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Summer of Fire

Aired June 8, 2003 - 20:00   ET


BRUCE BURKHARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It is light and heat, equal parts beauty and beast. Learning to start it and control it was one of the first sparks of civilization.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a species monopoly over fire. We are the only species that manipulates fire this way.

BURKHARDT: But that power has a downside. We have manipulated fire too well. Keeping it out of our forests has turned them into tinder boxes. This is nature's way of telling us something is wrong.

As for the troops on the ground in this battle against blazes, they are on the front lines for a full summer of fire.


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Summer is here, and across the drought- ridden west, that means another round in the ongoing war against wildfire. Welcome to CNN PRESENTS. I'm Aaron Brown.

Last summer was a wildfire season of incredible proportions, flames roaring across the parched woodlands of the west burning nearly 7 million acres. During the fire season's peak, authorities reported as many as 500 new fires each day.

What interests us are the men and women who fight these fires, the hot shots and the smoke jumpers who risk their lives to turn back the flames. Last summer, thousands of them mounted what was essentially a military campaign to control the fires. It is dangerous, and it is dirty work, but like any good military campaign, it is also full of drama, of generals plotting strategies, of armies employing new technologies, of warriors in the field displaying heroism.

What is it really like on the front lines? CNN correspondent, Bruce Burkhardt, and producer, Craig Duff, went to war with the firefighters last summer, and here is their story, a program we call, "Summer of Fire".


BURKHARDT: The summer of 2002, fire is big news.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Flames race through the night, consuming just about anything in its path.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They told we had two minutes to leave.

BURKHARDT: In fact, wildfires are so much in the news, we know the biggest ones by name, names usually given to the region where they start. The Hayman Fire in Colorado had 138,000 acres it menaced the city of Denver for nearly a month before it was contained.

GAIL NORTON, U.S. INTERIOR SECRETARY: The growth of that fire was just explosive. The smoke was spreading over the Denver like I, as a Denver, had seldom seen in my lifetime.

BURKHARDT: In Arizona, two fires merged into one, it's name a combination of cowboys and Indians, Rodeo-Chediski. Four hundred sixty-nine thousand acres burned, nearly 500 homes destroyed, 30,000 evacuated.

And the biggest of the season, the Biscuit Fire in Oregon. It swept across nearly 500,000 acres.

BURKHARDT (on camera): Looking back, it was bound to happen. A drought that has gone on for years, a weather forecast that called for nothing but hot and dry, and out there, a tinder box just waiting for a match.

BURKHARDT (voice over): This is the nerve center for wildfire response, NIFC, the National Interagency Fire Center based in Boise, Idaho.

KIM CHRISTENSEN, NATIONAL INTERAGENCY FIRE CENTER: This part right here is our intelligence section.

BURKHARDT: Kim Christensen manages the coordination center at NIFC, where everything from aircraft to portable toilets is dispatched as needed.

CHRISTENSEN: We are in constant communication with our counterparts out in the field, and when they start having fires occur, we are going to be getting information from them in terms of where the fires are, what are the values at risk, what threats are there to life and property.

BURKHARDT: At the fire season's peak, there will be times when more than 500 fires are reported here in just one day, but most of those fires never make the news.

NORTON: Within the first 24 hours usually, we have almost all the fires under control.

BURKHARDT: In fact, 99 percent of all fires reported are put out in the initial attack. When fires get large and local crews can't put them out, NIFC springs into action. They will call on national resources to attack fires from the air and the ground. These can include tankers, helicopter repelling crews, and parachuting firefighters called smoke jumpers. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know that you could say smoke jumpers think of themselves as the elite of the fire world, but certainly, a lot of people in the media and the fire world have put that label on us.

BURKHARDT: Mike Tuffer (ph) has dedicated 23 years of his life to fighting fires, 18 of them as a smoke jumper. His BLM team is one of nine jumper bases in the country. When he parachutes, he carries everything he needs to survive two weeks in the woods.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For two weeks, you get a toothbrush, two pairs of socks, and a T-shirt.

