Tragic news: Nineteen firefighters were killed on June 30 battling a wilderness blaze in Yarnell, Arizona. “This is as dark a day as I can remember,” declared Governor Jan Brewer. The fallen firefighters, all members of a team called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, have received—and have fully earned—all gratitude and honor for their bravery and sacrifice.
Still, one must ask: Is there a better way to fight such fires? Is there a way that uses more technology—and requires less of humanity?
It is, of course, fitting and proper that we salute those who died fighting the Yarnell fire. As one Arizona eulogist wrote, “These are people who run toward the fire when the rest of us are running away.”
Indeed, memories of those lost fighting forest fires have long been a source of literary inspiration. The author Norman Maclean, most famous for his novella A River Runs Through It, spent the last decade-and-a-half of his life researching and writing Young Men and Fire, a work of novelistic non-fiction telling of a 1949 Montana forest conflagration that took the lives of a dozen firefighters.
Yet amidst the justifiable romance and reverence surrounding these heroes, it’s still fair to ask: Are we, as a nation, doing everything we can to keep them safe? Are we creating the tools that will save firefighters from such a deadly fate?
As of now, the answer is clearly, “no.” Here’s a Reuters report describing the last moments of the 19 Hotshots:
The doomed firefighters had managed to deploy their personal fire shelters, tent-like safety devices designed to deflect heat and trap breathable air, in a last-ditch effort to survive that ultimately proved futile, officials said.
Let’s just say it: we can do better. Little flameproof tents can help, of course, but they don’t prevent asphyxiation, or trauma from a falling tree, or simple broiling to death. And that’s strange, because this is a high-tech country that puts men on the moon—okay, used to put men on the moon—and stuffs petaflops of computing power into pocket-sized devices. It’s just not plausible that we can’t figure out how to keep men safe from the ancient scourge of burning wood.
Further inquiry will help sort out all the circumstances that led to the Yarnell disaster, but investigators will conclude, most likely, that the Granite Mountaineers were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. After all, firefighting, as it’s now conducted, is dangerous: on average, almost 100 firefighters die nationwide every year.
Journalist Kyle Dickman, writing for Outside magazine, recently published a description of how today’s forest-fire fighters do their jobs:
Some work on engine crews, manning the trucks that deliver water to the front lines. Others are smoke jumpers, who parachute straight into burning forests from cargo planes to stop small fires from growing.
Some, like my group, are hotshots, backcountry firefighters who use chainsaws, Pulaskis [a kind of axe], and rakes to cut firebreaks of bare earth around a blaze.
Chainsaws? Axes? Rakes? It’s hard to believe that this is the best way to fight flames that can reach 200 feet into the air.
Here’s how Dickman, who “embedded” with a different Hotshots unit last year, describes some of the work:
We spend the next eight hours tossing poison oak bushes off the ridgeline. The temperature soars to 105 degrees. A rookie hotshot goes down with heat exhaustion and recovers in shade from the thicket.
I watch a sawyer slip and drive his chainsaw into his leg, slicing his Kevlar chaps. That night I feel a poison oak rash forming on my forearms and ears. In the next two days it spreads all over my body, and my legs become so swollen that I can’t bend my knees.
Once again, let’s take nothing away from the stamina and courage of those who make hands-on firefighting their calling. But at the same time, let’s ask: is this really the best possible way to fight a fire?
Not only were the 19 Hotshots killed, but days later, hundreds of homes in the Arizona countryside were destroyed, and the fire continued to burn.
So we might be wondering: Where’s the “killer app”? Where’s the firefighting equivalent of a cruise missile? Everyone in Silicon Valley is solving problems that hadn’t even been thought of a few years ago—so why can’t some of that brainpower be pointed toward the firefighting problem?
To be sure, there’s a fair amount of technology already involved in fighting wildfires. Even if most US military aviation resources are overseas, it’s still the case that plenty of airplanes are dropping water and fire-retardant chemicals on fires. And, more recently, authorities have started making use of drone- and satellite-surveillance to better target fires.
Yet if we were really using technology at its best—and inventing all that we might yet need—then no brave soul would have breathe his last breath inside a personal fire shelter.
Indeed, as we think about how to apply automation to reduce or eliminate the human cost of firefighting, we might apply some hard-earned lessons—learned from our experience in warfighting.
We can begin by noting that it’s not entirely a coincidence that the self-selected imagery of Hotshots firefighting teams closely resembles images from battlefields in past wars. In particular, the Del Rosa Hotshots of California chose, as their home page, a photograph that reminds us of a famous photo from the Battle of the Somme, back in World War One.
Much has changed, of course, from that famously ill-fated British offensive, launched on July 1, 1916, and yet as we look at the fires of June 30, 2013, we can see that many essentials have remained the same. We can also note that both firefighters and warfighters inevitably share similar values, including camaraderie at rest and gallantry in action.
A look at the websites of various Hotshot units shows us that the men—and they are almost all male—make extensive use of military-style patches and martial and macho iconography. There’s nothing, to be sure, wrong with that. After all, this is dangerous work, and throughout human history, men in danger have girded themselves for that danger.
