RedZone Disaster Intelligence

October Brings Highest Risk of Destruction to California

This past weekend, from Saturday into Monday morning, much of the Northern California Bay Area was under a Red Flag Warning due to strong winds around 40 mph with gusts to 60 mph. Despite much of the country receiving some level of precipitation recently, California remains just above the drought threshold. The gusty winds and dry fuels the state sees every fall leads to heightened fire weather conditions this time of year. Fortunately, with this strongest wind event thus far this Fall, fire agencies across the region responded rapidly and en masse to any new reports of ignition.

“Of the twenty most destructive wildfires in CA history, eleven of them have happened in October and another three in November or December.”

Transitioning out of Western Fire Season

Most of the Western fire season began the seasonal transition out of its peak in early September with fall’s cooler temperatures and precipitation. October and November mark another transition as the focus typically shifts to California  where fire activity remains a major concern with summer-dried fuels and occasional Foehn wind events develop across California until winter rains come.

October Fire potential

Significant Wildland Fire Potential for October 2018

Brief Look Back to October 2017

Monday, October 8th, marked one year since 21 major wildfires started across Northern California and devastated the Napa-Sonoma area. Collectively the fires burned more than 245,000 acres over the course of the month. The Northern California Firestorm, as it came to be called, destroyed nearly 9,000 structures and was responsible for 44 civilian fatalities and caused 14.5 billion dollars in damages.

The fire spread was remarkable as ember showers spread from house to house throughout several communities and the fires moved at record-setting speeds. Gusting and strong winds were an instrumental driving force behind the massive levels of damage caused by the conflagrations. What wasn’t record setting was this type of fire weather happening in October or later in California. As the table below shows, of the twenty most destructive wildfires in CA history, eleven of them have happened in October and another three in November or December.

14 top fires have happened in October and later

14 of the Top 20 Most Destructive California Wildfires have started in October or later

Obviously all that late season activity means, historically, the Western Fire Season is far from over in California. Fire Departments remain at full staffing, on the ready, with ears perked to every new start that could be the next big one…especially with the fire weather possibilities this time of year. RedZone does the same, and those of you in the insurance world reading this, so too should you. Those 14 wildfires have collectively caused tens of billions of dollars in damage over the years.

Read Further

http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-santa-ana-winds-20180925-story.html

https://www.wrh.noaa.gov/fire2/?wfo=mtr

https://www.kron4.com/news/bay-area/red-flag-warning-this-weekend-in-parts-of-bay-area/1502972515

Hurricane Florence Starts its Assault on North Carolina

Hurricane Florence Current Situation

As of: 2100 UTC, Sep 13nd, 2018

  • Location: 100 miles ESE of Wilmington, NC
  • Size: Category 2
  • Maximum Sustained Winds: 100 mph
  • Present Movement: WNW at 5 mph
  • Minimum Central Pressure: 955 mb
  • Impact: Up to 11 feet of storm surge, heavy rain causing flash flooding
  • Incident Page: NHC Public Advisory
  • News Article: WunderBlog

Hurricane Florence Outlook

Hurricane Florence has started to impact North Carolina’s barrier islands. As it reaches landfall, the storm has been downgraded to a Category 2 Hurricane, but don’t let the category number fool you. Florence remains a massive and devastating hurricane. The storm continues to grow in area and is predicted to impact a large portion of the North and South Carolina coasts. Maximum sustained winds are hovering around 100 mph, with some higher gusts. Hurricane force winds extend up to 80 miles from the eye of the storm. Some coastal areas are already seeing storm surge flooding.  At the peak of the event, areas around river outflows could be dealing with storm surges up to 11 feet. The greatest storm surge inundation is expected between Cape Fear and Cape Hatteras where river outflow will meet the storm surge inundation.  Inland areas are not necessarily in the clear from the damage. Significant flash flooding and prolonged river flooding could extend as far as the Appalachians through early next week as the storm moves inland.

Nearly 2 million people are under hurricane Warning. Authorities are cautioning residents in evacuation zones to get out because first responders will not be able to perform rescues during the storm. Power outages are already affecting around 100,000 people and are expected to get worse as this incident continues.

