The Age Of Megafires

Expert: Warming Climate Fueling Megafires

CBS All Access
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This story was first published on Oct. 21, 2007. It was updated on Sept. 3, 2009.

The wild fire that threatened Los Angeles this past week is not a typical fire: it's what is being called a "megafire," and scientists now say we should brace ourselves for more and more of these fires in the coming years.

In truth, we have never seen anything like them before - forest infernos ten times bigger than the fires we're used to seeing. Two years ago, during one of the worst fire seasons in recorded history, Scott Pelley went out on the fire line to see why so much of the American West is burning.

The men and women facing the flames are elite federal firefighters called "Hotshots."

Nationwide there are 92 hotshot crews of 20 members each. 60 Minutes found a group of New Mexico hotshots in the Salmon River Mountains of Idaho. They had set up camp in a burned-out patch of forest with fire raging all around. They were hitting the day, exhausted, halfway through a 14-day shift.

Leaving camp to scout out the situation, the firefighters anticipated a mess and they found it: the valley was engulfed in smoke. The flames blew through the firebreak lines they dug the day before.

"We were trying to turn the corner yesterday, and that's when it kind of blew out. I think we got more ground over here that's been taken. Any questions?" a firefighter said.

No question, this day the fire won. It surged across the mountain, forcing the hotshots to evacuate. All across the West, crews are playing defense, often pulling back to let acres burn, but standing firm to save communities. One stand this season (2007) came in August at Ketchum, Idaho. Forecasters said it was 99 percent certain Ketchum would be lost if nothing was done. Some 1,700 local, state, and federal firefighters came from across the nation, working around the clock from a mountainside camp.

Residents were evacuated, as 300-foot flames headed for homes.

60 Minutes joined up with Tom Boatner, who after 30 years on the fire line, became chief of fire operations for the federal government.

"A fire of this size and this intensity in this country would have been extremely rare 15, 20 years they're commonplace these days," Boatner says.

"Ten years ago, if you had a 100,000 acre fire, you were talking about a huge fire. And if we had one or two of those a year, that was probably unusual. Now we talk about 200,000 acre fires like it's just another day at the office. It's been a huge change," he adds.

Asked what the biggest fires now are, Boatner says, "We've had, I believe, two fires this summer that have been over 500,000 acres, half a million acres, and one of those was over 600,000 acres."

"You wouldn't have expected to see this how recently?" Pelley asks.

"We got records going back to 1960 of the acres burned in America. So, that's 47 fire seasons. Seven of the 10 busiest fire seasons have been since 1999," Boatner says.

"You know what? It's hotter than hell right here," Pelley remarks.

"It's been pretty damn hot," Boatner says. "You can imagine the challenge for young men and women with hand tools like this to come up here and put out a fire like this, but there's thousands of people down there with multimillion dollar homes that are counting on them to do that."