Source: Mens Journal by Kyle Dickman

On a cool morning last November, Tirso Rojas, a lifelong firefighterOpens a New Window. turned disaster-cleanup specialist, parked his Chevy Silverado pickupOpens a New Window. among a cluster of burned houses in the charred foothills surrounding Santa Rosa, CaliforniaOpens a New Window.. A man in a hard hat and a Day-Glo vest sat smoking a cigarette on a stump by the skeleton of a garage with a burned Nissan truck inside. Meanwhile, five other workers cut a log with chainsaws and loaded it into a chipper.

“Saw some turkeys in that tree this morning,” the guy smoking the cigarette said to Rojas, who nodded a hello.

A few of these men had come directly from Houston, where they’d spent months cleaning up after Hurricane Irma. Rojas, in charge of the crew, grabbed a length of power line lying on the ground and cast a stank-eyed glance at the men as he coiled it—they should have done this.

“What’s your plan? Qual es tu plan?” he asked them, nodding to five trees near the foundation of a house. The trees, all black and needle-less, leaned over a power line. The men sat silent.

“This one first,” Rojas said, tapping one tree. He then considered the others for a moment. “Then here, here, and here.”

Rojas, 40, has the stout build of a lumberjack, which he happens to be. That day, he wore well-seasoned Prison Blues work pants and an air of anxiety. Last year’s fires marked the biggest disaster in the Golden State since the Loma Prieta earthquake rattled the Bay Area in 1989, and the cleanup wasn’t progressing as quickly as Rojas preferred. For miles in all directions lay the ruins of some 5,500 homes that the Tubbs Fire—the most destructive in state history—had cremated in October. In order to get Northern California’s economy and its communities back on track, those buildings, plus the 30,000 burned trees that threatened to knock out power lines around them, needed to be cut and cleared as quickly as possible.

Rojas had spent most of his life sawing down trees, some thicker than bridge pylons, as a logger and a firefighter. But last winter he hurt his back when the top of a tree fell on him, and, at the moment, he could not operate a chainsaw. His job here was to run the crews doing the cutting instead. Rojas stepped over a spigot with a rubber hose melted to it and considered how to best fell the biggest tree in the group. After a few seconds, the answer became clear: Climb it with a small chainsaw, cut off the top 50 feet, and drop it in the narrow gap between two other trees, rappel down, and cut the rest at the base. Avoid the power line or get seriously injured. Or worse.

“I’m 100 percent OK with you doing this—100 percent,” he told the other sawyers, who watched him intently. “Just make sure I’m here to watch. That wire is live.”

That morning, I’d met Rojas before sunrise in an empty field, lit by rented floodlights and surrounded by barns. This was the biggest of four cleanup base camps that Pacific Gas and Electric, one of the nation’s largest utility companies, had established in the Santa Rosa area. Between PG&E’s camps were 4,300 workers, all brought in to fell trees and repair the electrical grid. Spread out in other nearby camps were tens of thousands more workers who had come to remove debris, inspect homesites for volatile household poisons, and repair roads, sewer pipes, stoplights, and DSL wires. In other words, to fix a broken city.

With insurance payouts included, the total cost of this effort was around $10 billion. This from just a single firestorm. California had endured dozens of other destructive fires last summer but none as bad as this. Given the declining health of California’s forests and the state’s steadily increasing population, though, last year’s fires may be a grim premonition of what’s to come. This year or next, or the year after, could hold dozens more fires that will almost certainly be as bad as the Napa ones—maybe worse.

When the briefing started at 6 a.m, Rojas joined a semicircle of 30 men and a few women forming around the superintendent, a former smoke jumper and a longtime friend named Brad Moschetti. Disaster relief is a contract industry, and the contracts are stacked atop one another in M.C. Escheresque layers. In this case, Moschetti, Rojas, and all these other workers were local subcontractors employed by a regional subcontractor employed by a prime contractor from Tennessee that had cut its teeth cleaning up after hurricanes in the Southeast—the other type of disaster of this scale.

The workers were dressed in Carhartts streaked with oil and hunched over steaming coffees. On the crew, only Rojas and Moschetti had been career firefighters, men who intimately knew California’s woods and the disasters associated with them. The overwhelming majority were blue-collar men in their 30s and 40s. Some were locals the state insisted be hired to pump some income back into the depressed community while others were out-of-towners from Florida, Texas, and Mexico who made their living chasing catastrophes. Most of the guys here made $20 an hour plus overtime and worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, until the job was done. That would take four months.

In Spanglish, Moschetti talked logistics and assigned groups of four to six sawyers to different project sites. “Vámonos,” he said. “Be safe.” The men loaded up in a rattle of diesel engines and dust and went to work.

