The Human Antivenom Project

16 May

It might one day be to the world’s great fortune that Jacob Glanville, a young immunologist trying to make a name for himself in the field of universal vaccines, went online and found Tim Friede, a mechanic who had been shooting lethal doses of snake venom into his bloodstream for going on two decades. It may also prove to be yet another stroke of terrible luck for Friede.

But let’s start at the beginning. It was March 2017. Glanville, who left a principal-scientist position at Pfizer to launch a startup called Distributed Bio, had just developed a novel method for accelerating the creation of new drugs by extracting patients’ antibodies, the blood proteins vertebrates use to counteract the threat of viruses, bacteria, and toxins. He thought he’d apply the technique to cancer research. So one day, while sitting with a meditative view at San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden, he took to Google in search of a melanoma survivor. Chasing a thought, he typed in “repeat venom survivor” instead and found Friede.

Friede, who has spent 19 years promoting his quest to help researchers create a universal antivenom, takes up an inordinate amount of space on the internet. Glanville soon stumbled upon a newspaper story that described a YouTube video of Friede’s favorite stunt, the one he says proves his immunity to two of the deadliest snakes in existence. In the video, Friede holds the head of a Papua New Guinea taipan, one of the world’s most potently venomous snakes, against his forearm. Blood is already dripping from fang marks on his right arm, left there moments earlier by a ten-foot-long black mamba. Now the taipan bites. An attack from either snake can stop a person’s heart in a couple of hours. Other symptoms, including drooping eyelids and paralysis of the tongue, develop in seconds. But Friede calmly puts the snake back in its cage and says to the camera, “I love it. I love it. I love it.”

Glanville watched this with the appropriate mix of discomfort and grim fascination. “Jesus fuck, this is my guy,” he said. Friede’s immune system, it seemed, was able to neutralize dozens of different toxins. Glanville wondered whether he could use his new antibody-­extraction method on Friede to create a universal antivenom.

Tim Friede, scientist Ray Newland, and Jacob Glanville at Distributed Bio’s offices in South San Francisco (Peter Prato)

Friede was driving home from his factory job building military trucks in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, when he received the first call. He remembers Glanville complimenting him on his knowledge of the immune system and explaining his interest in creating an antivenom. Soon after, they made a handshake agreement. Friede would supply his antibodies, and Glanville his science, and should they bring an antivenom to market, they’d split the profits down the middle. It was a long shot, but one that could eventually net each of them millions.

It’s now early December 2018, and Friede and Glanville are meeting in person for the first time, at Distributed Bio’s new offices in South San Francisco, in a nondescript building so close to the city’s birthplace of biotechnology sign, you could hit it with a genetically modified peach. Along with four other young immunologists and Friede’s girlfriend, Gretchen Greeley, they are drinking single-malt Scotch in an office down the hall from the lab where Glanville’s team has been studying Friede’s blood. Glanville, 38, is six-foot-two, with round glasses and a round face framed by dark, curly hair. He’s wearing designer jeans and nice leather boots.

Friede, 51, is around the same height as Glanville. He has a full head of closely shaved graying hair, wispy sideburns that drip into a goatee, and a face so thin it looks blown onto his cheekbones. He’s wearing faded jeans from Goodwill and steel-toed Keens. His voice is gravelly from cigarettes, and feeling insecure in the presence of so many Ph.D.’s, he plays the part of the dumb country boy. “That was the most terrifying few hours of my life,” he says, describing what was a fairly routine flight to San Francisco. Then he proclaims, “Today is the best day of my life.” When Glanville pulls him into a fatherly side hug, Friede seems to swell.

Glanville has ostensibly flown Friede to San Francisco to plan the next steps of their multiyear antivenom project. But really they’ve gathered here to meet me. Putting a new drug on the market can cost tens of millions of dollars, and Glanville knows that press can lead to funding. Having once survived a harrowing rattlesnake bite myself, I was curious whether, by some cosmic confluence of the ongoing technological revolution in immunology, Glanville’s skill set, and Friede’s unfathomable tolerance for pain, a mechanic from Wisconsin really was on the verge of becoming the dark angel of antivenom that for years he’d been saying he was.

A week earlier, I was buying Friede dinner in his new hometown of Green Bay and trying to figure out what triggered this obsession of his in the first place. A veteran of interviews, he took me to “the steakhouse where the Packers eat” and ordered a $50 rib eye. With an IPA in hand, Friede told me about his recent move from Oshkosh, where he’d lived for two years. “I was bagging up my mamba, a big ten-foot black,” he said, adding that he hadn’t injected that particular snake’s venom in several months. “And pop, right in the ring finger. Blood everywhere. I mean everywhere. Total accident.” This was the 100th time he’d been bitten by a mamba. “So, true story,” he said, “I walk into the kitchen and tell Gret, ‘Give me 15,’ because normally after 15 you’re pretty good to go.”

“What’s 15?” I asked.

“Minutes. If you’re not immune in 15, you’re out—dead. So I pass out. I thought, Son of a bitch, either I’m going down or fucking shock is getting me,” he said. But he had no hives. He could breathe. Five minutes later, he was back on his feet and then, wham, down again. “I hit my head on the damn sink. Made it through that one. That was two months ago,” Friede said, and then the waitress arrived with our salads.

The son of schoolteachers he never met, Friede was adopted when he was three months old and raised by a police-officer dad and a stay-at-home mom in the Milwaukee suburbs. An intense kid, he grew up hunting snakes and fantasizing about joining the Special Forces. Shortly after graduating from high school, he broke his ankle in a car accident when he flipped his VW bug. At 19, after he fractured the ankle a second time, in Army boot camp, he gave up on the military and took a job as a high-rise window washer in Milwaukee.

Still somewhat aimless at 30, he enrolled in a class on how to milk spiders and scorpions, hoping to land a career extracting venom for medical research. A few arachnid bites later, he got a pet copperhead, and it’s been all snakes ever since. That’s also around the time he first heard about self-­immunization. The ancient practice involves escalating exposure to any harmful substance—toxin, bacteria, virus—that the human body produces antibodies against. It sounded smart, becoming immune to his deadly menag­erie. So in 2000, Friede began shooting himself with snake venom in small doses, at one point using some syringes acquired from his best friend’s wife, a vet tech named Karen.

He suffered his first snakebite the day after 9/11. A few days before, Karen had died in a head-on collision that would also render her two young kids comatose for six months. Devastated and depressed, Friede got good and drunk and tried to milk his Egyptian cobra. The snake twisted and sank its fangs into his left middle finger. Having begun self-immunizing the year before, he’d already injected 0.26 milligrams of cobra venom diluted in saline—a dose large enough to ensure he could survive a cobra bite. Friede’s wife at the time snapped a picture of him in his living room. He looks fleshier and happy, with a smile on his face and his bloody hand pushed up against the nose of his dog, a pit bull mix, while his beaming six-year-old son hugs the animal. It’s one of two photos on his fridge. “That changed everything,” Friede said. “It was the first time I beat death.”

The second time came an hour later. The freshly cobra-bitten Friede, feeling cocky, went back to the cages where he kept his snakes and picked up a monocled cobra with his bare hands. “Naja kaouthia,” Friede recalled, using the snake’s scientific name, as he always does. The cobra perforated his right biceps. “I was scared as hell,” he said. Friede collapsed. Fully paralyzed, he could still hear when the medics arrived and discussed whether he was dead. They revived him with six vials of antivenom from the zoo, and Friede spent the next four days in a coma. “That one is hard to talk about—a fucking disaster,” he said. “I wish it never happened.” It’s also the story he uses to answer questions about his obsession. Afterward, he made it a goal to survive two venomous snakebites in a single night, this time without requiring antivenom.

To do so, Friede taught himself enough immunology to self-vaccinate more safely. When he is bitten or injects himself with snake toxins, his B cells, the body’s antibody factories, secrete thousands of different antibodies in an effort to counteract each of the many distinct proteins that make up a particular venom. At first very few succeed. Like random keys inserted into locks, they simply don’t fit. But inevitably, a few do. It’s evolution taking place directly in the bloodstream. Every time Friede receives a snakebite, his B cells make only those antibodies that address the now present toxin while at the same time constantly tinkering to improve the designs. The more venom Friede injects, the more effective his antibodies become.

What’s challenging about his approach is that each species’ venom is a combination of 20 to 70 toxic proteins and enzymes that kill or maim in their own special way. To survive bites from multiple species, Friede needs antibodies capable of turning off the deadliest toxins in the venoms injected, be it rattlesnake or cobra. He also needs a legion of them in his bloodstream at all times, although when he first began self-immunizing, he wasn’t really certain how many. Friede ­decided that more was better, and the process he settled on required near constant exposure to venom. So he ordered a lot of snakes.

Friede at his home in Green Bay (Peter Prato)

We arrived at this part of his story almost three hours after we’d sat down to dinner. The steakhouse had closed, but after we finished our meal, Friede spotted a friend, the restaurant’s baker, a cheery, pink-haired woman who loved snakes. We joined her and the rest of the waitstaff at the bar, where Friede, who is charming and funny, had them all riveted—especially when he began explaining the work he’d lined up for his antibodies tomorrow night.

“So, when I get bit by a water cobra, the most venomous snake in Africa, it’s going to be bam—lock and key, lock and key, millions of times,” Friede said. Then he pivoted, explaining why his immunity wasn’t just a dubious party trick but could save millions of lives. “What they did in San Francisco,” he said, “is cloned all my good antibodies to mamba, rattlesnake, everything.” And that, he continued, is what would become the foundation for a universal antivenom. (As it often does, his enthusiasm for the project had him getting a bit ahead of the science.)

“Oh, you’re a hero,” the restaurant’s manager said, buying Friede a beer and a shot of whiskey in appreciation.

“Oh no, no, no,” Friede said. “I’m not. I’m just an idiot who gets bit by snakes.”

Before Glanville had even heard of Friede, he was working on cures for HIV, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. But his real passion is the flu. As with venom toxins, the influenza virus is constantly evolving, yet with each transformation, some part of each strain remains the same.

“Evolution is ding, ding, ding, ding—all the time,” Glanville says. “Whether that mutation survives depends on whether it’s advantageous. The part of the protein that functions the same way across all species, that’s the part that’s conserved, because it’s already working.” In other words, a virus doesn’t fix what isn’t broken. This was the scientific epiphany that struck immunology a decade earlier, and it now drives all of Glanville’s work. If an antibody could be created to target that conserved portion, almost every strain of the virus could be neutralized—a universal vaccine.