BURKHARDT: Along with the tools to tackle fires.

Is this pretty typical what you dress out in?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, this is exactly what I would, if I was getting on load right now.

BURKHARDT: Why the cage?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sticks, brush, trees, bad landings.

BURKHARDT: So, I mean, you are often coming down in the trees?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, but you try to avoid them. Yes, but it can happen.

BURKHARDT: I mean, how much does all this come together?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Eighty-five pounds. I exit the airplane, and I weight 85 pounds more than I do standing right here.

BURKHARDT: You have to be really strong to be a smoke jumper.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It helps. It helps. Yes, you do.

BURKHARDT: It is a peculiar way of life, this culture of wildfire fighting. At the height of the fire season, 28,000 people were employed in some kind of wild land firefighting capacity.

And when a blaze survives the initial attack, that is when they call in the ground troops, the hot shots. At a small airport in rural Idaho, the Sawtooth hot shot team reports for duty. It is the first day of a two-week assignment, what they call a roll. They are ready to camp for days, spiking out, they call it, carrying everything they need, personal gear, hand tools, and chair saws in two packs each.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because they work together and they know each other, they really do begin to complement each other with their strengths.

BURKHARDT: They are a very fit and rugged bunch of 20 young men and women from across the country and various walks of life. Over five months of hard work, they earn about $11 an hour plus overtime, enough for the college students on the crew to not have to work during the school year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First off, make sure you all have your PPE on, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) down, ear protection, your eye protection.

BURKHARDT: Though they often hike to fires, today helicopters will drop the crew deep into the Payette National Forest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You guys have to puke? Puke right here because you don't want to clean it up.

BURKHARDT: It has already been a busy season for this crew. They fought fires in Alaska, Utah, and Oregon. Now the battle will be waged a little closer to their Twin Falls, Idaho, home base.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ok, 57 -- 55 on the weather.

BURKHARDT: Within an hour of arrival, the crew is on the job. They break up into smaller groups, spanning out over a 25-acre area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The hot shots are, in some ways, just really the heavy duty, grunt labor. They literally just scrape, cut, clear for hours upon hours day after day until it's done.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People I talk to, they thing we're out there fighting these blazing fire every day and running, digging lines. That's not really reality at all.

BURKHARDT: This is how the hot shots spend a lot of the summer, doing mop up, the tedious but necessary task of putting a fire completely out.

TOM BATES, FIREFIGHTER: All it takes is one spot that is missed, and the process starts all over again. So, on a fire of this size and in this field type, it needs to be taken care of 100 percent. There is no better way to do that than put it to the touch.

BURKHARDT: It's called cold trailing, feeling for hot spots, making sure to leave an absolutely cold trail behind. No high-tech heat-seeking gadgets here. The best tool is a hot shot's bare hands.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, you are sticking your bare hand into hot stuff, looking for hot stuff, and you are bound to find it one time or another.

BURKHARDT: These mop up operations can drag on for days, but it is all in the life of a hot shot.

GEORGE KOCHMAN, SAWTOOTH HOT SHOT: Five percent of the job (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and 95 percent (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and that five percent is (UNINTELLIGIBLE), or you are having a really good time, and you are doing something really exciting, something that you have never done before.

BURKHARDT: Every hot shot on this crew dreams of that five percent, those heart-pounding moments. This roll is just getting started. With a season as intense as this summer of fire, anything could happen in the coming days.


BURKHARDT: Since humans are the only species that controls and manipulates fire, it should come as not surprise that the majority of wild land fires are set by people, either being careless or on purpose.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Authorities say the contract firefighter used matches to set dry grass ablaze.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am saddened to see that one of our employees has admitted starting the Hayman fire.

BURKHARDT: But other fires are started by nature herself, and the biggest fire of the season began like this, at the crack of dawn in mid August. The generals in this battle gather for a morning briefing.

Nearly a month after it started, the Biscuit Fire has now spread over 400,000 acres and is still weeks away from being contained. With resources thin, NIFC has called in firefighting managers from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to help out.