Click here to look back on this year’s hurricane season outlook to see how the predictions are panning out.

View of the storm path and cone of uncertainty.

 

Predicted Flash Flooding Risk

Hurricane Irma – One Year Later

  • Timeline: Aug 30 – Sept 13, 2017
  • Severely Impacted Areas: USVI, Puerto Rico, Georgia, Florida
  • Maximum Sustained Winds: 180 mph
  • Fatalities: 52 direct (wind-driven debris, storm surge), 82 indirect (heart attack, house fires, vehicle accidents)
  • Damages: $64.76 Billion (5th costliest tropical cyclone on record)

Hurricane Irma’s Trek Across the Atlantic

This week marks the anniversary of Hurricane Irma forming and making landfall across the Southern United States. Tropical Storm Irma became a named storm on the 30th of August, 2017. It moved steadily across the Atlantic Ocean at 10-15 mph. A week later, now a Category 5 Hurricane, Irma passed by Puerto Rico narrowly missing it to the north. The storm continued skirting along the northern coasts of the Caribbean Islands including the Dominican Republic and then Cuba. Then, a glancing landfall moment happened along the North Cuban coastline, briefly weakening Irma to a Category 3 Hurricane as it turned north toward Florida.

Throughout Irma’s approach to the US Mainland, forecasts remained uncertain and models were not in agreement. Every update led to questions: would Miami or Orlando would be directly in the path, would the storm would move farther west and trail the Gulf Coast side of Florida, or would it shift a bit more west and come up the Gulf and end up hitting the Florida panhandle? One thing was certain – wherever landfall occurred, winds, rain, and storm surge were going to be affect a lot of people and infrastructure. Hurricane Irma ended up making landfall as a Category 3 Hurricane on September 10th, 2017, just south of Fort Myers along the SW part of Florida’s peninsula.

Hurricane Irma's path across the Atlantic Ocean (Source: WikiCommons)

Hurricane Irma’s path across the Atlantic Ocean (Source: WikiCommons)

Rebuilding Ongoing

While power has been restored and roadways cleared, many areas still see the impacts of these storms. The Florida Keys and much of Florida’s peninsula experienced hurricane force winds, nearly a foot of rain, and around 10ft of storm surge. Cleaning up the wide-spread damage is a daunting undertaking; however, FEMA, charities from around the world, and community efforts came together to assist residents to get their areas back to habitable conditions. By October 1st, much of Key West’s historical district was back in operation and welcoming guests. Nearer the main land, the damage was more extensive. Some businesses and homeowners have chosen not to rebuild and now those that had less significant repairs have vacant lots as neighbors. Each family has to make the best decision for their circumstances and many chose to shift to a new location rather than go through the extensive rebuilding process.

Damaged structures on Ramrod Key, FL after Hurricane Irma passed through the area. (Source: Joe Raedle)

Damaged structures on Ramrod Key, FL after Hurricane Irma passed through the area. (Source: Joe Raedle)

When coming home after a storm, reentering the region, property, and structure safely is important. Ensuring flooding conditions haven’t led to moldy conditions, debris is properly removed, and the structure remains sound are just a few common checks. FEMA and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety shared Safety Guidelines useful to making this process as smooth as possible.

 

Sources

National Hurricane Center, The Weather Channel, FEMA

2018 California Wildfire Update – Is This The New Normal?

Last Year’s Disaster

During the massively destructive 2017 wildfire season in California, certain phrases kept being repeated. “Unprecedented”, “Uncharted territory”, “Historic”, “War zone”, “New normal”, and other descriptive phrases were used to try and give people an understanding of the magnitude and severity of the fires. People hoped 2018 would be different, but “New Normal” seems to be an accurate description of what we can expect from wildfires in California.

This Year’s Activity (So Far)

California governor Jerry Brown has started to get lawmakers and the public to brace for the increasing threat of wildfires. He was recently quoted in a SacBee article, saying that fighting wildfires in the state is “going to get expensive, it’s going to get dangerous, and we have to apply all our creativity to make the best of what is going to be an increasingly bad situation.”