Glanville grew up in Guatemala in the late eighties and early nineties, amid the country’s 36-year civil war. He’s the son of American expats, his father an “agricultural importer” (a winking euphemism) and his mother an artist whose father helped develop the engines that sent the first U.S. rockets into space. To avoid stray bullets, Glanville and his younger brother, Keith, slept on the floor of the hotel their parents owned, and to get to school they rode a boat across Lake Atitlán. Glanville was also brilliant, cooking up nitroglycerin in the family bathtub when he was nine and finishing high school math by the time he was 11. As an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, Glanville studied computational bioengineering, a new field that used math and supercomputers to solve complex biological riddles. The immune system fascinated him. “So I figured out how to hack it,” he says.

Around 2008, computational bioengineering was in its promising infancy, and Pfizer hired Glanville a year out of college. Ever since human antibodies were discovered in the late 1890s, scientists have considered them immunological silver bullets—cells with the elusive power to theoretically cure any disease. Isolating and engineering them became perhaps the greatest quest in medicine. Over the past two decades, scientists compiled libraries of billions of unique antibodies that can be genomically sequenced, allowing researchers to read the DNA of each one. Once that’s known, any antibody can be grown in bacteria and modified to target a specific antigen.

Glanville’s major contribution at Pfizer (and the reason he was promoted to principal scientist in just four years) was writing 45,000 lines of code to optimize the process of matching antibodies to antigens. Searches that once took a team of scientists ten years to complete, Glanville says, can now be done in a week by a master’s student working alone. His software taught the computer to find thousands of matching antibodies from the tens of billions in a library. None of those matches would be perfect, but by swapping various features they share, one or a few of them could be made into something close. Glanville had developed a way to dramatically cull the number of potential candidates and then engineer the most promising ones. He transformed the search for antibody drugs from a needle in a hundred hay stacks to a needle in just one.

In 2012, at 31, Glanville took his code and left his prestigious job at Pfizer. He then founded Distributed Bio while also becoming the first Ph.D. candidate in computational immunology at Stanford University. Five years later, Glanville completed his doctorate, and business at Distributed Bio was booming. He now licenses his software and antibody library back to Pfizer and each of nine other pharmaceutical giants for around $500,000 a year and typically receives 2 percent of the profit from any drugs developed using them. With those earnings, Distributed Bio has added a fleet of new hardware to help in the discovery, isolation, refinement, and cloning of antibodies, making his firm, which employs 20 researchers, a leader in the field.

Glanville’s baby was his flu-vaccine work, and important insights he gained during that quest would also apply to snakebites. As with the toxins in venom, influenza strains are incredibly diverse. We get flu shots every year because the virus mutates somewhere between 10 and 20 percent from one season to the next, rendering our defenses useless. To succeed with a flu vaccine, however, Glanville just needed to engineer antibodies that sniffed out the virus’ weak spot, that one place that doesn’t evolve even as everything around it does.

Along with his research co-lead, microbiologist Sarah Ives, Glanville bought 15 live flu viruses that were representative of the strains that had infected humans between 1938 and 2015, then locked them in cold storage. Collectively, influenza killed tens of millions of people during that span of time. Glanville wrote a computer program to identify any binding sites that were shared across all 15 viruses. And he found a region full of them, buried deep in its molecular folds. Then Glanville engineered a vaccine that would teach the immune system to produce antibodies to target that area. Back in Guatemala, at a pig farm he and his brother built on their parents’ property to save money on research trials, his team immunized 100 pigs (a common animal model for humans) with the designer vaccine. Then they exposed the pigs’ serum, the component in blood that contains antibodies, to influenza strains that the animals’ had never seen, those that went epidemic in humans between 2005 and 2015. The serum fought off the viruses. “The smart money is that this is the universal flu vaccine,” says Glanville. Indeed, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invited Dis­tributed Bio to submit a grant proposal, and the company plans to go into preclinical testing at veterinary research facilities in Iowa this fall.

Given that potential breakthrough, it’s perhaps not surprising that Glanville is so confident he can succeed with snakebites, too. “With our tech,” he told me, “because of what Tim has done—as crazy as that shit is—this is an easy problem for us to solve.”

Glanville had only an inkling of how crazy it really was. Starting in 2000, when Friede set his mind to immunizing himself from nearly all snakes, he turned his basement into a venom lab. He insulated the walls to keep tropical reptiles warm in Wisconsin’s winters and used spent syringes to hang a world map and a letter from a self-­immunizer he admired beside a Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar. Every few months, new species arrived at the Milwaukee airport, where Friede would pick up the wooden crates stamped Venomous SNAKEs.

When he got home, Friede would listen to Tool and open the crates with a screwdriver. On snake hooks or in Friede’s bare hands, out came the writhing contents. Water cobras. Taipans. Mambas. He put them in cages he stacked against a wall. Friede’s rarer venom donors were wild-caught—legally or illegally, he doesn’t know—and often stressed or sick. Some died a few months after they came in. Friede loves animals, but whether his snakes survived long-term didn’t ultimately affect his work. Once he milked their venom he could dehydrate it into a lifetime supply.

He also began taking what he calls “Darwinian notes.” On December 12, 2001, he wrote, “Since dying was no fun, took off ’til December.” That day he injected himself with the venom from the same cobra that nearly killed him, and he spiked his blood every few weeks from then on. He rated pain on a numerical scale, with entries ranging from 1 to 1,000. A common symptom was “3x3 swelling”; rarer was “swelling from knee to ass,” “hives over whole body,” and “anaphylactic shock” (though he suffered the last of these 12 times). Within a year of starting, he was letting live snakes bite him to demonstrate his immunity. Over time he could distinguish how much venom they’d injected simply by his body’s reaction. He grew to like water cobras, because their neurotoxic venom blocked his nerve cells, making a bite less painful and “very easy to beat.” He hated Cape cobras and rattlesnakes, whose necrotic venom dissolved his muscles.

Along the way, Friede developed a sort of stuntman-next-door persona by posting videos online. Some were macho, like the one where a drunk friend howls in disbelief as he films a black mamba double-nipping a sober Friede. But in most of the clips, Friede tries earnestly to share how self-­immunization really works. He was just your average enthusiastic guy in a Slayer T-shirt, admiring nature’s deadliest snakes by letting them bite him. He recorded the moments after a Mojave rattlesnake tagged him by surprise and after he’d solicited a bite from a black mamba to help “a girl with a school project.”

Whether he put his videos on Facebook or YouTube, haters inevitably flocked to the comments. Snake enthusiasts, leading toxicologists, and online trolls attacked his efforts as useless witchcraft and labeled Friede either a fake who’d removed the snakes’ venom glands or an idiot. Friede says he even got death threats. “What was I doing? I wasn’t hurting anybody,” he says.

Before long the media discovered him, too. National Geographic filmed Friede for a TV segment in 2002. The History Channel featured him on Stan Lee’s Superhumans, and he appeared on the Science Channel and a number of YouTube shows. He was also covered in several magazines and became a regular guest on podcasts and radio. All that attention offered something he craved: affirmation. “I was a rock star,” he says. “Hell yeah, it was fun.” At one point, Friede got a lawyer and an agent to capitalize on the opportunities but has since dropped both, because “it’s never been about the money.”

What it has been about, Friede insists, is saving lives. As early as 2003, he believed that scientists could turn his blood into a universal antivenom, so he began to reach out. Friede e-mailed Nobel Prize–winning experts on the immune system, an Arizona State University professor who developed a technique for genetic immunization, and Stanley Plotkin, the author of the 1,720-page tome Plotkin’s Vaccines, which Friede used to inform his own immunization.

The scientists got back to him with cursory congratulations, but he found few who were genuinely interested in what he was doing. He got a better reception among a more amateur crowd—the burgeoning online self-immunization community. Norman Benoit, the closest thing the practice has to a historian, wrote that Friede “has almost single-handedly taken the concept of self-immunizing to where it is today.” That place seems to be a Facebook page that Friede started in 2013. It now has 3,000 members around the world and an image gallery that could be sent as hate mail to a squeamish enemy. On it, Friede generally advises caution to newcomers while supporting—though not providing advice on—their DIY immunity efforts.

Friede wasn’t exactly cautious himself. Over time his experimentation grew bolder, if not downright reckless. “You’ve got to make mistakes to get better, that’s part of it,” he says. On November 29, 2015, he filmed the black mamba and taipan double bite that led him to Glanville. The video now has 11.5 million views on YouTube. Friede described the event in his notes: “One of the worst double bites I’ve ever had. Swelling was 10" x 10". Took four days to heal.” A week later, he repeated the experiment with the same two snakes and had a similar experience. “Could not walk. Body was on fire. Fell down many times. Death was near. Learned a lot.” Friede has now survived bites from two species of rattlesnake, two species of taipan, four types of cobra, all three species of green mamba, and the black mamba.

As might be imagined, Friede’s obsession has taken a toll on his personal life. His ex-wife has said that Friede’s self-immunizing ruined their marriage. Friede doesn’t argue the point. Though he still considers his ex-wife a close friend, he says with remorse that for long periods he hasn’t had a good relationship with his sons, who are now 11 and 22. “I mean, I was working to save the world. I traded my life for all those people that snakes kill every year,” he says. After a strained 20 years, he and his wife split in 2010. Friede moved out and transferred his snake lab to a property in nearby Fond du Lac, where he slept in a tent. “I figured out how death works, then beat it,” he says. “That’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at.”

By the spring of 2017, divorced and estranged from his kids, Friede felt that he’d had enough. “I was done,” he says. “I was tired of the bites, tired of the pain, tired of not getting anywhere.” So even while he kept posting on Facebook, he planned to wind down his self-immunizing.

Then Glanville called. In as much time as it took him to explain his intentions, Friede’s dream was revived. Glanville reaching out was “everything,” Friede says. “Ev-ery-thing.”

Around the time Glanville and Friede connected, their cause got a publicity boost. In June 2017, after intensive lobbying by physicians, the World Health Organization categorized snakebites as a neglected tropical disease, an upgraded classification with the heft to shake loose vital funding. Every year, snakes kill between 80,000 and 130,000 people and claim 400,000 limbs through amputation.

Dozens of teams around the world are now trying to improve upon the antivenoms first developed in the late 1890s by Albert Calmette, a French immunologist who also developed a vaccine for tuberculosis. Calmette made an antivenom to cobras by doing to rabbits what Friede has done to himself. Since then sheep and horses have become the antibody donors of choice, largely because of their abundant blood supplies. Otherwise, antivenom production has changed very little. Serums can expire in less than two years and are expensive ($2,300 per vial and sometimes more), and the antibodies they produce work only against select types of venom. While that last flaw is acceptable in places like the United States, which is home to only four appreciably different venomous snakes, it isn’t in a country like India, which has 60.