More than 7,000 people were at work on this fire today. In fact, it is so large it has been divided into four zones. Dan Altrougee (ph) is the incident commander of Zone One, the largest zone on the fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have got crews burning up. They are right about in here right now coming from the bottom, and they are right about in here coming from the top.

BURKHARDT (on camera): So, you are really trying to pinch it, pinch it off.


BURKHARDT: It is like a military campaign.


BURKHARDT (voice over): Brad Smith is a fire behavior analyst.

BRAD SMITH, FIRE BEHAVIOR ANALYST: I look at topography. I take the weather forecasts that the meteorologists are putting out and try to figure out if this is going to be threat to the folks working on this line right here.

BURKHARDT: I have heard the certain fires have certain personalities. Does this fire have a unique personality?

SMITH: It's just a big-ass fire. You've got a lot of terrain out there...

BURKHARDT: That's its personality. SMITH: That's it's personality. I mean, it's huge.

BURKHARDT (on camera): How do you stop a big-ass fire? Well, fires need three things to burn. First of all, they need fuel. Not (UNINTELLIGIBLE), there's plenty of that. With the drought, it's dry and ready to burn.

Do you ever blow on a fire to get it going? Well, what you are doing is adding air to the fire. Fires need oxygen to burn.

And, obviously, fires need heat. It's called the fire triangle. Fuel, oxygen, and heat. You take away any one of those three, and you have put the fire out. So, tankers from the air douse the flames with water and retardant, taking away heat and oxygen.

But the biggest tools for wild land firefighting is robbing a fire of fuel, and that can mean burning up fuel before the fire gets to it, fighting fire with fire. To do that, the team has drawn a line ahead of the fire, using this road as their main path. The line will stretch a daunting 30 miles.

To prep, they will clear out the brush along the line and, eventually, burn out anything that can burn. So, when the fire advances, it will be starved for fuel.

PRUETT SMALL, FIRE CONTROL MANAGER: Well, what we do is we will break the fire up into chunks of land so that manage it effectively, and we call those divisions.

BURKHARDT: More than a dozen divisions, each with fire engines, hot shot crews, and other firefighters. Supporting these operations is a virtual army of folks. These incident management teams rival the military in their ability to mobilize on a fire and fast.

STEPHEN J. PYNE, PH.D., AUTHOR: The mobilization that a company's large fires in the United States is really one of the marvels of the world. No other country really quite does that, and it many ways, it is a model for large-scale mobilization for any kind of disaster.

BURKHARDT: There are two fire camps in this zone on the Biscuit Fire. Howard Carlson (ph) led me on a tour of this city of tents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Medical is right over hear. This is the -- one of the eating areas. The showers are inside the vans.

BURKHARDT: Oh, those big, orange trucks.


BURKHARDT: And there is also everything necessary to resupply to line.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's Nomex clothing. There's gloves. There's hot food cans. There's fuel cans.

BURKHARDT: It's kind of like the Wal-mart of the camp.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the -- exactly.

BURKHARDT: But somebody has got to supply this place. That brings us back to NIFC in Boise.

About how much square footage do you have here?

LINDA BASS FIREFIGHTER SUPPLIER: Oh, in this warehouse, 50,000 square feet. We are trying to get rid of...

BURKHARDT: Linda Bass is in charge of what's called the Great Basin Cache.

BURKHARDT (on camera): It's like supporting an army in the field, I guess.

BASS: It is.

BURKHARDT (voice over): And it costs money, too. By mid August, fighting the Biscuit Fire has already cost taxpayers $120 million, and the work is far from over, but when fire is bearing down on a community, residents there hope no expense is spared.

Breakfast with the Sawtooth hotshots. The luck of the draw of MREs, meals ready to eat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The living conditions are, you know, fairly primitive. We like to be low maintenance. The food if we are out, spiked out, if we can keep things simple and just bring in MREs and water, that is cost efficient.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Peanut butter and crackers. I got the last bit of my rotten cheese spread.

