tv Fault Lines Al Jazeera October 18, 2013 9:30pm-10:01pm EDT
tomorrow. >> every summer in america, a force of nature becomes a man-made disaster. some call it a war, millions of acres, billions of dollars. no end in sight. >> in this episode of fault lines, we follow the 2013 wildfire season and ask - with more homes than ever now under threat, what are the real costs of putting them out? >> the fire took a breath and we got our foot on the throat of it and we're going to keep choking it out.
>> the fire started yesterday at 2:05 pm. it spread very rapidly. we committed 84 fire engines, 24 fire crews 8 bulldozers, 6 air tankers, 13 helicopters, 4 water tenders, and 1,000 personnel as of this morning, i can assure you, there are no bounds being placed on me as a riverside country fire chief in holding back the deployment of any resources. >> early-august, southern california - the hills outside los angeles are on fire. >> california's governor has declared a state of emergency. we've just arrived on the scene. the situation is critical. >> the entire mountainside is smoldering. this thick acrid smoke smell in the air and we're following this strike team now right into the top of the mountain to where the fire line begins.
>> for this blaze, the combined might of the firefighting forces of california is on full display. in just 24 hours, the costs have already run into the millions. >> it's been a busy season. it started really early for us we had pretty significant fires in may which is pretty rare. it just seems like a lot of fires are burning. as far as the outlook for this season. it's going to be a busy one. >> these are serial conflagrations now, and they're magnifying themselves, and the costs are enormous. >> costs like this sprawling "fire camp" that's emerged overnight to support the thousands of personnel deployed. you think of how much money they spend in one of these camps. there's a lot of people here. there's a lot of fuel going out. >> the fires are now so predictable, it's become a business opportunity - the costs covered almost entirely by the
american taxpayer. >> if you were going to list the aspects of the camp that are outsourced to outside contracts. >> showers, water, toilets, food, laundry service. >> it's like a mini city. >> it is a mini city. >> and it's not just small-time vendors - even major assets like aircraft are often privately leased. >> you have the big tankers and stuff come in, big helicopters those costs rack up. it takes a lot of money to keep those things flying. >> what kind of money are we talking about? >> type 1 helicopters they run around 7,000 dollars an hour. >> we have created a private sector industry, really - some people are calling it now, the fire industrial complex.
>> the scale of the operation is so huge that in california, thousands of prison inmates are drafted in as cheap labor. >> wearing orange jumpsuits and under tight watch, they're given some of the toughest missions on the fire. >> do you actually get paid? >> yeah, we get a dollar an hour >> that's not a lot is it? >> no. >> so why do you do it? >> different environment, rather than being in a prison yard - you have actual freedom. they feed us way better. >> sometimes we work 36 hour shifts, 48's. >> yeah. >> but, we feel like heros at the end of the day, you know? >> meanwhile, the winds are picking up, and fire commanders are calling in wave after wave of airpower. >> they're trying to control this blaze from the air because the wind is so unpredictable that they don't want to the firefighters getting any closer to the blaze so they're dropping it from the helicopters.