As Glanville soon learned, none of the researchers working on a snakebite cure expected to engineer a truly universal antivenom. Doing so would require an antibody to turn off every toxin in every known snake venom, a financial improbability for a drug that Glanville forecasts will earn just $30 million a year. Yet, as Glanville also discovered, advances in genomic sequencing have revealed that across all 700 species of venomous snakes, the most destructive proteins belong to just 13 different families. “Not all toxins are equally bad. We just need to cure the nastiest ones to save lives,” Glanville says.

Like some of the other teams working on antivenom, Glanville hopes to target the protein-binding sites shared among each of those 13 families. If he can find antibodies to lock onto those vulnerable sites, a so-called broad-spectrum antivenom wouldn’t need to contain several thousand distinct antibodies. An effective number, he says, could be closer to 30.

Of the half-dozen toxicologists and antivenom experts I spoke to, not one had heard of Glanville. He hasn’t published any scientific papers on venom, though he’s published more than 30 in other areas. The most heralded work in the field is being conducted by Andreas Laustsen, a young researcher in Denmark who has dubbed himself Snakebite Jesus. Last summer, using some of the same tools as Glanville’s lab, Laustsen engineered human antibodies that when injected into mice could neutralize dendrotoxins, among the most potent ingredients in black mamba venom. But his work underscores just how difficult the challenge is. Because of the sheer complexity of venom, his antibodies were effective only when injected directly into the mice’s brains.

Glanville believes Friede is the solution. His theory is that Friede has done with his syringes and snakes what Glanville had done in the lab for flu: created antibodies to sniff out the shared sites of extremely diverse proteins. “The immune system is as lazy as the rest of us,” Glanville says. “Why make a bunch of different antibodies if you can just make one that does many jobs?”

Laustsen, who is supportive of any researcher working on antivenom, is nonetheless skeptical that Friede’s antibodies are anything special. Before beginning his experimentation on dendrotoxin, he worked with a self-immunizer from London. Laustsen found that his patient’s immunity was barely above background—not worth the effort or expense to extract antibodies, and certainly not worth the headache. Danish media had taken Laustsen to task for using a self-immunizer to develop a potentially profitable drug. “The promotion of such work carries the risk that others will start doing something crazy to get the interest of scientists. It might be a little slower to do it in the lab, but at least nobody gets hurt,” Laustsen says.

Medicine’s history of human experimentation is dark enough already. But Glanville doesn’t believe he’s made Friede into a human lab rat. Friede, he says, is the rare case where scientific curiosity drove someone to voluntarily do extreme things to their own body.

Not long after Glanville connected with Friede, on a muggy July morning in 2017, a woman in a little blue car showed up at Friede’s house in Osh­kosh, drew 20 milliliters of his blood, and shipped it to Distributed Bio in South San Francisco. Then Friede grabbed a syringe and a vial of taipan venom from the fridge and shot it into his thigh. For the next 19 days, he injected escalating doses of western diamondback, black mamba, and taipan venom, following his normal immunization schedule. On the 28th day of the experiment, the woman in the blue car returned, retrieved more blood, and again shipped it to Distributed Bio.

The two samples gave Glanville and his team before and after snapshots of Friede’s immune system. By comparing them, Glanville could tell if Friede’s antibodies were actually evolving to better neutralize the toxins—and if they were, how well they were doing that job. Determining that would take Glanville and his team more than a year.

Glanville was aware that Friede was injecting himself throughout the four weeks between blood draws. I asked him if he was concerned that his subject might be taking too many risks during a period when he was technically participating in a Distributed Bio study. Glanville was adamant that he’d never asked Tim to inject venom and that their research was strictly passive. “Our conclusion was that Tim was continuing his routine practice of boosting that he’d be performing whether or not we had run the study,” he wrote to me in a long e-mail explaining the rigorous biomedical-ethics considerations he thought through in advance of the study. “We just took blood samples during his process. We asked him what his schedule was but did not influence it. Thus our study never exposed Tim to any new risk.”

Glanville also pointed out that he’s taken steps to ensure that Friede doesn’t become antivenom’s Henrietta Lacks, the never compensated source of one of the most significant cell lines in medical research. From the outset, Glanville said he’d make certain that Friede would have a significant stake in any future profit from his cells, and he made that legal in April 2019 when they signed an official contract.

Although he and Friede are partners there’s a vast disparity between what they each have riding on the research’s success. For Glanville, the work on a broad-spectrum antivenom is something of a side project that, even if it yields a marketable product, won’t generate anything close to the profit his work on influenza, cancer, and HIV might someday generate.

Friede, meanwhile, has gone all in. Within weeks of Glanville’s first blood draw, Friede found reason to quit the $50,000-a-year truck-assembly job he’d held for eight years. “There are things I know on paper that are pretty sweet,” he told me. “Vaccine wise. Money wise.” He said he thought his partner had already invested “probably in the millions” and that Glanville was “banking on stuff he knows is going to work. Otherwise he wouldn’t do it.” (Glanville estimates his costs so far at closer to $30,000, compared with $300,000 he’s put into influenza.) The bulk of Friede’s income between November 2017 and October 2018, when he took a job delivering pizzas, was $6,680 that Distributed Bio paid him for “research funding.” After Glanville discovered Friede was broke, he offered to host him at his family’s farm in Guatemala, but Friede owed so much money in child support that the U.S. government wouldn’t issue him a passport.

“Obviously, it hasn’t worked yet,” Friede says, betraying a hint of remorse before washing it away with his familiar optimism. “Will it? Yes, it fucking will.”

When Friede and I first talked, I had my own ethical dilemma to work through. A couple of months before meeting him in Green Bay, we discussed him being bitten by a snake for this story, something he said he was happy to do. But as we got closer to the interview date, I began to have second thoughts. What if something happened? So, the morning after we’d closed out the bar at the steakhouse, where I’d heard him boast about his big plans for a water cobra bite with me as a witness, I asked Friede not to go through with it. There was plenty for me to watch on YouTube, I explained. Friede seemed to understand and agreed.

That attitude changes over the course of our second day together. We’ve just finished a late-afternoon lunch at a diner near his home, accompanied by Friede’s girlfriend of four years, Gretchen Greeley. An animal lover with a sharp intellect, Greeley works as a cook and has become something of a stabilizing force for Friede. He calls her “the most fun part of my life.”

Last fall they went through a rough patch. After a year in Oshkosh, the couple moved to Green Bay, where Greeley grew up and Friede’s ex-wife lives with their two sons. They were unable to find a rental willing to take their pit bull, however, so Friede and Greeley lived at a Motel 6 for a month with their two dogs and a polydactyl cat named Wednesday Absinthe Adams. A couple of weeks ago, they moved into the 400-square-foot attic apartment where we’ve been watching YouTube videos of the “most brutal” snakebites of Friede’s career.

And we’re drinking. A pile of empty Steel Reserve tallboys and white-wine minis crowd the garbage can. An industrial-metal band that Greeley and Friede like plays on an antique-looking radio. By the kitchen sink, in a black crate that Greeley pulled out almost two hours ago, are a pair of water cobras. Wednesday Absinthe Adams and another cat are wrestling on top of the crate, and I can sense Friede, now splayed out on the couch, plotting his move.

He takes another nip of whiskey and then stretches out his arms. At some point tonight he put on my down jacket, which is much too small for him, and he’s now making noise about keeping it in exchange for showing me what I’d asked him not to show me.

“You didn’t come all the way out here to see nothing,” he says.

I’ve had a few drinks myself, and curiosity is getting the better of me. “I do want that coat back,” I say. Greeley silently fetches the crate and places it at Friede’s feet.

“Fear is kind of a fucking weird thing,” he says. He removes the lid, and two water cobra heads levitate above the rim to investigate, each banded black and gold. “Naja annulata,” Friede says, pausing for effect. “The most venomous snake in Africa.”

Friede thrusts his hands into the crate and comes up holding the two snakes, each about six feet long. One cobra then slides with remarkable speed and very little aggression up the baffles of Friede’s jacket—my jacket—toward his neck. He grabs it and moves his hands beneath its belly like he’s pouring sand from one hand into the next.

“It’s almost like we know each other,” he says. “See how gentle I am with these animals?” And he is, until he starts tapping one snake’s head against his wrist. “You’re not going to bite are you?” he whispers.

For the next ten minutes he pokes, prods, pats, and pets, all to elicit a bite. If he’s afraid, you’d never know it. A week ago, to prepare for this interview, he injected a lethal dose of water cobra venom. It had been 11 months since his last booster shot, and he administered it an hour before he and Greeley were supposed to be at her parents’ for Thanksgiving dinner.

“Fuck you for that, by the way,” Greeley says, reminding Friede that no antivenom exists for water cobras. She says that when she saw what he’d done that night, she cried and nearly passed out.

“Come on, hon,” Friede responds. “I just wanted to know what would happen.”

With the recent booster, Friede is confident that he can survive a bite from each of these cobras, but they don’t seem interested. “Come on, bite me. Bite me,” he says. Their jaws stay shut.

“Get me a cup,” he tells Greeley, moving to plan B. She heads to the kitchen and rummages through the empty cabinets. The scales, glass vials, and insulin syringes he usually uses when shooting venom are still locked in storage, so Greeley makes do. She grabs a plastic bag and winds it tightly around a NyQuil measuring cup. Then she gets the dirty needle Friede requested. “It’s more hardcore,” Greeley explains, passing it over the cobras to Friede.

Friede pushes a snake’s head against the bag. Fangs puncture plastic, clear venom gleeks into the cup. He repeats the procedure with the other snake, then places the cobras back in the crate. His routine thrown off by Greeley’s improvised venom receptacle, he spends the next three minutes wrestling the tightly wound bag off the NyQuil cap. “It’s not a fucking bomb, honey,” Friede admonishes, his showmanship overwhelmed by childlike frustration. Venom finally flows into the syringe. “Oh yeah, that’s enough to kill me,” he says.

The needle goes in just behind the round bone on the inside of Friede’s left wrist. And that’s about it. Twenty minutes pass without incident. Three cigarettes go into Friede. His pit bull curls up with him on the couch, and he starts chatting about how water cobra venom is simple to beat. “It’s really easy for him,” Greeley says, pleased with the results.