KASEY HOCHMUNT, FIREFIGHTER: One thing I always hear is we are the first to get up in the morning, and we are the last to go to bed at night, and that is very true (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BATES: A pretty typical morning, MREs for breakfast, a little coffee, and on the road we will go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nothing beats Copenhagen for breakfast.

BRENT JENKINS, FIREFIGHTER: Everything is a lot nicer out here. A lot of the times meals, you know, if you find a flat spot to sleep, that's usually (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and if it doesn't rain on you, that's nice too. You take a lot less for granted out here, which is part of the reason I do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm doing the same thing we were doing yesterday. We will probably just break up into the same groups.

You work with a bunch of great people from everywhere. I mean, there's no chance I would have met people from the places that our crew comes from, other than this job, you know. BURKHARDT: Another day of mop up, a mind-numbing job of cold trailing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know those little deals like in "Men in Black", where (UNINTELLIGIBLE). You just make yourself think you are fishing all day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actually, I'm really fishing today. We are in a new hole here, and it's looking pretty good. We just dipped into it. I'm about ready to crack a beer. Would you like one?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Awesome. Great. Great. We'll let you know about the fishing line. I'm just going to paddle on over here.

BURKHARDT: And when you are out here for so many hours, 24/7, you get to know your crewmates pretty well, guys and gals.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We learn to leave gender behind almost.

BURKHARDT: And that group camaraderie draws people from far and wide, like George, studying to be a doctor back east.

KOCHMAN: Not everyone comes from the same educational background as me. Not everyone has the same educational goals, but everyone on this crew thinks about things on a very deep level.

GABRIEL HOLMES, FIREFIGHTER: Friends for life. These are the best people in the world, and I trust every one of these people with my life.

BURKHARDT: At the end of another long day, there is a surprise, no MREs tonight. Catering has been flown in to feed a half dozen crews on this fire.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, sometimes it is great after you have been eating MREs for three or four days. When you get into camp or something, and they have some good food -- you know, my appetite is a lot bigger than it used to be. I can eat a lot more. I just kind of pack it in.

BURKHARDT: Before they call it a night, the will gather for what is fondly known as team time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sharpen our tools, talk about what we did during the day, you know. There is usually a story about somebody doing something stupid that will, you know, at least give us a little chuckle at night.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You get to relax. You get that pack off you. You get to sit down, get warm.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's good. It's down time.

BURKHARDT: When the camp fire is out, the hot shot sleeps and dreams of bigger fires, bigger challenges for the crew.


BURKHARDT (voice over): After four days of mopping up, the Sawtooth hot shots fly back out of the woods to hear their next assignment. Ready for anything, itching for flames. They head to the fire camp set up at the local high school in Council, Idaho, to find out. While they wait, there is time for a quick shower, welcome after five days in the same socks and underwear, and a quick shave for those with whiskers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dispatch is down to the Sequoia, Fernville (ph), California. We've got a long haul. We are going to try and hit Reno this evening.

BURKHARDT: The crew hits the road again, a two-day drive to California. The fire they are assigned to, the McNally Fire, started when a campfire got out of control. It has been burning for three weeks. For several days, it threatened the ancient, giant Sequoia trees in the adjacent national park, but firefighters kept it at bay. The contained the northwestern flank, and now the fire is moving east through a wilderness area at Inyo National Forest.

As the hot shots arrive on scene, a column of smoke builds over the ridge line. Today the heat and low humidity turn this fire into a beast. It gobbles up some 6,000 acres in an afternoon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: California fire is a new experience for me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I talked with operations, and they don't have an assignment for us this afternoon.

BURKHARDT: But these hot shots will have to wait until tomorrow. Down time, time to enjoy the sunset, play a little ball, issue a Sumo challenge, and rest up to mobilize bright and early when they could be face to face with fire.

BURKHARDT (on camera): Are you about ready to fire this thing up?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have got a few calibrations to go through, set the cameras up.

BURKHARDT (voice over): At that National Fire Lab in Missoula, Montana, fire scientists gather data that will ultimately help firefighters do their jobs better in the field.

