Clipped From The Los Angeles Times
Live Oak Command Post I t was day 42 of the zaca fire . A tower of white smoke reached miles into the blue sky above the undulating ridges of Santa Barbara’s backcountry. Helicopters ferried firefighters across the saw- toothed terrain and bombed fiery ridges with water. Long plumes of red retardant trailed from the belly of a DC-10 air tanker. Bulldozers cut defensive lines through pygmy forests of chaparral. Afew miles south, in a camp city of tents and air-conditioned office trailers, commanders pored over computer projections of the fire’s likely spread, trying to keep the Zaca bottled up in the wilderness and out of the neighborhoods of Santa Barbara and Montecito. Platoons of private contractors serviced the bustling encampment, dishing out hundreds ofhot meals at a time from amobile kitchen, scrubbing 500loads of laundry a day, even changing the linens in sleeping trailers. On this single day, Aug. 14, fighting the Zaca cost more than $2.5million. By the time the blaze was out nearly three months later, the bill had reached at least $140million, making it one of the most expensive wildfire fights ever waged by the U.S. Forest Service. Acentury after the government declaredwar on wildfire, fire is gaining the upper hand. From the canyons of California to the forests of the Rocky Mountains and the grasslands of Texas, fires are growing bigger, fiercer and costlier to put out. And there is no end in sight. Across the country, flames have blackened an average of 7.24million acres a year this decade. That’s twice the average of the 1990s. Wildfires burned more than 9million acres last year and are on pace to match that figure in 2008. At 240,207 acres, the Zaca was the second-biggest wildland blaze in California’s modern record. But nationally, it wasn’t even the largest of 2007. A conflagration on the Idaho-Nevada border charred more than twice as much land. In response,firefighting has assumed the scale and sophistication of military operations. Consider the forces massed against the Zaca that sweltering August afternoon: nearly 2,900 federal, state and local BIG BURN Drought. Overgrown forests. Runaway development. Together they’re making wildfires in the West ‘bigger and badder’ and burning through billions in taxpayer dollars. OUT OF CONTROL By Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart : times staff writers First of five parts [ SeeWildfires,PageA23 ] ABOVE U.S. Forest Service firefighters spray water on a ridgeline to control a backfire on the Butler 2 fire near Big Bear Lake in September. Photograph by Brian Vander Brug Los Angeles Times On latimes.com For video reports, photo galleries and interactive graphics, go to latimes.com/fire.