Still, it sometimes becomes apparent that the danger, relative to the rewards, is far too great. The British Tommies, after all, had camaraderie and bravery back in 1916. One story from the Somme, often told, concerns the fate of a high-spirited young man, Capt. Wilfred Nevill, all of 21 years old, who had been a rugby champion in school.
And so when the whistle blew, signaling to Nevill and his men to go “over the top” and advance on the Germans, he thought he would make a sport of it by kicking a soccer ball across no-man’s-land–until he was killed, short of the enemy line.
At the time, Nevill was lionized in the British papers as a true sportsman till the end:
On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them,
Is but an empty name;
True to the land that bore them,
The SURREYS played the game.
However, in the years since, the verdict on Nevill’s brand of bravado has grown grimmer and bleaker. If the goal was to die in a blaze of poetic glory, Nevill succeeded; if the goal was to win the war, then Nevill, brave as he was, did not succeed.
More profoundly, all of Nevill’s commanders—those who thought that traditional infantry charges could prevail over barbed wire, machine guns, and high-explosive artillery—stand eternally condemned for their obtuse inability to apply to new thinking to trench warfare.
Winston Churchill later characterized the Allied offensives of those war years as “needless and wrongly conceived operations of infinite cost, in which the generals were content to fight machine-gun bullets with breasts of gallant men.”
In his search for a solution to the stalemate of trench warfare, Churchill pushed for decisive new technology—in particular, the tank.
But to do so, Churchill and others had to overcome the tradition-bound opposition of many military leaders. Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War from 1914-16, famously dismissed the tank as a “a pretty mechanical toy.”
One great strength of the military, of course, is its devotion to tradition–and yet that’s also its weakness. Yes, it’s tradition that binds people together and summons them to heroism and, if need be, to sacrifice. Yet at the same time, it’s tradition that can hold back progress, encouraging, for example, generals to waste the lives of their soldiers in the vainglorious pursuit of obsolete battle paradigms. Indeed, the gratuitous carnage of World War One provoked the French statesman Clemenceau to say, “War is too important to be left to generals.”
Shifting back from warfighting in the past to firefighting in our time, perhaps today, too, we can say that firefighting is too important to be left to firefighters. That is, we will always need courageous men and women, but at the same time, we need new thinking, and new technology, in order to augment that courage.
Many young people will always be willing to put themselves in harm’s way—for God, for Country, for kicks—but the nation as a whole should be wise enough to conserve life when it can.
So while the Hotshots of our time might be stoic about their losses, and manfully resolved to get up and fight again, the rest of us might wish to step in to prevent further deaths. Applying Churchill’s technophilic problem-solving spirit, let’s recognize that accomplishing the mission of putting out fires is more important than honoring the tradition of how they are put out.
So let’s ask: where are the Transformers when we need them? Where are those giant robots whose power we could use to put out those fires—and spare those lives, homes, and communities? If the idea of colossal machines swashbuckling around can sustain at least four Hollywood movies, then surely it can sustain one serious R&D project to prevent the next Yarnell disaster.
Yet we might also ask: Is that really the way scientific progress works? Is it really the case that someone dreams up some fantastical vision—and then someone else makes it real? Actually yes, that’s often how it works. It’s a well-recognized phenomenon that many technological breakthroughs were inspired by science fiction.
As Albert Einstein wrote in 1931, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
That’s what we need: technological evolution.
So yes, let’s hope that brainy people go to see the new movie, “Pacific Rim,” and come home inspired. The tagline of the film reads, “To fight monsters, we created monsters.” Sounds like a good idea: to fight monster fires, let’s create monster firefighters.
In fact, there’s a fair amount of ferment around the idea of firefighting robots. Colleges are staging competitions, and companies are building prototypes. And the US Navy is experimenting, too. We might further note that the same high-functioning robots could be applied to many other purposes, from warfighting to elder-caring. Indeed, with the right vision, we could see whole new industries for the US.
It’s possible, of course, that the specific idea of firefighting robots will not work out, or not be sufficient.
In which case, we might continue to think, to imagine, to prepare. We might, for example, deploy new airships that can dump one hundred times the amount of water on a fire as the workhorse C-130 aircraft.
And if we can whoosh down a hundred times the amount of water on a fire, why not a thousand times the water? Perhaps we could use airships trailing a hose to the ground, endlessly pumping and dumping desalinated water on the fire—as I argued here in 2012—till the flames are extinguished. Or maybe we could use water cannon, blasting barrages of water against the fire.
Finally, how much more could be accomplished if we offered an X-Prize for the best way to fight fires without putting lives at risk?
X-Prizers like to say their mission is “making the impossible possible.” That’s the right goal, and fully in keeping with our best spirit of American innovation.
If we had leaders who thought in these positive and problem-solving terms, not only would we have new and better ways to fight fires, but we’d also have whole new ways to enrich and empower America.
James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.