Around a quarter of California’s annual fire suppression budget has already been spent; even though the fiscal year just started July 1st. Simultaneous large fires are also spreading resources thin. As of this writing, 16 large uncontained fires burning a total of 343,700 acres continue to to challenge California firefighters. The largest and most destructive of these fires is the Carr Fire near Redding, which claimed 6 lives and destroyed over 1,000 homes. It already ranks as California’s 6th most destructive wildfire. In fact, half of California’s 10 most destructive wildfires have happened in the last 4 years.

National resources are also spread thin, as the National Interagency Fire Center has upped the National Preparedness Level to 5 (out of a possible 5), indicating that resources are already fully committed to current fires. New fire starts will have a higher potential for large growth, as there will be limited resources to stop the fire before it gets established.

NASA image courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) project. Image taken August 1, 2018.

 

California Active Large Fire Facts

 

Earthquake, History.

Earthquakes – An Unpredictable Force of Destruction

Earthquakes have caused massive devastation, and amounted to huge numbers of human casualties since the beginning of recorded history. The problem with these natural disasters has become compounded by our cities becoming developed more vertically in the form of taller buildings without the proper respect given to earthquakes during the engineering process. Along with the previously mentioned factor, the general population that doesn’t live in earthquake prone areas won’t know what to do in a situation like this. You can learn more about how to prepare yourself, and what to do during an earthquake event in RedZone’s blog. This blog will hopefully assist in understanding the geoscience that is occurring before, during, and after one of these events takes place.

The Earth’s Crust and Earthquakes

Of the inner Earths four internal layers, the crust and the upper most portion of the mantle play the most vital roles in the unseen processes that power earthquakes. The Earth’s crust is made up of 12 major plates that are very dynamic in nature.

Tectonic plates and Earthquakes

This map displays the 12 major tectonic plates throughout the world.

It is here at the tectonic plate boundaries that the earthquakes originate. As the plate boundaries come to a resting place due to its jagged edges, the remaining portion of the plate remains in constant movement. When the energy from the movement of the rest of the plate becomes too much force for an area of the plate boundary to hold, the edges of these plates shift and this is what causes an earthquake. The earthquake we feel on the ground stems from the seismic waves that are produces when the tectonic plates shift.

There are two primary wave types that are produced by this tectonic shift, the P wave (primary) and S wave (secondary). P waves have also been called the compressional waves due to the way these waves push and pull the matter they are travelling through. S waves are the waves we feel on the surface that create the movement on the earth’s surface. S waves are much slower to appear than the P waves for a seismologist to read.

Seismographic Readings and Determining the Epicenter

Scientists with their particular field of study in earthquakes, track these waves to give the public a rating on the Richter scale of how strong in magnitude an earthquake is. These experts also utilize the seismographs to locate where exactly the epicenter was. Triangulation is used to determine the precise location where the epicenter is. Three seismographs measure the difference in times that the P waves arrive at the seismographs and compare them with the time it take for the S waves to arrive at the same location. A circle is then created around the three selected seismograph locations with the radius being determined off the aforementioned time difference in seismic wave arrival. The point at which each of the three seismographs calculated circles meet is the epicenter.

Epicenter of Earthquakes

This diagram depicts a visual representation of how the epicenter of an earthquake is found from three seismographs.

 

Predicting Earthquakes

Unfortunately scientists have been unsuccessful so far in the prediction of when the next earthquake will occur. Earthquake prediction is more often defined as the probabilistic assessment of general earthquake hazard, including the frequency and magnitude of damaging earthquakes in a given area over years or decades. Like many naturally-occurring phenomena, they are nearly impossible to accurately predict.  Prediction methods go back hundreds of years.j Methods generally involve precursors which among them include animal behavior, gas emissions, and even electromagnetic anomalies. Generally, Earthquake prediction is  thought of as an immature science with any claims of prediction found circumstantial and arguable.

