As deputy chief of external affairs for the Bureau of Land Management, working with the National Interagency Fire Center, he is at the heart of the nation's wildland fire system. It's an office that is more than busy these days, as major fires burn across much of the West. Eardley took some time to talk to BW about the fire season and the future of fire.
How long have you been with the Interagency Fire Center?
I'm with the Bureau of Land Management at the National Interagency Fire Center. A lot of people in Boise don't even know it's here, but it is the national, Washington-level fire offices for the BLM, National Park Service, Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and there's even a [representative] out there from the National Association of State Foresters. We're sort of linked into the states as well. It's pretty much all the federal and state land management agencies. In some ways, we're very different—each has its own culture and employees—but we work really well together on the fire mission.
So you organize national wildfire fighting?
If you look at national wildlife fire fighting, it sort of operates on a three-tiered system. There's like 300 local dispatch offices across the country and they deal with fires in a local area. But when those fires get to a size and complexity beyond what they're capable of handling, then it goes to a geographical area center—which is sort of a microcosm of what we have here—which has access to more airplanes, more people, all of that. If it gets beyond that capability, that's when it gets elevated to this center here, and, yes, we can move crews, equipment, people and aircraft from Alaska to Florida.
How did it end up in Boise?
It started back in the '70s as just the Forest Service and BLM working together, and over time—because this is sort of centrally located to where a lot of wildfire activity is, predominantly it occurs in the West—it just grew from that, and we just started bringing in more and more partners.
How long have you been with the BLM?
Well, I started on a fire crew in 1974, and that was a summer fire job, and in the years since, I've worked just about every job. I've been a fire lookout on a mountain, been on the end of a hose. I've driven fire engines. I spent a lot of years in airplanes as what's called an air tactical supervisor, which is a job I loved.
What's your journalism background?
That's what my education is in. I did take a six-, seven-year hiatus from fire back in the '80s and worked as a journalist in a variety of capacities, but I had fire in my blood.
Wildfire seems to be part of life in the West.
It is and even more so today than in the past. I really have seen, just in my career, fire seasons and fires have sort of evolved and it's in some ways a lot different today than it was 20 years ago.
In the last 10 years, we're seeing fire seasons get longer and hotter ... And the conditions that are out there—you have higher temperatures and the fuels out there, there's a lot more fuels out there and they're drier, and so, consequently, the fires burn with maybe more intensity than they used to. They get bigger quicker. And that's especially true with a year like we have now.
Is it a matter of climate change, human factors or land management?
Well, it's sort of a convergence of all of those things. And that's probably one of the biggest challenges we have is that the population's just exploding and a lot of that population is moving into areas that have historically burned. It's called the urban-wildlands interface. It's just expanding and I think in the last five to 10 years, 60 percent of all the building in the West has been in fire-prone areas. And that may be the biggest change in the last 20 years. It used to be you'd go out and deal with a fire in the forest or the rangelands, and you'd essentially be dealing with the fire. Now we find ourselves having to deal with homes and people and focusing on those rather than on the wildfire.
Are people not aware of the fire risk?
I think that's true to a certain extent, but we also do a lot of education, trying to reach out to those people, because there's a lot they can do to protect themselves ... It's really, ultimately, their responsibility ... And also, we're getting to the point where we're going to have to measure the risk. Are we going to risk people's lives to protect a house where that homeowner who's done nothing to protect himself?
What is it about fire that draws you back?
Well, in all those years when I was in an operational capacity, it was just damned exciting. There's a lot of adrenaline involved and there's a tremendous amount of camaraderie among firefighters.
What was your job aboard the aircrafts?
I was sort of an airborne air traffic controller. Over a fire, you'll have air tankers and helicopters, and you'll have an occasional media airplane or helicopter. And they're all operating in a relatively confined area, which is typically smoky and turbulent, and my primary job in that capacity was to make sure everybody didn't bump into each other.
What's the fire situation looking like this year?
We're just barely getting into fire season and there really doesn't seem to be much relief in sight, at least in the short term. And probably into September, we're looking at continued hot, dry conditions.
About how many fires do you deal with each year?
In the course of a season, we'll have tens-of-thousands of fire starts. Not all of those get to be large fires. The one thing we've really had to deal with this year is broad-scale dry lightning storms. I've seen a lot of years where we've had really spare conditions, and public lands were just a tinderbox, but we didn't have much of a fire season because we didn't have the ignitions.
It seems to be a bad combination of factors this year.
It's a very volatile situation, and that trend, I think, is going to continue. The population in the West is going to continue to grow ... we continue to have the hotter, drier conditions. It's a pretty daunting challenge.