Ben Hannon ’13 has seen one of the most referenced consequences of climate change up close.
He’s felt the searing heat and been engulfed by the billowing smoke. He’s seen flames leap from treetop to treetop, vaulting fire lines and sending crews backtracking for safety. In the midst of one recent fire, Hannon and his team had to make what he calls “a planned retreat.”
“The fire behavior that day just evolved and changed more rapidly than we expected,” he said, with characteristic understatement.
Hannon is a senior firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service and a member of the Baker River Hotshots, an elite wildland fire suppression crew based in Washington State. One of about 115 in the country, his team is inserted near some of the biggest forest fires in the Northwest, ideally to contain fires and minimize loss of timber, range and cropland, powerlines, houses, even communities.
In the fire season that just ended, running from May to November, Hannon spent just six days at his station in tiny Concrete, Wash., in the shadow of the Cascade Mountain Range. Almost all of the six-month stretch was spent in and around burning forests: the Klondike Fire in southern Oregon, the Taylor Creek Fire in Washington State, the Roosevelt Fire in Wyoming.
“That was a very dynamic, challenging fire,” Hannon said, of the Roosevelt Fire, which burned more than 60,000 acres. “Very dramatic fire behavior, just incredibly dry fuels, a lot of cabins and homes in the way. A lot of the things that make a fire challenging packed into one package. I suspect that I will recall that one for a long time to come.”
He speaks about his work with a measured calm—precisely the temperament required for a dangerous and demanding profession, one that most people only see in what Hannon referred to as “pictures on CNN.” Those photos—of flames racing across the crown of a towering forest—don’t show the careful planning taking place on the ground, and the knowledge and judgment it requires.
A science, technology, and society major at Colby (an EMT, he did his honors thesis on emergency medical care for law enforcement), Hannon finds that wildlife fire management reflects the broad themes of his major, which studies human attempts to control nature. Fire, he said, is an element of ecology and its management has implications for the social, political, and economic parts of our lives.
For Hannon and his colleagues, that management includes consideration of the weather, topography, the value of the land in the path of the blaze, and the location of homes and other structures as they decide whether to attack a fire directly or to begin the arduous task of cutting, hacking, and burning a fire break.
Hannon went west after graduation to take a job as a professional ski patroller in his home state of Utah. The following summer he took an internship at Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in southeast Wyoming and northern Colorado. A year later he joined the Forest Service on a type of fire engine that is used to fight wildland fires.
This was 2015, a historic fire year on the east side of the Cascade Mountain crest. Hannon got in plenty of hands-on experience. Assessing a fire’s behavior. Calling in water retardant from helicopters and aircraft. Considering weather and topography to decide where a fire might be contained by a secondary burn.
“Ideally, the way it works is you’ve chosen a good line that is already in your favor,” he said. “And then you’ve got this additional buffer … where you’ve reduced the fuel so the fire intensity is going to be lower there.”
And when things don’t go according to plan?
“We’re going to do everything to stack the odds in our favor,” Hannon said. “But frequently, especially in my current job, we end up having to conduct fire operations in adverse conditions. The really common one is wind blowing across your line … so that it blows embers across that barrier that you have and you end up with spot fires on the other side. The other option is that the main fire moves faster than you can get ready to burn off the ground and then it jumps the line.”
In those situations, hotshot teams like Hannon’s try to catch the fire. If it’s moving too fast, they usually hike or are driven back out, or they may be picked up by helicopter and transported to the next place selected for a fire line. In rare, but not entirely preventable, cases, the firefighters can be overrun by the flames. In 2013 the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona did just that, killing 19 members of a hotshot team.
Hannon acknowledges the danger inherent in his profession, and that some people, including his wife, Callie Wade Hannon ’13 (an emergency medicine resident in Michigan), probably worry about him more than he worries about himself, but in the end trust his decision making and that of his team. “You can transfer risk, you can reduce it or mitigate it,” he said, “but it’s always there, lurking.”
And that risk appears to be growing.
Statistics compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center show a steady increase in major forest fires since the 1980s, including more than 10 million acres burned in the peak years of 2015 and 2017. A federal study released in November warned that the climate is warming at an unprecedented rate and presents serious challenges to health, safety, quality of life, and the economy.
Hannon says there is more than climate at play.
“It’s logical that if you have a hotter and drier planet and longer summers, and fuel will be more receptive to fires and that would mean more big fire days,” he said. “But I think it would be shortsighted to assume that is the only thing making large fires in the western United States.”
The country has a long history of suppression of natural fires and more people live in areas where fire has been part of the natural environment, he pointed out.
Ultimately, though, weather is a major factor in wildland fires—and weather is a manifestation of climate. “Hot and dry,” Hannon said, means more big fires. “I see these things up close and personal.”