The West's Deadly Fields of Wildfire: Surviving the Hottest, Most Destructive Season in Years

By Morganthau, Tom | Newsweek, August 14, 2000 | Go to article overview

The West's Deadly Fields of Wildfire: Surviving the Hottest, Most Destructive Season in Years


Morganthau, Tom, Newsweek


The big picture was awesome: 60 to 70 major wildfires burning across nearly 750,000 acres in 11 Western states, 20,000 firefighters working to contain those fires at a cost of about $8 million a day, scores of new fires ignited by lightning every night and all of it adding up to the hottest, most destructive summer season in 50 years. But none of those high-altitude facts can convey the sheer terror of being trapped in a 70-foot wall of flame moving faster than a man can run--which is exactly what happened to a four-man crew battling a big brushfire in Riverside County, Calif., last week. All four suffered second-degree burns and were hospitalized--two in serious condition. "From what I understand, this fire came so fast it was just unbelievable," said Joanne Evans of the state Department of Forestry. "When you get downdrafts, they can take the fire and shoot it down a hill in a second, almost."

The weather--hot, dry and windy--was creating explosively hazardous conditions on millions of acres of American outback in every state from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean. "We're really at the mercy of Mother Nature," said Mike Dombeck, chief of the U.S. Forest Service. "Unless we have a miraculous change in the weather, I think we can look forward to several tough weeks ahead of us." Property losses across the region were incalculable, although only six deaths have been attributed to the fire epidemic so far. That included one member of the crew of a firefighting helicopter that crashed near Elko, Nev., last week. "Things are not improving. …

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