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'Wildfire' Author Embedded With Elite Firefighters, Remains Optimistic Despite Challenges

Inciweb via AP
This Sept. 4, 2017, photo provided by Inciweb shows a wildfire burning in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, Ore.

Summer this year in the Pacific Northwest is once again expected to be hotter and drier than normal. That means higher potential for wildfires from July through September.

Just in time for the heat, a new book on fighting and managing those fires is out from local publisher, Mountaineers Books. It’s focused on an elite wildland firefighting force in Boulder, Colorado.

KNKX sat down with Heather Hansen, the author of Wildfire: On the Front Lines with Station 8.

Hansen, who has a long track record as an environmental reporter and writer, says she moved to Boulder in 2002. On the day she arrived, one of the largest wildfires the community has ever faced had just started.

“So from the very beginning of my time in Boulder, I was watching fire,” she said.

That got her curious about the firefighters, known as the Hot Irons, who are unique because they’re full-time employees who work for the city of Boulder. But they fight fires outside the city, to protect it. And when they’re not needed in Boulder, they travel to other places on exchange.

“They’re not a hot-shot group, but they are a rare group in that they are municipal wildland fire crew. And they have fought fire from the Alaskan tundra to the everglades and under all possible conditions of remoteness and altitude and temperature extremes – anything you can think of,” she said.

Hansen embedded with them for about 18 months, working out, training, eating and learning from them. She says there is so much more to the challenges of firefighting and fire science than she had imagined going in.

“They taught me a new language, they taught me a new way of looking at the landscape, they taught me a new way of reading the weather,” Hansen said.

In addition to her time spent with the guys from Station 8, Hansen did extensive interviews with experts on climate change and fire science as they relate to the history and future of firefighting, both on private and public lands. She says the science points to many more challenges ahead.

“We’re not headed anywhere good. If we continue on the current trajectory, the experts predict that we are headed for year-round fire seasons in a lot of places,” she said.

“In the Pacific Northwest, the statistics are pretty staggering over the past couple of decades in terms of the amount of forest land that’s burned – that’s not all land that shouldn’t burn,” she says, adding that one of the big lessons is the need to re-think how we live with fire.

“There are places where we have to allow fire – and we have to manage it and we have to set fire, as long as the values we have aren’t at risk.”

Still, she says overall, the deep dive she’s done into the topic left her feeling cautiously optimistic.

“There’s a lot that we need to do in our private and our public lands to be ready,” she said, pointing to a future shaped by a steadily warming climate.

“At the same time, there are so many people working to make things right again… both in the public and private sphere that can do a lot.”

Heather Hansen will give a talk and read from her new book at the Mountaineers Program Center in the Sand Point neighborhood of Seattle Tuesday evening, June 19 at 7 p.m.   

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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