I’m suddenly overcome by that special fatigue that follows an adrenaline overdose, feeling as though the three of us have just survived something profound. Reluctantly, Friede returns my coat. Then I lower myself down the attic stairs and head into snow that has just started to fall.

In the parts of the day when Ray Newland, the 27-year-old scientist who Glanville appointed to the antivenom project, wasn’t panning Distributed Bio’s antibody libraries for clients, he worked with Friede’s blood. First he segregated ten million antibodies sequenced from it, an elevated amount for a normal adult and a possible indication that Friede really had done something special to his immune system. Newland arranged these into a searchable library and then began analyzing it for venom-specific antibodies.

One morning in April 2018, about a year into the project, Glanville and Newland pulled on biohazard suits, fitted themselves with rebreathers, and mixed saline into seven different types of dehydrated venoms that Newland had ordered online from a lab in France. Some were venoms Friede had immunized himself against and some were not. The varied sample would tell Glanville if Friede’s antibodies were working against any of the venoms present, and also if they were working to neutralize a venom his immune system had never seen before. The latter scenario would suggest the type of broad-spectrum reactivity necessary to build a new class of antivenom.

Ten million is an enormous number, so to cull the herd, Newland magnetized each of the seven venoms, then mixed them with Friede’s antibodies in a test tube. After ten minutes, he stuck a magnet against the side of the tube to pull out the venom toxins along with any antibodies that were sticking to them. Over the course of the next two weeks, Newland repeated this process three times, using DNA sequencing to count and clone some 1,200 of Friede’s anti­bodies that had stuck to the venom. To further clarify which of these were actually targeting toxins, he then dipped them all into a cocktail of venom and other chemicals. If the antibodies formed a true bond to the toxins, that area of the plate would turn blue. Newland’s first plate did so. So did his next 12. Newland let out a scream, prompting a Distributed Bio tech to shoot footage on her phone that captured Glanville and Newland in lab coats dancing something like the Macarena.

Friede holds up one of the two photos he keeps on his fridge: an image his wife snapped with his dog and 6-year-old son just after Friede was bitten by for the first time by an Egyptian cobra. (Peter Prato)

Within a week, Newland weeded out 282 binding antibodies and had hits on all seven venoms, including ones Friede hadn’t immunized against. “Tim’s blood is the best chance the world has at a broadly reactive antivenom,” Newland says. “We are light-years ahead of the competition.” Instead of a single antibody that worked against one toxin but not the whole venom, they had 282 that worked, in the lab, against many toxins in whole venoms—and millions more to look through for an even better fit.

This was the breakthrough Friede had been seeking for almost 20 years. You could imagine him printing Glanville’s results, chewing the pages up into wads, and blowing spitballs into the faces of his naysayers. How good were his antibodies? In a $500,000 screener called the Carterra LSA that tests how strongly an antibody binds—a good indicator of whether it’s neutralizing its target—Newland found one that hit a toxin in black mamba venom with, he says, “about three times higher affinity than any drug on the market.” It was a tighter bond than any Glanville had seen or been able to manufacture.

In December, Newland hosted a meeting with a consultant Glanville had hired to help Distributed Bio secure funding for more research. The company had a proposal in with the National Institutes of Health for $400,000, which included a full-time salary of $80,000 a year for Friede. It promised to do what had never been done before in antivenom research: use whole antibodies, first isolated from a human donor, to shut down black mamba and western diamondback venom in live mice. The venom of those two species contain proteins from most of the 13 deadliest toxin families that Glanville decided would need to be neutralized by a broad-­spectrum antivenom. The antibodies would be ­Friede’s—fully human and unlikely to induce serum sickness, a problem with most existing antivenoms. And they could be dehydrated into a thermostable powder, so they wouldn’t need to be refrigerated. Glanville’s team was pitching the idea that the product could be carried by American soldiers anywhere they traveled and stocked in the rural clinics where it’s needed most.

Still, Distributed Bio’s scientists knew that landing a grant would be just the start. Drug development has notoriously low odds of success, and despite the recent surge in antivenom research spurred by the World Health Organization’s reclassification of snakebites, drug companies aren’t exactly clamoring for a new antivenom. In fact, the current single-species products on the market have earned so little revenue that Sanofi Pasteur, the industry giant, stopped producing its antivenom in 2014, leaving those snakebitten in large swaths of Africa to seek cures from traditional healers.

And there was that other issue hovering in the background: the murky ethics of exploiting Friede’s self-mutilation, a factor that could scare away potential investors. It’s a point Glanville still struggles with. “If the cure really is in Tim,” he asks, “why should 130,000 people have to die every year from snakebites?”

The day after Friede first met Glanville in South San Francisco, he shows up at Distributed Bio’s offices around 2 P.M. looking rougher around the edges than usual. Following dinner and sangria at a tapas joint the night before, Glanville took Friede and me to his favorite kava bar, where we sucked down several coconut shells of mildly stimulating mud. Glanville went home, but Friede kept the party going. On the Uber ride back to his hotel, he had the driver stop at a liquor store. Now, suffering a brutal hangover, he spends the afternoon with Outside’s photographer having his picture taken with Glanville. (“Not my favorite thing,” Friede says.)

Later that evening, he and Greeley sit on the sidewalk in front of Distributed Bio’s offices. They’re taking a break from the company’s holiday party to smoke a cigarette. Rush hour is ramping up, and the sun is setting. Friede’s mood, full of optimism the night before, seems to have deflated all at once. Just before they’d come to San Francisco, he’d been fired from his pizza-delivery job because he’d failed to pay a ticket for a seatbelt violation. Worse was the situation with their two dogs. They’d kenneled them before they came to California, and now they’re worried they can’t afford to get them out.

“I’m just glad you got to see the ass part of this whole thing and the rock-star part,” Friede tells me. “I wish I had my job, my house, my kids, my life, but guess what? I don’t. And if it took that to get this done, maybe it was all worth it.”

He presses his cigarette into the sidewalk and goes back inside to a Christmas party full of scientists and millionaires. Glanville, wearing an ironic holiday sweater, is chatting with an immunologist who is working to cure cancer. Friede orders a vodka cocktail from the bar and steps off to one side of the room with Greeley. It’s the last time I see them.

When he got back to Wisconsin, Friede sold his self-immunization kit and snake cages so he could afford to get the rest of his stuff out of storage. One day in January, he announced on Facebook that he was quitting self-immunizing. Hundreds of people liked the post or wrote encouraging comments. An era had ended. After an estimated 200 snakebites and 700 lethal injections, self-immunizing’s brightest star had retired.

Friede, now doing maintenance work at the steakhouse where we ate and still waiting for Glanville’s grant to go through, no longer has to punish his own body to save the snakebitten. With his antibodies in the hands of reliable scientists, he could do no more. When I reached him by phone in the spring, he told me he was making an effort to spend time with his kids. He would continue to do interviews for snake-themed websites, but only to promote the antivenom project and talk about how he’d move beyond self-­immunizing. Life was starting anew, and it felt good.

But then, on March 13, he backslid when Greeley suffered a non-venomous bite from a python they were pet-sitting for a friend. “Wasn’t going to post this. But had to,” he wrote on Facebook. “My GF gets nailed by a ball python. I laughed. Then I get hit by a water cobra twice.” Old habits die hard.

Contributing editor Kyle Dickman wrote about surviving a rattlesnake bike in the June 2018 issue. 

Paradise Lost

13 Dec

Sometime before 7 A.M. on November 8, Kit Bailey, an assistant chief with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, got a call about a new wildfire that sounded ominous. It had started 30 minutes earlier on a ridge above Pulga, an old Northern California gold-mining town notched into the windy and wooded Feather River Canyon.

Bailey, a 57-year-old German-Irish man with gray hair and a handlebar mustache, knew the area well. During a 39-year career that included stints as a hotshot, smoke jumper, and a chief officer on a Type 1 team, he’d fought many “stubborn fucking fires” in the canyon. Tucked into the Sierra Nevada foothills, the place had always provided ideal habitat for blazes, which could stay fueled for months by the grasses and pines clinging to the gorge’s steep walls.

The Camp Fire—named for a tributary of the Feather River—didn’t stay confined for long. A northwest wind blowing at 40 miles an hour pushed flames into a grassy swale on the canyon’s north slopes. Within minutes, 700 feet of hillside turned to ash. Soon the fire vaulted into a stand of ponderosa pines on the plateau north of the Feather. Smoke and heat tugged burning needles off branches. Then the wind snatched them up, and a blizzard of flaming matches was suddenly cartwheeling thousands of feet into the air. The needles landed a mile or more ahead of the main blaze, and new hot spots bloomed. The fire leapfrogged north and west, burning an area the size of Central Park every eight minutes.

Concow, one of dozens of unincorporated communities in the Sierra foothills, sits on a lake that was just four miles downwind of Pulga, and houses there were burning by 7:35 A.M. Awakened by flames in their driveways, some families jumped into the lake to survive. They spent hours on a small island, shivering through hypothermia in the reflection of burning homes. Many of the community’s 700 people were severely burned and at least eight died, including 48-year-old Jesus Fernandez. Smoke killed him outside his house, likely while he tried to catch his dog.

Meanwhile, the fire sprinted on.

“Go hard,” Bailey’s chief told him when he called for an update. Bailey drove north, his speedometer quivering into the nineties. His main concern was that the fire would do exactly what it was already doing: dash across the plateau where Concow sat, hurdle the west branch of the Feather, and land in the pines on the next plateau to the north. This area was home to Paradise, a town of almost 27,000 retirees and families. It contained 20 churches and an equal number of mobile home parks, a Kmart, a KFC, a hospital, and nine schools that served 3,500 kids—many of whom were just now climbing aboard school buses for the day.

In the months before the Camp Fire broke out, Northern California was experiencing similar conditions that led to the terrible October 2017 fires in the Sonoma Valley, where wind-driven blazes destroyed a then record 5,636 homes and killed 44 people.

Dry grass was a culprit in both disasters. On a research farm about 30 miles south of Paradise, scientists from the University of California’s Natural Resource Team have, since 1978, measured how much grass or fine fuels grow every year—a critical factor in how quickly a fire spreads during dry months. Both 2017 and 2018 saw banner crops of grass, but with important differences in how they germinated and were nourished by rain.

Last year’s grass boom happened because of the wettest winter the Sacramento area had seen in 122 years. The 2018 crop emerged thanks to one damp month. Coming on the heels of a winter that provided far-below-average snowpack, March and April were warm and relatively wet—peak growing season. The grasses rioted; last spring, the U.C. Davis team harvested a bit more than 5,500 pounds of grass per acre, almost twice the normal amount.

