Massive wildfires are taking a toll on communities throughout the American West, destroying homes and communities. Some people, however, have made a business model out of it. But is this playing with fire?
It's just before 7 a.m. on a frigid morning in late September on an alpine steppe outside the ranching town of Kremmling, Colorado. Around 650 or so people, mostly men, are gathered here, their breath visible in the freezing air.
Almost surreally, this meeting has been called because the nearby hillsides are being consumed by the flames of the Silver Creek fire.
A bolt of lightning ignited the extremely dry sagebrush and started the wildfire on July 19.
This late in the year, fire season should be over. Yet it continues to burn.
"The sheriff will sleep better when there is a [fire] season-ending snowfall," said Mitch Utterback, a liaison officer with the Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management's Blue Team and a former US Army lieutenant colonel, with four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt.
It's his fifth wildfire of the season, and the second time Utterback and his unit have been called to the 1,500-person hamlet of Kremmling.
Crews from all over the United States have responded to the Silver Creek fire. They are here 14 to 21 days — then they swap out, go home, take a shower, sleep in a warm bed and say hi to the kids before it's on to the next fire.
This time of the year, it's always burning somewhere in the American West. As fire seasons keep getting longer, the cycle of battling flames is bringing woe to many — and benefits for some.
Protecting people — and their land
Josh Ute rolls up and inspects water hoses. He is part of a crew of 10 Native Americans from the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming, home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, who made the trip to Kremmling to help put out the Silver Creek fire.
"You got to take care of the Earth," Ute said. "She takes care of us."
Ute is a single father of two, a Marine Corps veteran and a carpenter by trade. Since he left the Corps in 1996, he has been working on fires whenever his carpentry business is slow — first as a firefighter, now as a crew member for $15 (€13) an hour.
No homes or lives were lost in the Silver Creek fire. But the flames still came at a cost to the local community. Lisa and Randy George have been operating the remote Latigo Ranch, almost an hour away from town, for 32 years.
During the Silver Creek fire they were evacuated for the first time in three decades — twice. The flames wiped out almost $300,000 in income from the three-month summer tourist season that pays the bills for the rest of the year. Their insurance company only sent a check for about a quarter of their losses.
"I didn't think we were going to have a house to come back to," said Lisa George. The fire had come dangerously close to all four sides of the property.
The problem, some say, is not wildfires — rather, houses built dangerously close to forests where there is always fire
"It was a pretty close call," said Leslie "Opi" Blackwell, a safety officer with the fire crews that had spent the better part of the last two weeks protecting Latigo Ranch. It was Blackwell's 11th fire of the year.
Growing wildfire industrial complex
Stacy Barrett oversees the mobile kitchen unit in the firefighters' camp near Kremmling — the Chow House. Her company, Montana-based Big Sky Mobile Catering, won bids for a five-year government contract for four out of a total 30 of these mobile feeding units throughout the American West.
Every day, the kitchen dishes out a mandated 6,000 calories. Tonight, there's (a lot of) halibut on the menu.
Big Sky gets paid per meal served. The more firefighters — the more fires — the better the bottom line. By the end of this season, this kitchen will have made Barrett roughly $2 million, minus operational costs. Four months of wildfires are enough to sustain her throughout the rest of the year.
"We hope for a good fire season, because a lot of this stuff needs to burn," said Barrett, referring to woody forest understory that has built up including through past fire suppression efforts.
"[Wildfires] are always going to happen. So there might as well be someone available to help out. I am not going to lie."
Barrett and her company are part of the wildfire industrial complex. These days, with longer fire seasons and a warming climate, business is booming.
In the early 1990s, the US government spent about $300 million a year preparing for, preventing, fighting and recovering from wildfires. In a bad fire year such as the last two, that number easily tops $3 billion, said Michael Kodas, the author of Megafire: The Race to Distinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame.
"More than half of that money goes to the private sector," he said. "They want work. They lobby to fight every fire — even if it is one that is too dangerous to fight or if it is one that would be beneficial to the forest to just let it burn."
Learning to live with fire
An analysis by Montana-based nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics shows that 84 percent of land near fire-prone public forests in the American West is still undeveloped.
A third of American homes are being built in what's called the wildland-urban interface — that is, land developed in the path of a potential wildfire.
In June 2013, 19 firefighters were killed in the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona, the largest loss of life for professional wildland firefighters in US history. They died when they went through a narrow canyon to protect houses in the nearby town of Yarnell.
"That is a real indication of the human toll of this wildfire crisis, which is really largely of our own making," said Kodas.
"We are increasingly putting young men and women between a force of nature and private property we value; resources we depend on and infrastructure we need to protect."
The situation is overwhelming, he added. "They are not trained or equipped to do those things."
Kodas cautioned the problem would only get worse if people expanded further into that undeveloped woodland, which is already at risk due to the planet's warming climate.
To get the upper hand, he said we need to accept fires as a common occurrence rather than something we should try to eradicate altogether.
For people who live in the wildland-urban interface, it's not if but when fire will come. And, Kodas said, these people should be prepared and not "expect people to come and risk their lives" to "save their stuff."
With fire seasons getting longer and more destructive, there will always be losers — and winners as well.