>> it looks like an emergency and it certainly feels like one when you're out here. >> but this has actually become just business as usual. >> the fires are burning twice as long, twice as big, compared to a decade ago. the costs have tripled. the number of people who are dying keeps escalating. the number of homes burnt is growing exponentially. you add climate change on top of that and it's the big accelerator. people are starting to ask, who is paying for this firefighting? you make an individual decision to build a home there, but what's the cost to the rest of us? >> a thousand miles away, in colorado, a small building catches fire in the hills of black forest. >> today, as the smoke clears, we've come to see the impact of what's been declared the most devastating blaze in the history
of the state. nearly 500 homes destroyed, a couple burned to death in their garage as they tried to escape. >> it's a really eery place, there's almost no sound at all from wildlife. the area around here is almost completely destroyed, the trees are all black. and you can see the houses have been burnt so badly, that it's really just the foundations that are remaining now. >> it's been just hours since the fire swept through here, its intensity means these crews will be needed for many weeks yet. >> but as we're about to find out, it seems the worst of the damage has already been done. >> in the last few hours, they've opened up a very small section of the fire zone, and some of the home-owners are now going in to discover properties that have been completely reduced to rubble. >> sharon wright was living
alone when the fire hit - her husband passed away last year. >> i got one call that said the house was in good condition, and then within an hour i got another call that said it's gone. so it went that fast. >> this is the first time she's seen what's left of their home of 27 years. >> how did you feel when you saw it? >> i felt nothing but numb. you think about all the work you put into it and everything that you've done for improvements over the years. >> and the memories as well, i guess. >> mmmhmmm. >> even the urn containing her husband's ashes was left behind. >> i have three sets of clothes, one pair of shoes, i have my dogs medical stuff, my medical stuff, a few tax things, and that's really about it. that's what i have. everything else is here. it's heartbreaking.
>> if fires in the american west are getting more frequent, and costlier to fight - the question is why? >> this is very combustible, and in fact, the small stuff is what carries the flame. >> stephen pyne says there is a perfect storm of factors - the build-up of dry brush, warmer temperatures due to climate change, and decades of poor land management. >> excluding fire from systems that had known it for thousands and in some cases millions of years. >> and now there is a new problem to contend with.
>> in the last decade alone, some estimate two out of every three new homes in the us have been built in fire-prone areas. >> what we're doing is recolonizing rural america. just as agricultural frontier in the 19th century gave rise to a wave of fires that burned over whole communities we've repeated that in a new form. >> the black forest fire was in an area of colorado that's seen some of the most intensive spread of this kind of development - projects like cathedral pines, which was right in the path of the fire. >> we did 59 lots and i sold every single lot in one day. >> that's incredible. >> it was the market, it was hot, and people love the community, love being in the trees. >> bart atkinson spent years developing this multi-million dollar residential complex in the middle of untouched pine forest. >> in the end, cathedral pines
escaped unscathed, partly because this was one of the first places the fire engines headed to. >> it literally split and went around the development. >> it went around us. and then of course they were dipping their helicopters right here. >> i saw aerial views from news cameras, and i saw them actually in drive ways of the homes with their fire trucks fighting the fire that very fist day. >> bart has spent large sums on fire protection for the development, and he says risk of wildfire shouldn't dictate where you can or can't build a home. >> i think we as americans should have the right to build and live where we want to live. i think our community actually proves a point if you do the rights things in mitigation you can live here safely.
>> part of this is sort of the western mythos of we can do whatever we want anywhere. >> for economist ray rasker, new developments like cathedral pines are largely to blame for the rising annual cost of wildfires. >> and it's an upward spiral, he says, because local governments reap tax benefits from their construction. >> if they perceive they are going to get more money from rubber stamping subdivisions all over the place, they will. >> the forest service, the bureau of land management, fema, they're the ones that are paying for the bulk of the firefighting costs. so for local governments who permit new developments,they don't have to think of the costs. >> so while the bill for fires like black forest can stretch to the tens of millions of dollars. almost all of it comes from the public purse. >> it's not unusual in some fires for the cost of defending