BRENT BUTLER, FIRE BEHAVIOR SCIENTIST: We are going to light the fire right here, and it will burn down this fuel bed, and that gives us a base measurement of how fast fires burn under these fuel conditions.

BURKHARDT: With sensors set up, fire behavior scientist, Brent Butler, mimics conditions in the wild lands, fuel type, wind, and very important, the relative humidity, or R.H.

BUTLER: We want a 80 degrees Fahrenheit and 20 percent relative humidity.

BURKHARDT: And another experiment, same conditions, with one difference.

BUTLER: The only difference now between the one we burned previously and this one is the slope. That's -- everything else should be exactly the same.

BURKHARDT: If you ever wanted proof that you shouldn't try to outrun a fire going uphill, this is it.

BUTLER: So, see, rather than vertical, the flames are almost sucked into the fuel bed.

BURKHARDT: So, they are. They don't run -- they don't go vertical.

When the fuel was flat, it took about 12 minutes to burn, but uphill...

BUTLER: Twelve seconds.

BURKHARDT: You called it. You have done this before.

BUTLER: The result is a much hotter fire, a much faster fire.

BURKHARDT: Unlike people, a fire can run up a hill much faster than it does downhill. This is what often gets firefighters in trouble and is a significant safety factor when fighting fires in steep terrain. It is one of the main reasons this fire line at the Biscuit Fire in Oregon is on top of the ridge. They will burn it downhill to give them more control.

Ground crews prepare to ignite this section of the fire line and as the fire itself advances a mile or two away.

BURKHARDT (on camera): The containment line is being built on the other side of that ridge up there, and the reason there is so much urgency to build and hold that line is this. The Rogue River and the tourism economy it supports. But more importantly, if the fire breaks that line, there is no other good possible break points for miles and miles in that direction, and Oregon's largest fire in a century could become much bigger.

This is the first day, since the fire started three weeks ago, that the heavy smoke has blown over this section of the river.

DEBBIE ROBBINS, ROGUE RIVER MERCHANT: I am more nervous now than I have ever been.

BURKHARDT: Debbie Robbins manages the Galice Resort, popular with Rogue River rafters and fisherman.

ROBBINS: We have hoses and pumps already set up to be put in the river and ready to save our building, but the problem is is when it comes over that mountain, it is going to come quick. BURKHARDT: While operations continue on the ridge line, fire crews go house to house preparing neighbors for the worst.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tires, that's a big fuel problem. Embers...

BURKHARDT: They offer advise on how they can make their homes and yards more fire resistant.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gutters need to be cleaned. That's a huge thing.

BURKHARDT: And even doing some of the work themselves to clear out brush. This is Debbie's house.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's nasty work.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is kind of behind the scenes kind of stuff. This isn't the glory and guts with the flames and -- you know looking at the firefighters. But this is so important.

BURKHARDT: Meanwhile, back on the ridge, firefighters are ready to set a fire that they hope will keep the Biscuit fire from ever reaching the Rove (ph) river.





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Say, aren't you Smoky the forest fire preventing bear?

BURKHARDT (voice over): The problem is, we all believed him. Believed in a bear.


"SMOKEY THE BEAR": Only you can prevent forest fires.


BOONE KAUFFMAN: Some of the most powerful symbols we have are Smokey the bear saying only you can prevent forest fires. When in fact, the reality is is we really can't prevent forest fires. We can postpone forest fires.

BURKHARDT: And if the bear didn't scare you, then maybe this did.

PYNE: In many ways, I think Bambi was a more effective message than Smokey. BURKHARDT: The message was simple, and unmistakable, fire, bad. Only recently, are we realizing that Smokey despite his good intentions was only half-right.

KAUFFMAN: Like most of the forest of the west, virtually all of the plants, and the animals, and the insect, did coevolve with fire. And are adapted to fire. And many species even depend upon fire for their survival and reproduction and establishment.

BURKHARDT: For centuries, before European settlement of the west, fire did function. And the forest then looked quite different.