Last year, natural disasters affected 25 million Americans, almost a tenth of the country. The Federal Emergency Management Agency shelled out more than $7.2 billion to help rebuild after fires, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes, but that figure doesn’t approach the total costs, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put at a record $306 billion. And the disaster-relief industry is only growing, especially when it comes to forest fires. Of the 137 events FEMA responded to last year, almost half were fire related. Of those, most were in California.

“For us, not working in California would be like Coke not selling sodas in China,” says Randy Perkins, the founder of AshBritt, the largest disaster-relief contractor in the country.

In 2017, the Florida-based company sent 2,000 workers to Northern California to dispose of debris. Their contract to clean up Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina was $770 million. A contract that big used to happen once a generation. Now in California, companies like AshBritt have to work year-round. Just two months after the Napa fires, the Thomas Fire raced through Los Angeles, burning more than a thousand buildings. “This is the new normal,” Gov. Jerry Brown said of the incident. “We’re about ready to have firefighting at Christmas.”

This is far from just California’s problem. The U.S. Forest Service, America’s largest firefighting department, first spent $1 billion fighting fires in 2000. Last year, the total was $3 billion. The increased costs are not directly related to the numbers of acres burned each year, but it’s a fair approximation. And the burns are getting bigger—much bigger. Compared with the decade before 1984, there was a 5,000 percent increase in forested acres burned in the Northwest from 2003 to 2012; in the northern Rockies, it was 3,000 percent; and across the West, 1,200 percent. Those figures make California’s 300 percent rise seem modest, but this increase is happening in the country’s most populous state, where rampant development intermingles freely with fire-prone areas, as was the case with the Napa fires.

In Santa Rosa, after leaving his crew felling trees, Rojas and I stopped beside a flagger who was holding up traffic. By the road, a crew of sawyers from a different company was cutting down yet another dangerous tree. He watched as one worker swung around the tree, his saw throwing chips into the air. It looked normal to me, but something about what the crew was doing, a crew he wasn’t even responsible for, upset Rojas. He started cussing beneath his breath and knocked his closed fists against the steering wheel. Eventually the tree leaned, jumped off its stump, and tumbled as uneventfully as a 100-foot dead pine crashing into a field can be. He seemed embarrassed by the outburst.

“We lost somebody this year,” he said, by way of apology.

“Who’s we?” I asked.

“Us. Me,” he said. Rojas drove on through pastures and burned but recovering oak stands until he exhaled gutturally like a horse. He told the story of how one of his crew members, a 21-year-old sawyer, was killed that spring after being crushed by a beetle-killed pine. “Those trees are way more dangerous because they’re dead and have less moisture in them. So dangerous. And I see guys cutting them, and I’m like, ‘Holy fuck. No! Not like that!’” he said, then trailed off, not bothering to hide his tears. “We’ve got to fix this thing,” he eventually managed.

This thing is broken forests. Over the last two decades, Rojas has worked in the woods as a firefighter and a logger, and he has watched the forests get progressively sicker. In 2000, he fought the Storrie Fire that burned 55,000 acres in Northern California’s Plumas and Lassen national forests. A decade later, in the same area, the Chips Fire leveled 75,000 acres. When Rojas returned to Plumas County last year to log wood, he found nearly 100,000 acres of standing dead trees—a landscape straight out of a Tim Burton film. But for Rojas, the most telling blaze he fought was the Old Fire in 2003. It burned outside L.A. in trees killed by beetles and drought and caused $1 billion in damage, an almost unheard of sum back then. “It showed us what was to come,” Rojas remembers.

“That was a big episode,” says Brandon Collins, a forest scientist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research and Outreach. “That’s when California got its first taste of fires in beetle kill.

Back then, a drought in the Southwest had extended into Southern California, leading to an outbreak of beetles that killed millions of trees in the San Bernardino Mountains. The beetles essentially strangle trees by boring into them and laying eggs. When the larvae hatch, they create more tunnels, which keep nutrients from circulating. The tree can die in as little as a few weeks after an attack. The San Bernardino event was historic but isolated.

Few if any foresters expected it was even possible for that magnitude of tree mortality to creep into the cooler and wetter Sierra. Now it has, and the level is far beyond what Rojas saw in 2003. Since 2010, drought and beetles have killed 129 million trees in the Sierra Nevada over an area the size of Kentucky.

“Go to Shaver Lake. Kings Canyon. Sequoia. Yosemite. They’ve got dead fucking trees up to 7,000 feet now—7,000 feet! As far as the eye can see, it’s dead dead trees,” Rojas says.