each home to be $400,000 in some fires, up to $600,000 per home. in some instances, you're better off buying the land than paying to defend the homes. >> to actually contain this fire, it's taken elements of the national guard from three states, it's taken more than 1100 emergency personnel, 103 fire engines, there have been helicopters deployed. so far the bill has run to more than five and a half million dollars, and it hasn't even been a week since the fire started. >> with the fire now under control, local residents line the streets, their nightmare finally over. >> you can really feel the appreciation that everybody here has for the fire fighters coming back from their shifts. but the one thing that has really made a difference with this fire isn't necessarily the amount of resources that have been deployed. it's actually the change in the
weather. >> but two other major blazes have just appeared in neighboring states, and some say scenes like this, throughout fire season, often obscure a bigger picture. >> it makes a narrative that's easily understood. brave people going out and fighting but fighting fires in the wild land is not a war pretending that the firefight is an equivalent kind of undertaking allows you, encourages you, to go to excesses in fighting it. >> just weeks later, news of a different kind of wildfire tragedy. >> this is the deadliest wild fire involving fire fighters in decades... ,the group, a hotshot team, was an elite unit... >> we'd been getting reports throughout the evening, a team of firefighters had lost contact with their commanders, >> nineteen of them have now been declared dead. that's the worst toll since 1933. we're on our way to the airport
to try to get down there as quickly as possible. pretty quickly, it became clear something terrible had happened. >> one of the worst wildfire disasters that's ever taken place. >> is this the furthest point we can go to? >> yeah, it is. >> i think the average age for these fire fighters was 22 and so it's such a young life and they gave it up to protect that community. >> the granite mountain hotshots were deployed on what seemed like a routine mission. they expected to be home after a couple days of cutting line around this small retirement community of yarnell. >> from up here, you can actually really see the proximity of yarnell to the place where the fire fighters died. it's a lot closer than i thought it was. the houses really feel like a few hundred meters from the actual spot. >> the last contact from the
team was a desperate radio call, the fire was upon them, they were deploying their shelters. >> the fenced-off area is actually where they found the bodies after they deployed their fire tents. >> the media is clamoring for answers. what were the firefighters doing there? why were they caught in that spot? >> basically the wind changed. >> was there a lookout? >> i do not know that. >> wouldn't there be a protocol? >> you're saying you don't know? >> i think what you're trying to get out of here is exactly what happened - and we don't know that, ok? we have 19 people that are dead that are brothers of ours, ok? a fire - a wild land fire specifically - is a very dynamic and moving situation. >> for those who lost fathers, husbands, brothers, the struggle to comprehend their loss is just beginning. in this tight-knit community, it
seems like almost everyone knew the firefighters personally. the job had its risks, but nobody could have anticipated a tragedy on this scale. >> you're trained to pull your shelter but you're not supposed to be in a situation where you may have to. that's your last line of defense. something horribly went wrong. >> brandon bunch had been a member of the crew until a few weeks ago, he'd reluctantly left the job to spend more time with his family. >> they were my best friends man. you travel with them, you eat with them, you sleep with them. you do everything as a unit. i was really close with them, they were like my brothers.
>> it's hard to explain, it's like somebody taking half your soul right out of your body. my son was my life. >> david caldwell's son robert was just 18 when he started, he'd asked his dad for a check to cover the initial training. >> that's been the hardest thing for me to bear, that, that i helped him along. maybe if i had guided him into something else, you know, i wouldn't be talking to you today, you know. >> the last time david saw his son was two nights before the fire. >> they were getting into the car, before he closed the door, i waved to him and said robert don't be a hero. and he just smiled backed to me. that's the last thing i said to him. >> david turbyfill also lost his son travis. a metalworker, he's honoring the fallen firefighters in the best way he can. >> i did this design tuesday evening, after they perished.
>> he says he could barely get through engraving travis' name. >> that's when it first hit me that they were gone because their names were down. there was no turning back. >> one letter at a time, he says, he came to terms with his loss. >> you can see a yellow flame as the letters are being cut. so, they died in fire and they are reborn in fire. >> david's hope is that the tragedy spurs a national conversation about how the country deals with wildfire. >> every accident we've had, there's a reason for this. in my mind the errors were made long before they ever went to the fire. >> anthony lowes,
john merson jr. travis turbyfill, >> there's nobody in this country who would disagree with the proposition that we have the most well-trained wildfire firefighters probably in the world. but the problem with firefighters, they're their own worst advocates and in a world where they're increasingly going to face impossible dangerous situations, they're going to die and they're going to be injured we celebrate them as heroes, but we don't ask - should they have been in harms way like this?