NORTON: When Lewis and Clark came through the Pacific Northwest; they saw forests that were much different than what we saw today. Forests are about 15 times as dense as what we saw 100 years ago, or 200 years ago.

BURKHARDT: A thick under story throughout much of the western landscape. Thanks to the emphasis on prevention, many forests are thick and ripe for burning.

(on camera): If you ever tried to start a campfire, you could understand what is meant by under story, which is the heart of this argument over forest management. Now imagine this log is like one of those tall hearty trees that grow in our western forest. Well try to light it like this. You'll be at it all day. But build up a pile of kindling beneath it, and in no time at all, that once stubborn log will be engulfed in flame.

That kindling is no different than the under story in our forests. Because we've controlled fire for so long, our forests are full of kindling. And when it burns, it burns hot.

KAUFFMAN: We've created a condition where we've -- these new trees that have been planted (ph) we also call latter fuels. Because they literally can allow the fire to -- that used to be moving in the under story to sweep up through the mid story, and into the crowns of the over story trees therefore, killing all of the large trees in the forest as well.

BURKHARDT: Which is not a good deal?

KAUFFMAN: No, it's not a good deal.

BURKHARDT (voice over): Just about all of the players involved now agree that thinning is necessary, including President Bush, who used the Biscuit fore to represent his healthy forest initiative.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We need to understand, if you let kindling build up, and there's a lightening strike, you're going to get yourself a big fire. That's what we got to understand.

NORTON: It's important that we find some ways of treating the forests, and treating the overgrowth within the forests.

BURKHARDT: But environmentalists claim this healthy forest initiative is more about keeping logging companies healthy.

SEAN COSGROVE, THE SIERRA GROUP: The president's initiative focuses on increasing commercial logging across the landscape.

BURKHARDT: As the Sierra Club and others point out, timber companies have no interest in the brush, and smaller trees that need to be cleared out. They want the big trees. The Green Groups also think The Bush Plan would gut environmental standards, removing public participation from the process.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they want to actually do service contracts, and remove flammable material, and do (ph) prescribed (ph) burning, and that kind of thing, let's do it. We certainly agree on that. But, what they're looking at is providing timber for the industry.

BURKHARDT: However fire reduction treatment is done; it will take time to undo what more than a century of fire suppression has created. Because of that, we need to brace ourselves for more of this.

Five a.m. at the McNally fire in California. The Sawtooth Hotshots are up before the California sunrise. They have only 10 minutes to rise and shine, pack their gear, lace their boots, ready to roll.

JENKINS: It was tough in the beginning. But you get used to it. And you start doing little tricks, like sleeping in most of your clothes and not really lacing your boots up all the way.

BURKHARDT: After breakfast...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ...stations around this...

BURKHARDT: ... and a briefing...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So it's getting dryer, and warmer. That's a watch out situation.

BURKHARDT: These Hotshots get closer to the real heat. The goal today; build a line of defense.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Run it right along this ridgeline. And this ridgeline runs off to the east is the wilderness boundary.

BURKHARDT: The crew will cut out all the fuels for about 30 feet on either side of the line. Bulldozers lead the way. They call them fallers, because of what they make trees do.

KEN BELL, SAWTOOTH HOTSHOTS: The dozers, you know, we always joke and call them 20 person hotshot crews, because they can so much more line than just the hotshot crew can.

BURKHARDT: The dozers also know out a five-acre safety zone. A place of refuge, in case the fire comes blazing this way. Once the line is done, they'll set a fire to burn out anything that can burn in a thirty-foot wide swamp (ph), to starve the fire as it marches forward.

That's what they're doing at the Biscuit fire in Oregon. Where conditions are ripe. Firefighters are ready to burn out. Setting a fire on this ridgeline.

DAN JOHNSON, FIREFIGHTER: What we're trying to do is eliminate the ground fuels which are -- act as a latter, if you will. Once it gets into the trees, then it's a whole different issue for us. It's a whole lot harder for us to control.