Earthquake warning systems on the other hand have proven successful on a number of occasions especially in areas farther from an epicenter.  The effectiveness of the warning depends on the position of the receiver. After receiving a warning, a person may have a few seconds to a minute or more to take action. Areas near the epicenter may experience strong tremors before a warning is issued. Early warning systems have been prevalent in Japan, Mexico, Canada, and the United States for years.

Sources:

https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/fs20163020

https://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/kids/eqscience.php

https://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/facts.php

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/natural-disasters/earthquakes/

http://www.geo.mtu.edu/UPSeis/waves.html

This Friday, May 4, 2018, aerial image released by the U.S. Geological Survey, at 12:46 p.m. HST, a column of robust, reddish-brown ash plume occurred after a magnitude 6.9 South Flank of Kīlauea earthquake shook the Big Island of Hawaii, Hawaii. The Kilauea volcano sent more lava into Hawaii communities Friday, a day after forcing more than 1,500 people to flee from their mountainside homes, and authorities detected high levels of sulfur gas that could threaten the elderly and people with breathing problems. (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)

Kilauea Volcano Continues to Erupt

The Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii erupted last week Thursday, May 3rd, breaking open rifts and opening lava vents. While Kilauea has been continuously active for the last 35 years, this recent episode occurred alongside a 6.9 earthquake. Nearby neighborhoods were evacuated as fissures began releasing lava that spread throughout Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens.

This Friday, May 4, 2018, aerial image released by the U.S. Geological Survey, at 12:46 p.m. HST, a column of robust, reddish-brown ash plume occurred after a magnitude 6.9 South Flank of Kīlauea earthquake shook the Big Island of Hawaii, Hawaii. The Kilauea volcano sent more lava into Hawaii communities Friday, a day after forcing more than 1,500 people to flee from their mountainside homes, and authorities detected high levels of sulfur gas that could threaten the elderly and people with breathing problems. (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)

Kilauea Eruption – Friday, May 4, 2018, 12:46 p.m. HST (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)

Due to the rate that lava spreads compared to other typical natural disasters such as hurricanes or wildfire, people were able to safely leave their homes. Photos and videos show the progression of destruction through the neighborhood as the lava pushes through homes and new fires ignite. One homeowner had been working on a car on his property and was unable to move it out of the way, but the true loss — the R2D2 mailbox his daughter had made him for Christmas. The impact was caught in this time-lapse video.

Fissure locations under Leilani Estates

Fissure locations under Leilani Estates east of the main active crater

Confirmed losses from Kilauea

As of May 10th, 36 structures have been destroyed, mostly in the Leilani Estates area. Despite the overall ongoing spread of lava, scientists are now warning area residents that ballistic projectiles may be emitted in the next few weeks. This would occur as the lava sinks in the crater lake and interacts explosively with the groundwater. The “projectiles” could range in size from pebbles to boulders weighing several tons. With so many unpredictable dangers from these ballistic projectiles to poisonous gases of the lava and ash to earthquakes, homeowners who still have a home to return to will not be sleeping easily any time soon.

USGS is alerting nearby residents about the possibilities of ballistic rocks.

USGS is alerting nearby residents about the possibilities of ballistic rocks.

 

Read Further

  • http://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/38087728/new-kilauea-eruption-triggers-house-fires-as-hundreds-evacuate-area
  • https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/10/us/hawaii-kilauea-volcano/index.html
  • https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2018/05/us/hawaii-kilauea-volcano-eruption-cnnphotos/index.html
Burn Scar

Debris Flow Devastates Montecito, CA Immediately After The Thomas Fire

While the threat of the Thomas fire just recently diminished in Ventura and Santa Barbra Counties, residents were weary to hear that they are now being threatened by mudslides originating from within the burn area. Rain started Monday afternoon in the areas of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, with the peak rainfall being around 2:30 AM Tuesday morning. The rain came down in amounts up to an inch per hour over the burned area, which the incident commander reported as being a critical factor in the amount of sediment and debris being carried by this amount of water. The devastating debris flow ranged from Cold Springs Canyon to Toro Canyon, and wreaked havoc all the way down to Highway 101. The debris flow was so strong in some locations that it pushed homes off of their foundations and carried them several hundred feet.

