When Boise resident Pat Telleria saw the wind-driven flames from the Table Rock Fire sweeping across the grass foothills toward his dream home on June 30, he picked up the phone.
In the middle of the night, he called 911. “I’m next. It’s coming right at me!’ he told dispatchers. “And they said, ‘You’re out of luck. All the resources are allocated.’” That’s when the wall of fire came at them “and it was humming.”
Telleria’s home stands on the edge of the wilderness in a landscape that offers pastoral serenity but is also susceptible to wildfires. Some 44 million homes have been built in similar areas of the Lower 48 states, making the properties expensive to protect from flames and draining resources that might otherwise be used to defend forests, rangeland and wildlife habitat.
“I fly back and forth across the country and I see it,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the nation’s top wildfire managers during a meeting in May at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “We should be holding these people accountable, and we’re not.”
Most of the homes have been erected in recent decades. More examples can be found in Santa Clarita, Calif., where a wildfire in mountains north of Los Angeles recently forced 20,000 people from their homes. Most residents were cleared to return on Tuesday, but the flames kept burning in the rugged terrain where many houses are tucked into canyon lands.
Laurent Lacore evacuated on Saturday, the last of his family to leave.
“The flames were right behind our backyard,” he said.
He returned Monday to find the house and everything around it had been saved. He could see a line of red fire retardant that had been dropped from the air to halt the fire’s approach.
“Everything is fine,” he said. “Even all of the trees are there.”
Firefighters saved about 2,000 homes in the fire’s first three days, Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp said.
In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service set aside more than half of its budget for fire suppression. In one week in August, it spent $243 million fighting fires, much of it to protect homes. By September, all the firefighting money had been spent, and the agency began using money initially intended for recreation and other projects.
Besides the financial burden, there’s also a human cost. Three firefighters died in Washington state last year and 19 perished in Arizona in 2013 while battling fires in the area that scientists call the wildland-urban interface.
“We find that funerals for firefighters are always well-attended,” said Larry Sutton, assistant director of operations for the Forest Service at the fire center. “To me, the best tribute to firefighters is a fire-adapted community.”
What he mostly sees is the opposite, he said, including areas destroyed by wildfire that get rebuilt with little regard for the next blaze by people who may believe firefighters will always be able to come to their rescue.
It may be just the mistaken belief that we’re always going to be able to show up and save the day.
Larry Sutton, assistant director of operations for the Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise
“But nothing would be able to stop some of these firestorms,” said Sutton, one of the seven members of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, which decides where to deploy limited firefighting resources.
Federal wildland firefighters follow rules that put life and property first.
“That doesn’t change,” Jewell told fire managers at the May meeting.
But with so much effort going into protecting homes, there’s increasing concern that other areas might get neglected. Last year, Jewell issued an order raising the protection level for sagebrush steppe, vast unpopulated areas where massive wildfires in the last decade have wiped out hundreds of square miles of habitat for sage grouse and more than 300 other species. The rangelands are also needed by ranchers to feed cattle.
If many more giant fires hit sage grouse habitat, experts say, the federal government would have little choice but to list the bird as needing federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. That step would result in severe restrictions on land use.
When developers put up homes or entire subdivisions in especially precarious locations, wildfire bosses get exasperated.
“It’s very frustrating for those folks,” said John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor and public lands expert who works with federal land managers. “No one would ever say it publicly. They would never say, ‘You ... never should have built here, and we’re not going to risk lives to protect it.’ ”
What federal officials do say publicly — and often — is that homeowners in wild areas need to create defensible space to protect their homes.
“We each have to take personal responsibility,” Jewell said.
That’s what Telleria did when he built his home in 2001. He used fire-resistant materials and put in large rocks to deflect flames. Each year, he removed encroaching vegetation to keep it away from the house.
As a result, his home survived the fire in late June despite being surrounded by flames that blackened the rest of the landscape. A neighbor’s house was destroyed, with the residents escaping just in time.
“I took into account the only guy I can depend on is myself,” said Telleria, who said he knew he lived in a fire-prone area. “It was an intense night, a long night, but here we are and the house is intact.”