BURKHARDT: The trick is to keep the burn on this side of the ridge, and away from this side. And although all the conditions, the relative humidity, the wind, and other variables are just right, right now for keeping it over here, it's still a calculated risk. And already one spot fire has been reported on this side as a result of a flying amber. But that's why the helicopters are standing by overhead with water. To put those spot fires out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then what we'll do, get that done. And then come in and do what we call add depth to the line. And that means through aerial ignition, helicopters firing from helicopters.

BURKHARDT: They use helicopters to go where it's to dangerous to put firefighters on the ground. Copters fly deep into the valleys, and release hundreds of golf ball sized pellets filled with incendiary chemicals that ignite on impact.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To give ourselves more of a buffer, when this fire wants to bump us. So it will lesson the chance that it's going to spot over this and give us problems.

BURKHARDT: Problems might be an understatement. And as the fire moves ever closer, fingers are crossed. Probably a few toes too. Hoping that this line will keep the monster at bay.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two strong points for the...

BURKHARDT: For the Sawtooth Hot Shots, it's time to fight fire with fire.

BATES: Well, we're going to initiate a little burn. And just form a little buffer up top there in the event that that fire (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and the drainage starts working up.

BURKHARDT: The McNally fire in California has already consumed more than 130,000 acres.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That heavy's (ph) going to be on call. He's going to be actively doing bucket work and bravo-bravo (ph) and...

BURKHARDT: And these Hot Shots, along with 1,400 other firefighters and support personnel are determined to hold the line.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, sir. BURKHARDT: The Hot Shots have completed one mission; clearing a fire line to keep the flames from leaking over to a wilderness area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is rough, but we'll call this Black Mountain over here due our east.

BURKHARDT: Now, it's time for their next mission. Wind and weather conditions have made it possible.

BRIAN CRESTO, SAWTOOTH HOT SHOTS: Now it's going to be good to look at the fire, da-ta-da (ph), burn side. But what I need is eyes in the green. We need to pick these spots up if they happen. Does everybody got that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's burn. Let's do it.

BURKHARDT: Remember that 5 percent they mentioned? That 5 percent that makes it all worth wild? This is it.

COREY BERG: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) working off the top of the ridge top here. They're getting fire on the ground.

BURKHARDT: Drip torches filled with a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel put down a blanket of flame.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It wasn't to much activity, but as this -- heat starts to pretreat the needles (ph) and what not, the intensity builds up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) just pick up a couple spots out of this.

BURKHARDT: That's the biggest danger in this operation. The embers blowing across the lines.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's why we've got these folks watching for that. They're watching in the green. The green side that you don't want to have burn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Status report: Things are going well. We have a little bit of wind quartering over the lines, but we're not picking up any spots. And we got a couple more hours of burning to continue to carry on down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't want any of these trees right next to the line to start torching. So things are heating up quite a bit underneath them. Throw a little dirt on them.

BURKHARDT: It's called hot shoveling, for obvious reasons. As they work their way down the line, the ignition team keeps dripping fire onto the forest floor. Its spotter is following close behind.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Move them down!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When's the last time you had a torch here?

BURKHARDT: The wind has picked up. But at night, the embers are easier to spot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can get those folks to bump up and get about 50 feet off of you.

GABRIEL HOLMES, SAWTOOTH HOT SHOTS: It's just pretty amazing. Just to see something so beautiful, and then a fire ripped through it, and then the next thing, it's a moonscape. Can't really explain it. It's just something that you feel.

BURKHARDT: National safety ruled. Meaning the Hot Shots will have to quit after 16 hours of work. As their shift comes to a close, another crew from the Apache Reservation in Arizona marches up the hill to relieve them. But every one of the Sawtooth bunch would rather stay here and finish what they started. It's nights like these that make a Hot Shot feel like a Hot Shot.


BURKHARDT: At the end of a 14-day roll, the Sawtooth Hot Shots come home to Idaho. Their burnout in California was a success, but they had to leave the McNally fire in order to get two days of required R&R. They'll head back out again after that. Though they don't know where.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to be ready to go back out?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh yes. I'm always ready to go back out. It's just nice to have your two days off around there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So how is everybody holding up after 14 days?