in his native southern california at least, he says the growing human cost is directly linked to the pace of development. >> just over these hills was the area where a thousand homes were destroyed by the cedar fire. >> and there's more homes going up right here? >> oh yes. there's a home boom beginning to start. >> all of this could easily burn. >> it's a totally unreasonable expectation that firefighters should defend each property. if they fail to, it becomes the source of political inquisition. why didn't you send the tankers after dark? who cares if the pilots are told that it's unsafe to fly? >> tonight he massive mobilization of equipment and manpower
we've been witnessing across the west the past few weeks, is on the move to california. >> a few weeks later, the biggest and most high-profile fire of the season has broken out. yosemite national park is under threat, an uncontrollable blaze that's doubling in size every day. >> this is the burn area? >> yes, here. 95 square miles, 105,400 acres. >> for some of these firefighters, this could be their 6th or 7th major fire of the season. >> a long, hot summer filled with risks that have too often turned to tragedy. >> if you get a spot, i want to know where, how big, and intensity - immediately we're going to want some eyes somewhere it's gotta be aerial or it's gotta be something we gotta have a lookout. bravo, firing lookout. ok, let's get it done, let's button this up.
>> the brush is ready to burn, it's getting later in the season. it's definately going to be up there as some of the biggest in california. >> helicopters are dropping water on that side, and on this side, these firefighters are actually setting fire to the hillside - so that this area is burned - the main fire won't be able to jump across the valley and threaten the properties down below. >> prison inmates are at this fire too. while the hillside is set ablaze, they're hiking down to clear trees from the valley floor. they'll be spending the night there, until the job is done. the forest has been burning day and night for a week. every morning this scene is repeated. >> provide for fire fighter and public safety - that's always our top priority. provide protection for communities within the fire area.
manage costs effectively for the values at risk. >> for us - and for this film - this is the last fire of the season and we wanted to get as close to the frontline as we could. >> as we go along the sky is getting darker and darker and it feels like we're actually geting close to the heart of the fire. >> here, the forest hasn't burned in decades. the flames are moving quickly into the crowns of the trees. >> you can hear the sound of the helicopters flying over head doing water drops the sound of the sap popping, and the branches falling in the forest. this is really, very close to the heart of this fire. >> i appreciate if you guys get your shots real quick and lets get out of here because we're going to be in harms way if we don't. >> ok, well, we've been told we have to move out of here right now.
these flames are incredibly high - this is one of the biggest fires that we've seen so far this season. we've never seen anything like this, there's a really loud roaring sound of these trees going up in flames. it's actually pretty scary and we're going to get out of here now. >> if this is a war against wildfire, it seems that for now nature has the upper hand. with each new fire season, the costs of the current strategy get higher, and for those whose lives are on the line, the casualties become too many. >> you would think that the death of 19 firefighters in yarnell would be a wake up call. this calls for a radical rethink, not just of how you fight fire in california, but the rule of the federal government, not just in providing resources to fight fires but in taking
responsibility to control development, regulate land use, and protect the natural resources that are in such great danger. >> we're not just talking about abstract policies. we're not just talking about various agendas. we're talking about real people and there are real consequences to decisions. >> how old are you? >> nine. >> how old were you when you first started working out here? >> seven. >> fault lines how children are hired by us agriculture to help put food on america's tables. >> in any other industry kids need to be 16 years old to be able to work. you don't see any of that in agriculture. >> they don't ask, "is she 12?". they just want their job done. >> how many of you get up before 5 o'clock in the morning?
>> welcome to al jazeera america. i'm john siegenthaler. here are tonight's top stories. san francisco bay striking transit workers, want to get transit up for 200,000 commuters up and running again. plagued by sluggish rush hour commutes. forecast -- affordable care act, the house is planning to hold hearings to find out why the enrollment program isn't working. new jersey's highe