Book review: “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame”

Jennie Lay For Steamboat Today
If you go: What: Author Michael Kodas talks about “Megafire” When: 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 19 Where: Library Hall, a free event that is part of Bud Werner Memorial Library’s ongoing author series. More information: Books will be available for sale and author signing after the talk

“Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame”

By Michael Kodas

Journalist and onetime wildland firefighter Michael Kodas delivers an enlightening and terrifying new book about wildfire. The stories are particularly gripping for Coloradans, since much of “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame” is illuminated in this living, burning laboratory that we call home. The flames of Waldo, Hayman, Four Mile, Black Forest, High Park and Heartstrong come flickering back in your nightmares.

Kodas surveys fires grown wild and fierce after an era when 99 percent of U.S. wildfires promptly were extinguished. By contrast, modern wildfire is mayhem – more habitat and homes are burning as one-third of us live in the wildland-urban interface. And “Budgets are burning as well,” he writes.

Early in the book Kodas describes “an apocalyptic travelogue as scientists described megafires’ impacts on the atmosphere and soil, insects and flowers, economics and culture.” It’s a global phenomenon and he takes readers to the thick of bigger, hotter fires China, Israel, Australia and Chernobyl. Giant fires are being spurred by climate change, but also contributing to it with massive influxes of CO2. “Huge, hot and fast, these fires make up a new category of fire, exhibiting behaviors rarely seen by foresters or firefighters,” Kodas explains. These are megafires.

If you live in the West, you should be interested in the science, politics, funding and shifting fuels behind fire. Ignoring it is the equivalent of anyone in Key West closing the drapes and pretending Irma wasn’t happening last week. “Megafire” offers mandatory information for living here.

Kodas exposes the anatomy of a repeating disaster. It stokes anxiety – and it should. A learned dissection leaves you hoping for more proactive action: We can’t eradicate fire. Air tankers are never going to fix this. And we should stop living in the woods.

“Megafire’s” reporting is relayed in intimate detail. By the end, you’re certain to have a grasp on blacklines, hand lines, perimeters of control, complex wind, weather and the dubiousness of an air drop. Fire science is evolving, but we certainly don’t have it mastered. Humans are never going to beat “blizzards of embers.” Still, the slow progress of seemingly simple things such as syncing radios and updating maps is overwhelming.

Kodas gives as much attention to the formidable women and men who fight the fires, and the civilians they encounter, and the burns. He introduces us to tragic hotshots who break our hearts, and the “red buffalo” that once burned kinder and gentler on the prairies. He shares the social impacts of prisoners fighting fires and all-volunteer departments. He calls foul on some unsavory shenanigans too – one of which transpired during the 2003 fire near the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.

Kodas writes with a pace that evokes terror and urgency in each developing firestorm. He rips into these fires in minute-by-minute detail. In the end, the different fires’ particulars blur. Each ravine, hill and forest that becomes the year’s largest, costliest and deadliest merges into a commonality – records we’re sure to beat again in our mountain forests and cheatgrass-filled grasslands. It’s evident the book’s most telling quote: “Fire big, man small.”

Kodas talks about “Megafire” at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 19 in Library Hall, a free event that is part of Bud Werner Memorial Library’s ongoing author series. Books will be available for sale and author signing after the talk.

This book is available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.

Jennie Lay is the adult programs coordinator at Bud Werner Memorial Library.




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