First responders have been preparing for this incident since Monday morning by preemptively staging resources in the areas that were forecasted to be impacted the most severely. This strategic placement of resources was followed by officials releasing evacuation zones. The warning stated that all residents within mandatory evacuation zones should leave by 12 noon on Monday in preparation for the heavy rains that were forecasted for the area. Since the early morning hours of Tuesday, first responders have been in a search and rescue mode: still actively engaged in performing helicopter and contact rescues. The threat from this debris flow still remains and first responders are warning residents to stay away from the area if at all possible.

Debris flow

An explanation of a debris flow, and its power.

 

Over the last couple weeks of the Thomas Fire the Federal Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team has been evaluating the blaze’s impact to the fire area and watersheds by predicting debris flow hazards should rains like this impact the area. The orange, red, and dark red areas were determined to have the highest probability of debris flow during a heavy rain event. The BAER team is currently embedded with the Santa Barbara and Ventura Office of Emergency Services to assist them in implementing response plans for communities downstream of the fire.

BAER Debris Flow

The map above displays estimates of the likelihood of debris flow (in %), potential volume of debris flow, and combined relative debris flow hazard.

Santa Barbara/Ventura Flooding at a Glance

  • 17 confirmed deaths related to the storms (These numbers are subject to change as the incident continues)
  • 13 missing people
  • At least 25 injured
  • 50 rescues via helicopter hoists have been performed during today’s search and rescue operations.
  • 1-6.5 inches of rainfall over the Thomas Fire area.
  • Search and rescue efforts still remain priority with approximately 75 percent of the primary search completed in the debris flow area.

If you liked the material in this blog, you can read similar material RedZone has covered here.

Sources

http://www.cnn.com/2018/01/09/us/southern-california-evacuations-rain-flooding/index.html

http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-rainfall-mudflow-20180109-story.html

http://santabarbara.onerain.com/map/?sensor_class=10|2880&view_id=5&view=8bc6e88f-eeab-4281-9d92-3d723016e945

https://landslides.usgs.gov/hazards/postfire_debrisflow/detail.php?objectid=178

Thomas Fire Set to Become Largest in CA History

UPDATE 01/03/18 @ 4:49 p.m. – The fire is now 92% contained at 281,893 acres.

Thomas Fire Summary

The Thomas Fire began in Ventura County just north of Santa Paula around 630pm on Monday December 4th. Under Red Flag and Santa Ana Conditions the fire quickly made a push along Hwy 150 to the south and parallel to Hwy126 to the west threatening Santa Paula and Ventura the first night. The fire continued its push west, crossing Hwy 33 and reaching the ocean at Hwy 101 shortly after. Over the course of the next week the fire slowly boxed in Ojai, eventually surrounding it, and pushed its way further west towards the Santa Barbara County line. By this time, the majority of the 1,330 structures impacted already had been. A few days later, the fire used a new round of overnight wind gusts to make a big run on the morning of Sunday Dec 9th, establishing itself above Carpinteria and Montecito. The following Saturday another round of morning winds forced the fire down into the fringe of Montecito, forcing a wall of engines into a several hour battle to push stall its progress. Luckily, by this time over 8,000 firefighters were assigned to the fire, and up to the task of suppression the big morning run. Thanks to their efforts, of the reported 1,300 homes threatened on Dec 16th, only 15 or so were impacted.

thomas progression

Thomas Fire’s progression from Dec 4th (green) through Dec 22nd (red)

Since that push, the fire’s progress has stalled and containment has increased to 65%. Still over the last 17 days, the fire is only 500 acres shy of topping the Cedar Fire for largest in California history. A burn operation is expected to add the acres needed with a few thousand more before all is said and done. Luckily, the firefighters necessary to see the fire out have been halved since the peak last week, but the suppression costs could eclipse last summer’s costly Soberanes fire in well short of the time. The full containment of the historic fire is not expected until after 2018 has begun.