Then conditioned worsened drastically. The last measurable rain was on May 25, and July was the warmest on record. The spring’s green grass turned brown and crispy. According to Brent Wachter, a Northern California forecaster who specializes in fire-related weather monitoring, the Sierra foothills became “a tall mat of woven fire starters.”

Even before the Camp Fire, wildfires had caused historic damage. By November 7, they’d burned an astonishing 1.3 million acres in Northern California alone—about 15 percent of the total land burned nationwide in 2018. That figure included a record-setting blaze that blackened almost half a million acres in Mendocino County, along with another cluster near the town of Redding, 90 minutes north of Paradise, that destroyed 1,604 buildings, killed six, and created a little-known meteorological phenomenon known as a fire tornado. Those occur when the hot air lifting off flames creates a vortex when it’s hit by the prevailing breeze.

Then came the fierce dry winds. By late October, the high-pressure system that scorched California throughout the summer had drifted out over the Pacific—a seasonal trend that usually signals relief. But in the first days of November, that air slid east and south over Oregon before tucking in behind California’s Sierra Nevada on November 7. Next it shifted west. Around midnight, this huge balloon of warm, dry air bent over the crest of the Sierra and deflated, sending winds howling down the long western slope of the mountains and toward the Sacramento Valley.

The exact cause of the Camp Fire remains under investigation, but defective power lines may have provided the spark. Not long after 6 A.M. on November 8, a Cal Fire crew stationed at nearby Jarbo Gap drove into the Feather River Canyon after a fire was reported near a malfunctioning line—a common cause of wildfires, especially in extreme winds. Less than 15 minutes later, at 6:33, the crew’s captain, Matt McKenzie, was standing on a small dam on the Feather, looking north at a glowing spot on a ridge he couldn’t reach. There was no road access. The fire was already burning ten acres.

“This has got potential for a major incident,” McKenzie told a dispatcher. He called for as many additional firefighters as could be found. But even if air tankers, engines, and hotshot crews had all been pre-positioned just moments away, it wouldn’t have mattered. Not in those conditions.

Gary Glotfelty, a wiry 75-year-old retired firefighter who lived on Paradise’s northeast tip, was just finishing his coffee on November 8 when his phone rang. It was the caregiver for his disabled 42-year-old son, Cody, who lived in a group home in the middle of town. They were now evacuating to the KFC, the caregiver said, a predetermined safety zone.

This worried Glotfelty. He left his wife, Rhoda, at home and rushed to pick up their son. But this wouldn’t be the usual four-minute trip. By 8:30 A.M., just two hours after the fire started, every side street in Paradise was packed with cars funneling onto the three roads that exited town to the west. The first major traffic jam was reported around 9 A.M. on Clark Street.

Most people had heard of the fire through texts or calls. Some heard about it from the police, who were driving through town, using loudspeakers to tell residents to “Get out now!” Others got the word from neighbors going door to door, after they’d seen flames from their breakfast table, or when the walls of their mobile homes became too hot to touch.

Glotfelty turned left, edging his Ford 150 truck into traffic that was slowly inching forward. Then he saw fire behind the Christian Missionary Alliance Church, near Paradise’s town center. After 50 years in the field, Glotfelty had seen more destructive fire than almost anybody on the planet. Now he was a sitting duck in a traffic jam, stuck between the 200-foot flames of the main blaze—ripping toward town from the West Branch of the Feather River—and a spot fire in the middle of town. 

The Camp Fire entered Paradise’s eastern edge at around 8 A.M. and kept riding the wind to the northwest. Swarming embers landed on pine needles piled on lawn furniture or in gutters of the trailers in Pine Grove Mobile Home Park, near where Glotfelty had first seen flames. Those embers glowed to life and, soon, one trailer in a park of 76 was burning. The radiant heat bubbled the siding on the mobile homes next door, and those caught fire, too. Within two minutes, entire rooms were engulfed. Winds gusting into the fifties blasted overhead, flinging embers from new fires downwind toward buildings and trees. It didn’t seem to matter how well-prepared a home was for fire. The Gross family lived on an immaculately cleared compound in homes built of stucco and concrete. The embers poured through the vents. They fled with their houses burning behind them.

As Glotfelty sat in his truck, the skies went black. Headlights blinked on. People started honking, pounding their steering wheels, but where could they go?

The Camp Fire catastrophe was 150 years in the making, and the reasons behind it are both complex and simple. The West is hotter and drier than it was a century ago. There’s more fuel to feed the flames, and more people living in places that are prone to burn than at any point in American history.

Back before California gained statehood, fires roamed wild over 4.5 million acres every year, creating, at Paradise’s elevation, a forest of widely spaced pines that shaded native grass. California’s Native American inhabitants intentionally started most of those burns to manage undergrowth. When the tribes were conquered around the time of the 1849 California Gold Rush, so were most of the flames.

Lightning, of course, still started some fires, as it always had. Usually accompanied by rain from thunderstorms, lightning sparked smoldering fires that were relatively easy to deal with when the state of California first organized a wildland firefighting force in the 1940s. Meanwhile, Smokey Bear got busy schooling a generation that “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” Over time, the annual acreage burned shrank to a fraction of the historic norms. But the forest didn’t stop growing. Without regular fires, places in the foothills near Paradise have grown dense with as many as 400 pines per acre where a century ago only 40 pines per acre would have stood.

While the forests thickened, California boomed. The slapdash villages that 49ers built atop ridges to support the Gold Rush have long since been transformed into towns like Paradise. Engineers turned mining trails into highways. They plugged the state’s wild rivers with 1,500 dams and connected turbines to the great coastal cities, using 210,000 miles of power lines strung from the mountains over pine forests, grasslands, and chaparral. This year, all that fuel was dried by the hottest July in state history and a long-term drought.

Until recently, California’s public utilities were often held liable for the damages caused by their equipment, scattered through all that fuel. According to The New York Times, after the 2017 fires in Sonoma, those damages could total $15 billion for Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the utility that provides power to all of Northern California.

The burden was so great that lawmakers and PG&E stockholders began to fear bankruptcy. But on September 21, 2018, the state government propped up the utility with the passage of SB-901. This was a case of lawmakers trying to make the best of a grim situation. Northern California couldn’t let its sole utility provider fail. Nor could it allow PG&E to keep increasing rates just to rebuild the cities that utility lines had caused to burn. So SB-901 said that PG&E’s 5.2 million ratepayers wouldn’t have to shoulder the financial burden of repairing the cities ravaged by fires started by power lines. At least not alone. Instead, after power lines cause a disaster, the state would conduct a stress test to see how much of the damages the company could pay and still remain solvent. The amount left would be rolled into state bonds and sold on the open market. Lawmakers also added the stipulation that PG&E do a better job preparing for wildfires, including some things the utility was already doing.

In the past few years, the company has hired its own private firefighting forces to tamp out the flames its lines start, as other utilities in California have done. It also hired a meteorological staff dedicated to forecasting wind and heat events. When such weather phenomena appeared, PG&E could power down before the winds peaked.

That didn’t happen before the Camp Fire, though.

Kit Bailey felt like a salmon swimming upstream. Still in the flats in the northern Sacramento Valley, he hit a thousand cars pouring bumper-to-bumper in both lanes down Clark Road. The fire column ahead was massive, eerily black, and bent parallel to the ground as it billowed smoke over the valley in volumes that would damage the state’s air quality for weeks. Bailey could see the fire rearing up. He leaned on the horn, then he ramped his truck onto the sloping shoulder to bypass traffic. By now, it was clear that recon was no longer his primary mission. He was driving to Paradise to save lives.

By the time Bailey made it to Paradise, at 9 A.M., the town was midnight-dark from smoke. On Pearson Street, one of the three streets that cross the town, a man wearing a black leather jacket, black jeans, and long hair flagged him down. He’d pulled his RV into a side street because his battery had died. He said his wife was sick inside.

Bailey grabbed a flashlight from behind his seat and jumped out, embers and debris whipping through the smoke, in winds of 48 miles per hour. He attached jumper cables. The RV’s engine turned over, coughed, and never fired.

“You’re out of gas,” Bailey yelled to the driver. The man had a gas can. “Find some,” Bailey said, pushing the can into his hands. “Siphon, steal, do whatever you need to do, but get gas. I’ll be back to check on you in an hour. I’ve got to get other people.”

The people of Paradise took fire safety more seriously than many in the Sierra foothills. Since recordkeeping started in 1911, wildfires have burned almost half of Butte County, which contains the city. Some years were worse than others. In 2008, the Humboldt Fire scorched 87 homes on Paradise’s northern edge. The town evacuated and learned something scary in the process: with only four roads leading into and out of Paradise from the south, it took three hours for people to flee, and every evacuation road caught fire.

After 2008’s near miss, the two local Fire Safe Councils, chapters of a statewide group formed after a fire killed 25 and burned 2,800 buildings in Oakland in 1991, redoubled their efforts to make Paradise safer. They started programs to help residents upgrade their vents so that embers were less likely to drop through them and burn homes. They raised money to thin the forest on the town’s perimeter, mailed reminders citywide telling people to pack before a fire struck, and conducted evacuation drills. Everybody knew that the roads woefully underserved a town of 26,000. But with a tax base tied to a median home value of $205,500—cheap compared with the state’s $443,400 median—upgrading evacuation routes wasn’t realistic. Paradise’s residents would have to do what they could.

One improvement was a new evacuation system. In an attempt to limit the number of cars on roads, evacuation orders were staggered geographically. But the phone-based system could only contact people who had shared their numbers with fire departments. Fewer than 8,000 people had done so, and on November 8, when the city issued its first evacuation orders shortly before 8 A.M., only a fraction of those people got the notices, because officials only called the eastern quarter of town.

It took more than an hour for Gary Glotfelty to reach his son at the KFC. Cody was standing beside his caregiver in the smoky dark. Their greeting was brief. “Cody, get in the truck, We’re getting out of here,” he said. By then, Glotfelty couldn’t go back up Clark Road because of traffic going south. So he looped back on side streets. West on Billie to Oakway. North on Oakway to Wagstaff. East on Wagstaff to Clark—still jammed. On Wagstaff, houses were ablaze. His wife was still at home, much closer to the main fire than they were. Walking was faster than driving. He parked his truck at the Cypress Meadows nursing home on Clark. Cody used to be a track star in the Special Olympics, so they ran. On the shoulder of stop-and-go traffic on Clark, dragging behind a suitcase that his son’s caregiver had packed for the evacuation, a 75-year-old man and his disabled boy ran home with fire closing in on both sides.