Collins describes the outbreaks in scientific terms no less apocalyptic, calling them “unprecedented” and “phenomenal.” “When you see entire watersheds with mortality at 90 percent—it dwarfs even the mortality on fires,” Collins says.

Megafires and tree deaths in the Sierra Nevada are distinct problems, but they’re both caused by sick forests, which wasn’t a problem before the 20th century. To understand why requires a brief history lesson: Before immigrants settled California around the time of the Gold Rush, 4.5 million acres burned here each year. Those fires were ignited by lightning strikes or native people, who used fires as a method of hunting and cultivating certain plant species. In many places, the fires eliminated brush and saplings on the forest floor. Each fire spread across thousands of acres but burned very differently from what we’re seeing today, rarely getting much hotter than a backyard Weber, which allowed big trees to survive. Then in the 1930s, the Forest Service decreed every spark be quashed by 10 a.m. the day after it started.

Since then, suppression has ruled, largely because it’s easy for firefighters to put out flames in fire-thinned forests. Over time, without fire fulfilling its role as nature’s weeder, the woods grew. In the Sierra foothills, 3,000 pines per acre stand where only a hundred once did. Any fire in woods so thick has the potential to, as Rojas puts it, “burn like rockets.” Even if the state wanted to let more wildfires burn to help restore forests to health, it would be difficult because firefighters must attempt to put out all flames as quickly as possible to prevent megafires like those in Napa. And so the forest keeps growing denser.

“It’s almost as if we’re managing to create extreme fires,” Collins says.

What’s less intuitive is how all this set the table for the beetles. Like 60 straws in a milkshake instead of two, all those additional trees competing for the same amount of water created a parched and sick forest. So in 2011, when the worst drought California had seen in centuries switched on, feeble trees were further stressed. Whatever ability they had to fend off the beetles vanished. The insects began devouring pines in such numbers that the woods sounded to Rojas like “a million sheets of paper crumpled at once.” The bugs swept through the Sierra Nevada in a squirming tide that has lasted eight years. Rojas likens the outbreak to the slaughter of the American bison, a problem of a magnitude that most won’t realize until it’s too late.

Collins is only slightly less hyperbolic. He says the fires and beetles are ripping such huge holes in the woods that ponderosa pines, the dominant species in the Sierra, are disappearing from wide expanses. Like all holes in the forest, these regrow from the edges—but what were once lakes are now oceans.

“The holes are so big, it will take generations to get trees back in there,” Collins says. “And with the current fires, in many places, that just makes it all the more unlikely that the pines will ever come back.”

Nobody doubts that the problem of the woods will keep spilling into California’s towns and cities. The question is how to invest in disaster prevention when all the money is allocated to AshBritt and men like Rojas to clean the catastrophes up.

I first met Rojas in 2005, when we were both working fires in Tahoe National Forest. Back then he was something of a legend—wild, reckless, fun, incredibly fit, the embodiment of a young hotshot.

“If we do something, at least people won’t lose their homes. People won’t be devastated because their wedding ring was melted in the ash.”

At that point, Rojas, who grew up in the Klamath basin, on the border of California and Oregon, had fought fires for eight years, most of those as the lead sawyer on a hotshot crew widely admired in the fire service. Those elite crews contain 20 members, and there are around 120 of them nationwide, but they represent just a fraction of the 10,000 firefighters the Forest Service alone employs every summer. The men and women come from all walks—the privileged, the poor, rural, urban, black, white, native, Hispanic, highly educated, convicted felons. If they come for the feeling of heroics the job entails, they stay for camaraderie fused in adventure—which is the reason Rojas fell in love with working in the forests.

Like many in the profession, Rojas viewed the woods as a respite from his own problems.

“It keeps my mind off things I’d rather not think about,” he says.

In Rojas’ case, the things were the death of his mother and an alcohol dependency he developed in the wake of it, which he finally kicked after a two-year prison stint for multiple DUIs. After his release in 2010, Rojas eventually returned to his old hotshot crew and fought fires more than 100 days a year. Then in 2013, after a party to celebrate another long and safe year, one of his firefighting friends was hit by another crew member, who was driving home. Rojas was the first to drive up on his friend, and he ended up sitting beside the body that night, waiting beneath a moon that never crested the trees for an ambulance to take his friend away.

Rojas returned to fire the next year, but that would be his last. He left firefighting to log trees. When Moschetti started managing operations at the subcontracting business, Rojas—skilled with chainsaws and logistics and practiced at overseeing men in dangerous situations—followed him into an industry that had just started to boom: disaster relief. Rojas doesn’t care much for the job itself. To him, cleaning up after fires feels Sisyphean and reactive. He’d rather be thinning the forests, which would help prevent future disastrous fires. But it gets him outdoors, and he likes working with people like himself who have hit on hard times but are putting themselves back together.