Thomas Fire Major Developments:

  • Yesterday’s wind event produced 50 mph gusts, but fire activity remained minimal.
  • The firing operation was stalled yesterday due to high humidity and some snowfall. It was able to continue in the afternoon, and further firing is planned today for the Rose Valley area.
  • The fire area effectively endured two straight weeks of high to extreme fire weather conditions. Over that period, RH dropped as low as 3-5% and wind speeds were recorded over 60mph.
  • The fire is 500+ acres shy of passing 2003’s Cedar Fire for largest (in terms of acreage burned) in recorded California history.
  • Total fire suppression costs have ballooned to $170 million in just 17 days. It took last year’s Soberanes Fire twelve weeks to cost its total of $236 million.
top ten acres burned

Thomas Fire is 2nd all time in California’s history for acreage burned, but not for long.

Thomas Fire Facts:

  • Location: Fillmore all the way to Santa Barbara, both Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties
  • Size: 272,800 acres (as of 1/3/18 – 281,893)
  • Containment: 65% (as of 1/3/18 – 92%)
  • Fire Behavior: Light fire behavior with interior burning on the northern portions of the fire
  • 1,063 structures have been destroyed and 267 more have been damaged.
  • 18,000 Structures remain threatened.
  • All Mandatory Evacuations have been lifted.
top four ca fires

California’s four largest fires in history (update 01/03/18 : Thomas is now number 1)

Sources:

NIFC.GOV

CalFire Incident Page

Inciweb

Wikipedia – List of California Wildfires

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Book Review: “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America”

In The Big Burn, author Timothy Egan takes the reader through the beginning years of environmentalist and activist John Muir’s growing friendship with then Governor Teddy Roosevelt. The book builds by highlighting their growing, shared desire to preserve the frontier and forestlands of the West. During Roosevelt’s presidency, he leaned heavily on forester and politician Gifford Pinchot to manage and develop the nationally protected forestry lands. Pinchot, in turn, formed the US Forest Service, as we know it today. Egan provides in-depth historical accounts of the politics involved in the establishment of the protected areas and the fight against unregulated land clearing by logging companies.

 

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

As the story leads in to 1910, Egan sets the stage by depicting a newly established forestry service still developing its forestry management plan. Many areas had no trained or allocated firefighting groups. With little-to-no fire crew system in place, Egan tells how forest rangers would have to staff their crews with any able-bodied men in town when the need arose, oftentimes from the nearby saloon. The whole situation becomes harrowing when one day in late August, a wildfire began burning out of control in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest. In response, a ranger named Ed Pulaski, was sent with a 45 man crew to work a part of the fire and ended up forced to find shelter in a nearby mine. Pulaski knew the area, was familiar with fire behavior, and was determined to save his men, even giving up his horse to an older fire fighter so the man could keep up with the crew. Pulaski kept his men sheltered in the mining tunnel overnight until the fire passed, keeping some of the panicked men inside the tunnel by force at gunpoint. The next day, he famously led them out of the forest into the nearby town to the hospital. Included in Egan’s relating of the Big Burn, as it came to be called, are many first-hand accounts and photos that pull the reader even closer into the events that occurred in the Coeur d’Alene area. The August 1910 fire across portions of Idaho, Montana, and Washington burned approximately 3 million acres of logging and mining land – nearly the size of Connecticut.

Image of mining tunnel where Pulaski and his crew stayed overnight - now called the Pulaski Tunnel

Mining tunnel where Pulaski and his crew stayed overnight – now called the Pulaski Tunnel

This book is recommended for readers interested in the historical account of the Big Burn and the inspiration for the development of the US Forestry Service and National Park Service. It is easily readable and engaging while giving an incredibly detailed and laid out history of the events surrounding this fire. Readers familiar with the wildland fire fighting world may know Pulaski’s name from the Pulaski tool credited to him (and likely created after this incident due to the need shown for better firefighting tools) that is a national standard.

For more information:

New Film Highlights the Unsung Heroes of Wildland Firefighting

only the brave movie poster

© 2017 Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc. All rights reserved.
Motion Picture © 2017 No Exit Film, LLC. All rights reserved.