By this time, just after 9:30 A.M., most of Paradise’s electrical and communications infrastructure had blinked out: lights, land lines, internet, cell service. By evening, firefighters would completely drain the city’s water supply. The wind knocked down trees and power lines, which fell across side streets and main roads. Cars, idling for hours, ran out of gas and blocked or slowed traffic.

The town’s hospital, which sits on the canyon rim above the west branch of the Feather, was especially vulnerable. Engine crews had prioritized protecting it. While they hosed down the hospital, nurses evacuated patients into ambulances. One ambulance caught fire as it fled. The patient inside survived only because passengers were pulled from the flames by an off-shift doctor. He wheeled the patient into a garage that firefighters had turned into a makeshift clinic. But the nurses couldn’t get everybody out of the hospital. The critical patients had to remain behind, and nurses volunteered to stay with them. One wing of the hospital caught fire and collapsed. By a miracle of great effort and good luck, firefighting stopped the blaze before it spread to the main building.

Paradise would burn for more than 24 hours. People took refuge in the parking lots at churches and Kmart, in a football field, in antique stores, and in school buses packed with terrified and disoriented children. Some people died in flames, having never left their homes. Others died in the streets from inhaling smoke and the poisonous gases venting off houses and businesses. Others died when their cars caught fire. In the traffic jams, which vehicles burned and which didn’t was pure happenstance.

Bailey kept driving. He picked up a Latino man who was barefoot, who was holding his pants up because he didn’t have a belt, and moving along using a walker. “Get in!” Bailey yelled, then he whipped the truck through debris and past engulfed mobile home parks toward the Ace Hardware on Clark and Pearson, which had become an impromptu drop point. Firefighters had used their engines to form a blockade around the parking lot and were hosing down flames closing in from all directions. Along with other first responders, Bailey was scooping people up wherever he found them and dropping them at the Ace, where police could shuttle them out of the city.

During one of his laps around town, Bailey found a young Asian woman who spoke broken English. She was outside the fire’s edge on Clark Road, hiking into Paradise in nice jeans, open-toed shoes, and a short-sleeve blouse.

“What are you doing? Everything OK?” Bailey asked. She was crying and kept saying, “My parents, my parents.” She got in. Bailey took her a mile closer to Paradise, where her parents lived on the edge of town. They drove through wind-driven fire, big and aggressive. They passed a lifted white pickup truck that had driven through an iron gate and rear-ended a Prius.

When they pulled up to the gate of her parents’ house, her mother, who looked 80, was in smoke beneath an oak tree, raking smoldering grass by her fence. The daughter got out. The mother and daughter hugged and cried. Then the mother yelled at her daughter to get the hell out of there. The mother stayed behind with her Rottweiler, two cows, and a rake, while Bailey took the daughter back to her car. When he drove into Paradise to collect others, a power line fell across the road and broke his windshield. He jumped out, cut it with bolt cutters, and drove on.

Eventually, he made it back to the RV where he’d met the man in a black leather jacket that morning. He had no way of knowing if he and his sick wife had escaped, but the RV hadn’t moved. It was now ash and melted metal.

When Glotfelty and his son made it to their house, they could see 30-to-40-foot flames curling up behind the structure to the northeast. Glotfelty’s neighbor had already laid out the fire hoses that Glotfelty kept in a shed since 2008, when that year’s fire had nearly destroyed the place. His wife rushed out the door. Glotfelty looked left. Fifty-foot flames were now standing up in four acres of blackberry bushes near the house. Fire was burning the mobile homes visible out their back door, and it was burning oaks visible out their front door. “Get him out of here!” Glotfelty said to his wife about their son. He was staying. The last thing she saw in the rearview mirror was Glotfelty igniting his drip torch and laying a strip of fire—a final stand—around their home.

Late in the night of November 8, the winds began to die and the Camp Fire slowed in the grass and flats outside of Chico. By then, 55,000 acres had burned in a pattern that looked like a windsock. The blaze had spread 17 miles from its ignition point outside Pulga. Paradise was the biggest of the communities that burned. Concow, Centerville, Magalia, Irish Town, and Hell Town were also devastated and mostly gone.

The toll from that day is staggering. Cal Fire initially estimated that 2,000 structures had been lost and that nobody died. Since then, the numbers have climbed daily. It’s now at 13,972 homes destroyed, 528 businesses, and 4,293 other buildings. Cadaver dogs, which are the best means for finding cremated bodies, have had to sniff through every burned structure or vehicle. So far, rescue teams have found 88 dead, many of those in or next to cars on evacuation routes, but most in their homes. With 11 people still missing, the death toll will continue to climb.

Chico’s Walmart parking lot has been turned into a camp for the more than 50,000 people displaced by the Camp Fire. Refugees spent their Thanksgiving eating meals of donated food, then retired to tents pitched on blacktop.

On a cold morning three days after Paradise was lost, Bailey and his staff gathered in an operational trailer parked at the incident command post at Chico’s fairgrounds. Some 3,000 firefighters were already on the job. Bailey looked exhausted. He’d spent his past year living like a deployed soldier. He fought the North Bay fires in October 2017 that killed 44. He’d also fought the Thomas Fire in Ventura in December, which burned 1,063 buildings and a then record 280,000 acres; the Carr Fire in August in Redding, which razed 1,604 buildings, killed three firefighters, and sent eight townspeople to their graves; and at least seven more “monster megafires” in between. Now there was the Camp, deadlier and more destructive than all of those combined.

The Camp Fire is the blaze that experts have been warning about for a generation. When search and rescue teams finish collecting the dead, the closest comparison will be to fires like the Big Burn that killed 85 in Idaho in 1910. But for students of fire like Bailey, the Camp Fire isn’t a relic; it’s the present and the future. Each of the ten worst fires in state history burned since 1991. Half of those burned since 2015.

At the same time the Camp Fire leveled Paradise, another urban-interface firestorm—as Bailey has started to call this new breed of blaze—ripped through Malibu. The Woolsey Fire destroyed 1,643 buildings and killed three. That morning, President Trump tweeted about these fires being wholly preventable through better forest management. Yet once the Camp Fire was burning, no management could have prevented disaster. Paradise is ash because a mat of grass, dried out by climate change—167-plus days with no rain—caught fire during a sustained 40-mile-an-hour wind.

President Trump was right that forest management is part of the fix. As is rewriting building codes so that all new construction is fire wise, tightening and diversifying regulations on greenhouse emissions, and modernizing the insurance industry so that homeowners are incentivized to harden their houses against fires. Lighting more prescribed fires to decrease the intensity of the burns that do go rogue will also help. But even a vigorous combination of these measures would only slow the damage caused by megafires, not stop it. Like coastal cities facing rising seas, the reality is that 39 million people now live in a tinderbox that’s only getting more flammable.

Bailey, like many firefighters, thinks the best way to limit the damage is to limit ignitions, particularly during peak winds. That means fixing the power-line problem, which will be a long and expensive challenge. After the disaster on November 8, PG&E faced insolvency. If its lines are found to be the source of the Camp Fire, as they were in last year’s Tubbs Fire that burned Santa Rosa, the utility could be staring at an additional $15 billion in liability—bringing the total up to $30 billion in just two years. The company’s insurers would pay only 10 percent of that. On November 7, PG&E’s stock was steady at $50 a share. A week after the Camp Fire, it was at $17 and falling.

Then, on November 16, the president of California’s Public Utilities Commission saved the company by declaring that it would be using the authority provided by Senate Bill 901 to pass any potential costs to taxpayers. If PG&E’s power lines caused the Camp Fire, its customers will pay to fix or clean up Paradise. Many firefighters view this as a criminal bailout. But what choice did California have? PG&E is the state’s largest utility. If it failed, the Bay Area, the state capital, and five million homes could go dark.

In the trailer, Bailey and three more chiefs from California’s Office of Emergency Operations began to list other towns they considered just as vulnerable as Paradise, including Wrightwood, Idyllwild, Devore, Placerville, Nevada City, Santa Cruz, Scott’s Valley, and San Luis Obispo. “They’re everywhere, and not just in California,” Bailey said, before taking a moment to look at his boots.

That afternoon, he drove back to Paradise to check on Glotfelty. When Bailey pulled up to the house, a PG&E utility truck was moving a power pole that had fallen and blocked the driveway. Smoke was puffing up from what had been blackberries, and a California quail shuffled beneath a burnt oak and bobbed its head.

Glotfelty’s house and that of his neighbors survived. They were the few standing buildings in a city that looked like Dresden after it was bombed in World War II. Glotfelty’s backfire-and-nozzle work had protected the houses, and he’d survived the firestorm in the safety of the burned fuel it had created. “We saved the insurance company $700,000 in houses,” Glotfelty told Bailey, but he was already regretting his heroics. Services wouldn’t return to Paradise for years, and they may never come back. Yet he now owned a home here that he couldn’t sell, and without money from insurance, he couldn’t afford to buy another somewhere else. “I’m too old to start over again,” Glotfelty said.

After three days in Paradise without a phone, he’d just learned that his wife and son made it out alive. Cal Fire had caught and corralled them and 140 others in a parking lot on the corner of Skyway and Clark. For the rest of the day, they huddled in the smoke, shivering in winds up to 40 miles an hour. Cody, an Eagle Scout, had handed out the clothes his caregiver had packed in his evacuation bag so that people had something to hold over their faces.

Glotfelty was now off to Orville to see his son and wife. Before he left, he pulled from his pocket a silver dollar he’d saved from his days pumping gas in Reno in the sixties. A small gift, he said, pushing it into Bailey’s palm. “To remind you of this event,” Glotfelty said and he headed out of Paradise.

What We Learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire Deaths

30 Oct

Around 4:00 p.m. on June 30, 2013, a 30-year-old hotshot named Christopher MacKenzie pulls a camera from his pocket and shoots a short video. Downhill from him are ten firefighters, all members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. In the background, the Yarnell Hill Fire sweeps toward the 650-person town of Yarnell, Arizona. On the radio in the background is the voice of the crew’s superintendent, Eric Marsh. He’s somewhere nearby and hints at playing witness to coming disaster. “I was just saying I knew this was coming,” he says. “When I called and asked you what your comfort level was, I could just feel it—you know, too bad.”

“I copy,” says Jesse Steed, the crew’s second in command. “And it’s almost made it to that road we walked in on.”