“Every one of them should feel blessed,” he says. “Because if they’re out here, at this age, it’s because they’ve done something wrong with their life, and this is a perfect opportunity for them to go out and get better.”

Also, the job pays well, and California is desperate for the help. “I’m made to work,” Rojas says. “Not sit around and play patty cake.”

Tom Petty’s “Don’t Do Me Like That” is rocking on the stereo when Rojas drives down a main street in Santa Rosa and starts climbing steeply up Fountain Grove Parkway. The last house on Rojas’ docket for the day sits off this road amid a swath of homes that every American with a TV watched burn on the night of October 23. The stories that came out of this neighborhood are chilling: a couple weathering the firestorm in a swimming pool; a woman returning home from the mass shooting in Las Vegas only to be evacuated before the fires; a 71-year-old burned to death in her bedroom. The scene suggested the horrors. In a hush, we passed by eucalyptus trees with cooked leaves twitching in the breeze, torched vestibules, torched toolsets, torched cribs, past the ruins of what must have been multimillion-dollar homes sprawled big views of Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley. The Bay was obscured by smog.

“If we do something, people won’t lose their homes,” Rojas says. “People won’t be devastated in the sense that my great-great-grandmother’s picture is gone. My birth certificate is gone. I can’t find my wedding ring because it melted in the ash.”

California declared a state of emergency for both Napa and the beetle-kill crisis. The state put $100 million toward beetle-kill cleanup, and the legislature is considering request from Gov. Brown to put another $9 million toward fixing the woods. By one estimate, there are 8 million acres in the Sierra Nevada alone that need restoration work. To restore that forest and reduce the risk of future megafires, it would cost closer to $7 billion. But even if the state’s investment is relatively small, Collins, of Berkeley, is encouraged, because it shows a public shift away from the Smokey the Bear edict. He’s also skeptical that any amount of money could make the problem go away entirely.

“Right now, that $100 million is just cleaning up the mess,” Collins says. “But will it get us out ahead of what’s to come?”

In California alone, more than 3 million acres of land needs to be thinned, burned, or both to protect communities. Just 150,000 acres see work each year. Closing or even narrowing that gap will require increased public tolerance for smoke from prescribed fires, fighting through environmental conflicts that slow and often stop thinning projects, and looking past or softening laws enacted precisely to limit man’s impact on species, water and air quality, and the woods—all things universally valued in California.

“We have to decide what we want the future to look like,” Collins says. “It won’t be 4.5 million acres burned a year, because it can’t be. But maybe it can be something where fire is a less destructive force than it is now.”

Whatever happens, the cost of doing nothing is getting higher, in part because of the beetle kill in the Sierra.

“We’ll get a new fire dynamic we’re not accustomed to,” says LeRoy Westerling, a professor of management at UC Merced. “More like the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo. And we don’t have any models for that.”

Pile atop that risk climatologists’ predictions that California will warm four degrees by the end of the century. The single degree of warming measured since the early 1980s is linked to an increase of more than 35 percent in acreage burned. What makes all this so unsettling is the fervor with which Californians and westerners in general resettle their burned lands. By 2050, a million more homes are expected to be built into places designated with the highest risk for wildfires.

“Once the cameras leave and the fire’s out, communities like Napa are faced with housing shortages,” says Chris Mehl, a fire-focused economist at Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana. “They want to rebuild because they want to provide housing for constituents and restore their tax base quickly to pay the huge costs of repairs. So they cut corners and approve developments in high-risk areas to get homes back quickly.”

And the process often ignores that the land they are building on has just burned and almost certainly will burn again.

“All they’ve got to do is realize that if we take care of the woods, that will all be saved,” Rojas says, turning off Fountaingrove Parkway and into a neighborhood where every house has burned.

His anger is genuine, but these same bad policies keep him employed.

It was late afternoon when Rojas and I stopped in front of the ruins of a house that, frankly, looked no different from any of the other burned houses we’d seen that day. A sawyer was bucking a tree he had felled from the eucalyptus stand. Rojas and I watched. Despite the drifting ash and smell of charcoal, the place was lovely: golden light, long views, the shade of eucalyptus trees. A year from now, a new house will probably be standing where the ruins are, and the forest will be regrowing just as it was before.

That night, Rojas asked for a ride to Stockton to pick up a company truck from the mechanic. He needed it for work the next day. For four long hours we sat in Bay Area traffic, Rojas whistling long and admiringly at the few logging trucks he saw on the freeways. It was almost 10 p.m. by the time we finally pulled into the yard in Stockton. I called it a night, but Rojas climbed into the truck and drove back to Santa Rosa. Work started again at 5 a.m.