A New Approach To Fighting Western Fires

Only a chimney remains standing at a home that was burned down in the Angora wildfire near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Thursday, June 28, 2007. From Southern California to Montana, seven firefighters have died this year battling blazes that have destroyed more than 400 houses, a dramatic increase from last year. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, FILE

Fueled by drought and development, wildfires in the West are getting bigger and more aggressive, creating conditions so dangerous that fire bosses are increasingly reluctant to risk lives saving houses - particularly if the owners have done nothing to protect their property.

From Southern California to Montana, seven firefighters have died this year battling blazes that have destroyed more than 400 houses, a dramatic increase from last year.

The firefighters' job has been made more hazardous by an onslaught of houses and vacation cabins being built across the rugged West - some of them inside national forests. An estimated 8.6 million houses have been built within 30 miles of a national forest since 1982.

"There's the frustration of knowing these people aren't taking care of their home, and why do we have to do it?" said John Watson, a Fairfield, Mont., firefighting contractor who uses a 750-gallon fire engine to protect remote houses. "I've asked them, `Do you understand the danger?' There isn't a whole lot that needs to be done to mitigate the threat, but they won't do it. They say: `I'd rather have my cabin burn down with the trees than have you cut some down."'

Fire commanders say they are more likely to walk away from houses without a buffer zone, which can be as simple as raking debris from around a house and leaving a bed of gravel at the foundation, or putting metal roofs on their homes instead of flammable wood shakes.

Until recently, firefighters "saluted and went out and did it," said Don Smurthwaite, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesman and former firefighter. Now, "we will not ask a fire crew in a dangerous fire to defend a structure that has not taken precautionary steps. That's definitely a change."

The author Norman Maclean immortalized images of Montana's wilderness in his book "A River Runs Through It" and his son John has written his own chronicles about wildfire and death in the western states. Writing about two recent disasters - the South Canyon Fire that killed 14 firefighters in Colorado and the 30 Mile Fire that left four dead in Washington State - Maclean told CBS News affiliate KPAX those experiences have changed the culture of the U.S. Forest Service when it comes to fighting fires.

"If you go out as a fire boss and you have a bad day and somebody gets killed, are you going to get sued in civil court and lose your house and your savings?" Maclean asked, "Are you going to end up in the dock on criminal charges?"

Wildfires have always naturally swept the landscape, but scientists say they are becoming more catastrophic. There is little dispute that the wildfires are being fueled by a hotter weather, a yearslong drought, the spread of weeds that burn like oily rags and the buildup of forest debris from decades in which fires were routinely suppressed.

"We, at least, seem to be having larger and more intense fires," said U.S. Forest Service fire researcher Jack Cohen in Missoula, Mont.
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