2017 has brought devastating wildfires to much of the Western United States. Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington all fared way worse than expected with more than 8 million acres consumed and hundreds of homes lost. California was the hardest hit, experiencing the deadliest and most destructive fires in the state’s history. The fires that tore through Northern California last month engulfed over 245,000 acres, destroyed some 8,000 structures, and caused the loss of life to more than 40 people. Much of country is fortunate to not experience wildfires of this scale and may find this level of devastation hard to comprehend. Fewer still understand the hard fought battle wildland firefighters wage to protect land, life, and structures.

No films in recent memory have told a compelling story of the unsung heroes of wildland firefighting. Short of news stories, audiences likely have little appreciation for the fury of a large wildfires moving like a tidal wave across the landscape. Most of the recent firefighting movies have focused on urban fire stations or have been laughable action films like Firestorm. In the wake of the historic 2017 wildfire season a movie now in theaters finally helps remedy that.

Only the Brave released by Columbia/Sony Pictures recounts the tale of a small group of wildland firefighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The movie, based on an article in GQ titled No Exit, by Sean Flynn, focuses on the personal struggles of Superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), whose personal dramas act as a back drop to the formation of the Granite Mountain hotshots and the fires they battled across the country.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots started as a fuels mitigation crew for the city of Prescott before transitioning to a type 2 hand crew in 2004. After becoming frustrated about the crew’s role on numerous fires, Marsh fought for the team to earn an evaluation to become certified as a Hotshot crew. In 2008, after a lot of hard work and politicking the crew earned the distinction as the first municipal hotshot crew in the nation. Hotshots are small crews of elite wildland firefighters trained to fight fires directly in remote backcountry terrain with shovels, chainsaws, and limited support from other resources. Often working in steep rugged terrain with hot and dry conditions, they dig line, cut down trees and light back fires to help keep contain fires to a planned perimeter.

The first two thirds of the movie unfold around these events showing the arduous training, inherent dangers of firefighting, and the bonds it forms within the crew. Much of the story is told through the perspective of new recruit Brendan McDonough, a recovering drug addict who is given a second chance to build a new life for himself and his new born daughter. McDonough’s training allows the movie to tell a story that is not only engaging but is also informative and instructional.

Numerous scenes in the movie depict the crew digging line, clearing brush, and using drip torches and flares to start fires. Seeing firefighters using fire to fight fire is likely new to audiences inexperienced with wildland fire-fighting techniques. The movie shows how flares and drip torches allow firefighters to burn vegetation ahead of an incoming fire-front in order to establish a fire break that robs the approaching blaze of fuel that it needs to continue spreading. These fires can also be used to help steer the main fire or provide safety zones.

The film seamlessly blends some intense scenes of the crew with amazing special effects to highlight the enormity of wildfires and the challenges faced in trying to contain them. The director Joseph Kosinski avoids the normal pitfalls inherent in the typical macho-posturing movies and instead delivers a poignant story that is both emotional and respectful. Kosinski and the actors deliver a sincere portrayal of their real life counterparts along with their authentic camaraderie. Although there are some obvious Hollywood liberties taken, the film faithfully recreates the facts that matter most. Some of the scenes, like the human pyramid in front of the giant Juniper, were painstakingly recreated to pay homage to the now iconic photo of the crew celebrating the successful saving of the sacred Prescott tree during the Doce Fire.

I was refreshing to see that even as the film builds to its inevitable climax at Yarnell Hill, it stayed true to the story, adhering closely to official reports. For example, much of the dialogue is pulled straight from radio transcripts and the accounts from other firefighters on scene. Kosinki lays out the events of the Yarnell Hill Fire “as is” without attempting to try and invent motivations or answer questions that remain unanswered. The result is powerful and effective.

Only the Brave should give viewers a greater appreciation for the role played and the danger faced by wildland firefighters in the perennial battle to protect lives and land in the American West.

granite mountain fund

The Granite Mountain Fund drives donations to support firefighting as well as the towns and families connected to and impacted by hotshots and their work.