BATES: Oh good. Fourteen is less than we used to do least. Not very long ago it was 21 and really the days aren't the key there. It's the -- it's the assignments, and how taxing those are. It can be a four-day situation and people are pretty smoked.

BURKHARDT: They're home, but not off duty yet. They still have another four or five hours of cleaning and prepping, so when the next call comes, they will be ready to move at a moments notice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seems like when you got out of that car, the last thing you'd want to do is come in here and do this stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I think everyone wants to get out of here, but here we are, so we'll do it. Get it done, and do it right, and be ready to go back out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's looking pretty nasty in there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, make it look new again.

BURKHARDT: Three months into a summer of fire. Routine is well entrenched. These 18 men and two women have two more months, four more rolls, before the season ends.

HOCHMUNT: It's always kind of bittersweet when it comes because your body really needs the -- really needs the break, but I'm going to miss it. It's nice hard work.

BURKHARDT: A month and a half, after it began, the Biscuit fire, the largest in a century in Oregon, is finally contained. The line on the northeast flank held. Kept the flames from reaching the Rowe (ph) river. A relief to the folks here, at the Galese Resort.

MARY LOU THOMASON, GALISSE RESORT: How are you? The fire was so huge, and so powerful, we thought that it would probably come to the river for sure.

BURKHARDT: Final toll, just under 500,000 acres. More 150 million dollars spent so far to put it out.

(on camera): You say 500,000 acres of fire and you might expect to see 500,000 acres of scorched and blackened earth. But the Biscuit fire, like most wildfires, burned with varying degrees of intensity. In some areas not at all. The result as you can see is this mosaic pattern.

(voice over): The fire skipped around. After analysis, the forest service concluded that 19 percent of the area didn't burn at all.

KAUFFMAN: And only 15 or 16 percent burned where all of the over story vegetation was killed.

BURKHARDT: Once a fire is extinguished, that's not the end of the story. In fact, it's the beginning of another battle. In some ways more complex than the firefight. And almost certainly longer.

A few weeks after the Biscuit fire was contained, crews are already at work doing some emergency environmental rehab work to prevent erosion and pollution from fire damage.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The crews are spreading grass seed that's native to this area.

BURKHARDT: Cecille Showitt (ph) leads a crew that plants native grasses in an area that was cleared as a safety zone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The areas where suppression activities happened, where firefighters had to doze a line, or to do hand lines, we're worried a lot about soil erosion.

KAUFFMAN: If you go out there today, you'll see many of the areas that were on fire three weeks ago, or a month ago, you'll already find sprouts on the ground.

BURKHARDT: And those sprouts speak volumes about the natural role of fire. In the Final analysis, the Biscuit fire as big as it was, helped nature.

KAUFFMAN: Particularly, when you go to Southwest Oregon, when you go to areas where fire was so frequent and the history of the stands, you'll see that virtually all of the plant species are adapted to fire. Many actually even require fire for reproduction. BURKHARDT: The summer of fire. The seemingly endless summer to those in the front lines finally petered out. But only after more than seven million acres burned, a billion and a half dollars spent, and 21 firefighter lives lost. Front lines, battleground, holding the line, the language of war. We've used it throughout this program.

But maybe we need to learn a new language. One that includes fire as part of the system. Even letting some fires burn if it's best for the forest. And acknowledging fire as not always the enemy.

PYNE: We keep -- the default setting is the firefight, as a kind of moral equivalent of war. And so we've reduced this wonderful and complicated and subtle relationship we have through fire to one thing; the battlefield. The firefight, and that's not good enough.

BURKHARDT: And until we understand more clearly, this delicate dance between humans and fire, every summer could become a summer of fire.


BROWN: So what about this fire season? How bad will it be out west? Well the drought has not eased, and the woodlands remain tinder dry. But there is some good news. By this time last year, the fire season was well underway. So far this year, nothing major. Not yet. I'm Aaron Brown. We'll see you next week.


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