In that moment, the fire was exploding with a fury most of the several hundred firefighters battling the blaze remembered only as “unprecedented.” One called it “pandemonium.” MacKenzie and his crew were watching this unfold from the safest place on the fire: in the already burned brush high on the same ridge where lightning had started the blaze two days earlier. Less than 50 minutes later, MacKenzie, Steed, Marsh, who had rejoined the crew, and 16 other hotshots were dead in a canyon a mile and a half away, burned to death a short walk from the safety of a ranch on the edge of Yarnell.

The death of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots, which I wrote about for this magazine and, later, in a book, marked the worst wildland fire disaster in almost 100 years. In the hours after, the Arizona State Forestry Division commissioned a report to find out what happened. Why had the men left the safety of the ridge? For three months, a team of 18 interagency investigators combed over any shred of evidence they could find. They interviewed every firefighter of consequence working the blaze. They took Granite Mountain’s sole surviving member, Brendan “Donut” McDonough, back to the knoll where he last saw his crew. They scoured dispatch records, weather and fuel data, photos, social media posts from firefighters on the blaze, and accounts from civilians. MacKenzie’s partially melted camera was found, having survived a fire that burned hotter than 2,000 degrees. All of the information the investigators collected went into a 116-page record of the tragedy that they hoped could be studied to avoid similar incidents. Yet the investigation felt incomplete. After MacKenzie’s video, the record went spotty for the critical window between when the hotshots left the safety of the ridge and when they reappeared in the canyon minutes before their deaths. Nobody can say for certain why they left.

“All of a sudden, all this other chaos happened. The clarity, the certainty,” says Brad Mayhew, tossing his hands up like he’s throwing confetti. He served as the lead investigator on the report commissioned by the state forestry division immediately after the fatalities. This fall, he agreed to meet me in Yarnell and walk the hotshots’ final steps. It was late afternoon and 100 degrees on September 11. We sat where MacKenzie had shot the video, looking out at the long valley. In the years after the fire, the valley has regrown green but is not yet shaggy. Surrounding us were pyramids of small rocks stacked atop bigger boulders. Mayhew, who is 38, with a salted black beard and a voice that’s deep like that of James Earl Jones, pulled up MacKenzie’s video on his phone to confirm our location. It immediately became clear that somebody had piled the rocks to mark where the ten hotshots had sat or stood in MacKenzie’s final video. “It’s somber,” he mustered.

For most of an hour, we sat among those stones, eating nuts while talking with a big view of the landscape where the tragic fire burned. All the unknowns surrounding Granite Mountain’s deaths bred distrust and blame, and all that emotion soon translated into lawsuits from the some the hotshots’ families. Collectively, they sued the state for wrongful death, settling for $670,000, which was divided among the aggrieved. The fire community clammed up after the lawsuits. “Just talking about Yarnell became radioactive,” Mayhew says. A warm wind was pulling up from the desert and blowing across our backs. “How can this profession make progress if people aren’t comfortable talking about it publicly?”

Most fire fatalities have forced significant safety and cultural changes to wildland firefighting. In an age when fires are getting more dangerous and the need to fight them more pressing, what, if anything, has changed after Yarnell?

In January 2014, 11 veteran firefighters from the nation’s biggest fire agencies—the vanguard of fire, as they were described to me—met in Yarnell. They hiked along the route the hotshots had likely taken from the ridge into the canyon where the 19 died seven months earlier. They arrived at a startling conclusion. “We could see ourselves making the same decision they’d made,” said Travis Dotson, a member of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, a federally funded organization that helps firefighters improve their performance. Around the time of the field trip, Dotson and others formed an underground group called Honor the Fallen. Included in its couple dozen members were some of the highest-ranking firefighters from the various agencies in the wildland fire business: the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Park Service. Their goal was to make sure Yarnell Hill, the most publicized event in wildland firefighting history, forced some much-needed changes to the job’s outdated culture. Three years later, they tried to spark “an age of enlightenment” in wildland fire. As Dotson distilled the shift in mindset, “Before Yarnell, it was about getting better at fighting fire. After, it’s been about getting better at accepting death.”

Some context is needed here. Since 1910, more than 1,100 wildland firefighters have died on the line. “There has never been a fire season that we’ve escaped with no deaths, and many years reach well into the double digits,” says Dotson, who used to be a smokejumper. “Making it through a fire season without a death is a statistical impossibility.” Historically, fire agencies responded to fatalities with investigations that sought to understand what happened. Since 1990, when a blaze killed six firefighters on an inmate crew, those investigations seemed intent on proving that dead firefighters broke rules—sometimes in ways that were criminal. This fervor peaked in 2001 in Washington state, when a fire killed four and the incident commander was charged with involuntary manslaughter. Traditionally, the agencies used the investigators’ conclusions to develop new learning tools, scientific labs, and, mostly, rules. Fatality fires spawned the “18 Watch-Out Situations,” the “Ten Standard Firefighting Orders,” and the ever-growing 118-page Incident Response Pocket Guide that most firefighters keep in their pockets today. Need a reminder on unexploded ordnance safety? That’s on page 27. A refresher on the alignments of patterns for dangerous fire behavior? Page 73. Best practices for a media interview? 111. It’s an astonishing document that matches problems to solutions, but it’s also something like the pamphlet a scout leader might hand a Boy Scout before dropping them into the Alaskan bush. Over time, the relationship between tragedy and rulemaking sewed into the culture the belief that firefighters die only when they break rules.

From the outset, the members of Honor the Fallen understood that Yarnell was unlikely to result in any official change. For one thing, Mayhew’s investigation was of a new wave that borrowed from the military’s tradition: They tried to understand what the firefighters knew in the moment rather than seeking fault in behavior. Instead of chasing “the instant gratification of new rules,” as Mayhew put it, they put the onus of making change on the fire agencies at large. But the approach seemed to fall flat. Granite Mountain was the rare unit operated by a municipality, and the big wildland firefighting agencies did all they could to publicly distance themselves from a tragedy that wasn’t their own. “We treated this whole thing different because Granite Mountain had a different color blood,” Dotson says.

Yarnell did prompt a modest update to the fire shelter, the flimsy aluminum heat shields the hotshots had died under, and the development of a new phone app that helps firefighters get weather updates in real time. But as Honor the Fallen predicted, it led to no significant policy changes.

Then 2015 happened. That year, more acres burned than at any point in recorded history, and the Forest Service lost seven firefighters. That agency is one of many in today’s ballooning wildland fire business, but as the oldest and largest, it sets the industry’s culture. The chief at the time, Tom Tidwell, responded as tradition dictated. “He said, ‘I don’t want another fire season like 2015,’” says John Phipps, director of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. Tidwell had called him at home in Colorado late one November night and said, “I’m directing you and the leadership team of the Forest Service to come up with a way that we don’t have that kind of a season ever again.” He gave Phipps’s team six months to come up with a way to stop firefighters from dying on the line. “We have 10,000 firefighters,” Phipps remembers thinking. “Well, gee, what can we do in five to six months, get it deployed, and have it make a difference so that everybody goes home in 2016?”

They called it the Life First Initiative. It focused on “reducing the amount of unnecessary risk” to firefighters’ lives. Tidwell’s directive reinforced that the Forest Service “accepted no loss of life” and suggested 11 more rules. (A couple examples: “Under no circumstances will mop-up be allowed under snags or fire-weakened trees.” “Firefighters are prohibited from working alone without radio communications or easy access to emergency medical skills.”) It provided firefighters no tools to assess risk or determine how much of it was necessary.

Because of swift internal backlash, these rules fell short of implementation, but they set the initiative’s tone. From the moment Life First came out, Honor the Fallen considered it a relic. The initiative didn’t mention that over the past three decades, the Forest Service’s fire force had mushroomed from 6,000 employees in 1998—about a third of the agency’s workforce—into a seasonal army that now gobbled up half the agency’s $4 billion–plus annual budget and then spent hundreds of millions more in emergency funding. It didn’t mention that wildland firefighters’ primary job was no longer to save publicly owned trees for the timber industry to cut, but to place themselves between watersheds, infrastructure, cities, and often uncontrollable fires like Yarnell Hill. And most damning, it failed to acknowledge what the agency’s scientific arm openly states: that because of climate change, sick forests, and explosive population growth, every trend points to firefighters being asked to take bigger risks more often. The year after Life First’s release, 15 more firefighters died.

Honor the Fallen responded immediately after Life First’s release. “They attempted to deal with increased complexity with more rules, some of which just show a total disconnect from the reality of today’s wildland fire environment,” says Mark Smith, a consultant for Mission-Centered Solutions, a company with a 20-year history of advising the Forest Service on leadership and culture. “If you accept that zero fatalities is unachievable, why would you establish it as an objective?” On behalf of Honor the Fallen, Smith penned an essay called “The Big Lie,” in which he slaughtered the sacred cow that we could fight fires without firefighters dying. It was time to move the profession out the 1970s and into the 21st century, he argued. In other words, it was time for management to ignore the politics and accept that fighting wildland fire is a dangerous profession.

According to Smith’s calculations, at the start of each season, every wildland firefighter has a one in 1,600 chance of ending up in a coffin by year’s end—and that doesn’t factor in serious injuries or near misses. With an average of 19 deaths a year, the job is roughly as dangerous as a soldier in training, a career where recruits sign a will when they walk into boot camp. (Because of Honor the Fallen’s work, some crews now ask their firefighters to do this.) The strange thing, Smith says, is that the Forest Service’s official policies still insist that more rules, or following existing rules better, would keep everybody alive.

Smith calls this paradigm a “lawyer’s dream,” where the agency has unintentionally created “a cover your ass” environment by requiring that its firefighters follow rules that simply cannot all be simultaneously followed. While these rules are well intentioned and do indeed save lives, he says they also impose a false sense of control in a wildly chaotic environment. My favorite line of Smith’s from “The Big Lie” is this: “There is nothing low risk about a 19-year-old hotshot driving an ATV loaded with fuel mix down a burning mountain at dusk after working a 12-hour day.”

Using formulas developed in the military, Smith, a former Army Ranger, calculated that the vast majority of firefighting operations exist in the medium- to high-risk zone. In other words, there’s a relatively high probability that a tree eventually crushes you, you step on a bee nest, grab the business end of a chainsaw, or get burned. Yet somehow, most firefighters Smith polled believe they work in a low-risk environment—something more like a factory floor. He says that in the special forces, if the Rangers found it too dangerous to take an objective, they came up with a new plan. That’s not always the case in wildland fire.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s one house or one community,” Phipps says. “It’s not part of our protocol to say, gee, we’ll risk less here because it’s only one house.” Put another way, under the current paradigm, the agency regularly risks the same number of firefighters’ lives to save an outhouse as they do the city of Denver.

When I asked Smith how a job as obviously dangerous as wildland firefighting came to be seen as safe, he reached back to 1910, when the Big Burn ripped a 3 million–acre hole into rich timber lands, killed approximately 76 firefighters, and kicked off the Forest Service’s 100-year transition from a land management agency to one of the world’s largest fire departments. He says that back then, the firefighters were militias of men rousted from bars or ranches, and the public wasn’t all that concerned when they died. But die they did, and in great numbers: 25 in California near Griffith Park in 1933; 15 near Cody, Wyoming, in 1937; 11 in the Cleveland National Forest in 1943. In some ways, not much has changed. “Until now, there’s been this insidious cultural legacy where the belief has been if we can just get these low-paid resources to follow the rules, nothing bad will happen,” Smith says.

The backbone of the fire service remains young men and women. Wildland firefighting is a seasonal job with a starting base pay of about $1,920 per month. An Army private makes slightly more than that, and their meals are paid for, plus all their lodging, retirement benefits, and 100 percent of their dental, medical, and vision insurance. Basic training for a soldier is three months. A rookie firefighter can battle blazes as intense as Yarnell if they can pass a week’s worth of online classes and heft a 45-pound pack over three miles in less than 45 minutes.

One reason young men and women might embrace the risk of firefighting is that the job promises big adventure. At least that was true for me when I was in my early twenties and fought fire. But it’s also true that slim budgets and great societal expectations drive risk onto naive kids. The entire Forest Service’s budget is a fingernail on the arm of the military’s—$4.7 billion versus $717 billion. Yet every time a fire starts in a town’s backyard, politicians and the public demand an immediate and forceful response. Smith’s worry is that if the Forest Service admitted the incredibly high chance of death their people are exposed to, their firefighters—or maybe their families—might demand fair compensation. And what land management agency can afford to pay that?

After writing “The Big Lie,” Smith followed up with another piece called “When Luck Runs Out.” In it, he argued that not measuring risk or reward is completely at odds with the military (including the Coast Guard), commercial diving, or almost any other high-risk industry where accidents are accepted as an inevitability. He developed a chart that explained how wildfire agencies might adopt the technique. At the bottom, recreation lands and roads justified a low level of risk. Domestic animals and critical watersheds justified a medium risk. Smith felt a high risk was acceptable if they were working to mitigate threats to regional employment centers and human life. And undertaking extreme risk was OK in only one case: “viable and saveable human life in imminent danger.” It’s widely assumed that describes Granite Mountain’s intent on Yarnell Hill.

This type of risk assessment isn’t yet being done on the fireline. “I see these changes taking ten years, maybe 15,” Smith says.

But there’s reason to be encouraged. Independent of Life First, the Forest Service’s research arm is developing new ways to assess risk. Think of it as the Moneyball of firefighting. The project is led by Dave Calkin, an economist and numbers geek who works for the Forest Service in Missoula, Montana. Calkin is controversial in the fire service. His previous work has shown that the best tactic to take with fires burning under extreme conditions, like California’s 230,000-acre Carr Fire that spun up a tornado of flames and killed six people last July, is to treat them like a hurricane and get the hell out of the way. Lately, Calkin’s been applying economics to weigh the potential of tragic outcomes against the values firefighters try to protect. Quantifying these variables, he says, is the future of wildland firefighting. To sum up his work, Calkin quotes another Forest Service rule about when to fight a wildfire: “The right place, the right time, the right reason. Up until now, the right reason has been left to firefighters to determine,” Calkin says. “That should be a decision made by leadership.”

Ideally, his work will help leadership decide when firefighters should be sent in and when they should wait. Models by Calkin and his team rely on layers of overlaid data. His maps show roads, ridges, rivers—all the typical things found on a map. But they also show vegetation types (forest, brush, the density of dead trees compared to live ones), the perimeters of historic wildfires, and any perceived value at risk—owls, watersheds, towns. His team inputs current and forecasted weather for any given fire. The computer then determines the characteristics of the places where historic fires have stopped and where they haven’t and translates that information into a sort of paint-by-numbers risk map: red where a fire’s most likely to be most dangerous, green where firefighters have the best chance of stopping it, and yellow where they don’t. His models use computers to scout fires and, by doing this, help remove emotion from risk assessment. So far, Calkin hasn’t run a simulation on the Yarnell Hill Fire—there’s no need to since the fire has already burned. But had they run the model on June 30, 2013, it almost certainly would have computed the risk as extreme and the likelihood of success at low to none.

“When we commit firefighters, we want to make sure that the value a firefighter is protecting is worth the investment of the risk they’re exposed to,” Calkin says. That’s not happening, yet. Currently, big agencies fight single fires for months on end, and the public seems content to fund the effort. But nobody is asking if it’s working. That’s because it’s hard to quantify the impact firefighters have on fires. How much bigger would California’s 460,000-acre Mendocino Complex, now the biggest fire in state history, be if $100 million hadn’t been spent trying to control it? Would more than 9,000 homes have burned in last year’s Sonoma and Napa Valley fires if 11,000 firefighters hadn’t tried to stop them? Would they have killed fewer than 42 people? Calkins says too often, regardless of how the fire’s behaving, the assumption is yes. And that means big agencies keep shuttling hordes of firefighters toward the flames without knowing if they can actually do anything to stop them.

Last summer, Calkin’s tool was first put to the test in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, where the Forest Service let a wildfire burn outside the small town of Globe based on his model’s predictions. It provided recommendations on where they could catch it should they need to, thereby allowing the agency to actively manage the fire while not necessarily fighting it. In the end, it burned 9,000 acres of fire-adapted forest, restoring health to the woods while thinning out some of the excess vegetation that may have otherwise put Globe and the firefighters sent in to protect it at greater risk should a fire spark on some dry and windy day in the future. That project was a dust fleck on the lens of forested lands that need restoration, but it represents a completely different approach to risk mitigation: one that prioritizes maintenance and calculated risk over a reactionary policy of total suppression.

“We’re trying to change a proud tradition,” says Chris Dunn, Calkin’s colleague, who works at Oregon State University. “What we ultimately want to do is help firefighters become fire stewards.”

Back on the ridgetop, Mayhew plays the video MacKenzie shot here five years ago. There’s a moment where the video jumps that looks like an edit. “People seized on that and said we’d doctored the clip,” says Mayhew, shaking his head. “They discounted the entire investigation because they thought they’d caught us in a lie.” In fact, it was two separate but complete clips edited into one. Many firefighters don’t trust investigations. History gave them good reasons. “That’s because for a long time they went out and created reasons to blame workers,” Mayhew says. As an independent contractor, he has made investigating fireline accidents his career.

The team’s reaction to Mayhew’s investigation was particularly strong. He thinks that’s because their investigation did what few others have before. They acknowledged that firefighting is high risk and people sometimes die doing it. In the final report, they didn’t cast blame, which made it harder to learn from the deaths and angered many people.

Around the time that Mayhew’s investigation was released, in the fall of 2013, online discussion boards cropped up that attracted fire professionals and hobbyists. One blog still active today has tens of thousands of comments. Too many of them are overseasoned with vitriol or dedicated to conspiracy theories—somebody ordered the men to leave the ridge; a backfire sparked by a homeowner killed the crew; the hotshots were amateurs. These commenters often accuse Mayhew of being a conspirator in a government coverup. He calls the accusation patently false. But what bothers him is that some of those ideas have infected the fire culture, and he’s constantly having to correct dangerous misperceptions. “It’s comforting to think, ‘I never would have done that. I’m not like them,’” says Mayhew, who was a hotshot and still works as a firefighter. “They were just firefighters, and we’re just firefighters.”

Mayhew and I left the overlook and began hiking when the sun slipped below the Weaver Mountains and the peaks’ shadows stretched into the valley below. We followed the thin road that Granite Mountain took to their deaths. It was steep and rutted, and we both kicked rocks that tumbled downhill. We soon reached the point where the hotshots opted to drop off the ridge, through the canyon, and toward the ranch. We stood there for a moment. A turkey vulture rotated overhead. “Doesn’t it look like it’s right there?” Mayhew asked of the ranch we could see at the head of the canyon. “Like you could be there in five minutes?”

The uncertainty behind what drove those men, in view of that terrifying fire, to drop into a wickedly steep box canyon has generated the conspiracies that still haunt wildland firefighting today. In hindsight, it’s a hard decision to fathom. For his part, Mayhew tries to stay out of the swirling theories. He thinks the way to learn from Yarnell is to ask firefighters to put themselves in Granite Mountain’s boots and ask what could have lured them to make the same choice. On this point, he’s bullish. “They were trying to save lives,” Mayhew says. “They knew people were threatened down there. That must have weighed on them.”

Whatever it was that pulled them off that ridge, after years of making necessarily risky decisions on the fireline, Granite Mountain missed something on Yarnell Hill. And the numbers simply caught them. Mayhew grunted and set off down the hill, hiking toward 19 crosses five minutes from a ranch.

What the West Can Learn from Florida About Forest Fires

27 Jun

Joe O’Brien, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, tucks his helmet into his chest, steals a breath of clean air, and steps closer to the fire now engulfing a $23,000 camera. Overhead, a drone that sounds like angry bees is darting in and out of the smoke column. A flock of nearby scientists are radioing to each other as they drag a boxy gadget on a pulley through dancing flames. O’Brien is one of several dozen scientists who traveled from around the country to a half-acre plot of longleaf pine forest north of Tallahassee, Florida, for the privilege of burning it all. He and all the scientists here are trying to answer the complex and poorly understood question of how fire burns. If they succeed, they hope to set more of America ablaze.

“All of the soil here is essentially beach sand,” O’Brien says, leaving his cameras to shoot infrared video of the fire. He tugs up a recently burned grass clump and shakes the sand from it with the sort of delighted disbelief you’d expect from a toddler discovering fountain drinks. “And yet there are as many 50 plant species per square meter here—richer than anywhere else on the planet!”

O’Brien, who studies rare plants and their relationship to fire in the Southeast, says the incredible plant diversity isn’t because of differences in the sand these plants grow in—it’s differences in the frequency, duration, and intensity that the forest burns. “Fire’s got this mojo about it,” O’Brien says. “It does a bunch of things that no other treatment, mechanical or chemical, can. It changes the chemistry. It volatizes compounds. It sterilizes the soil in some parts and adds nutrients to others.”

For years, fire scientists intuited this. But fire itself wasn’t fully quantifiable until the past couple decades, when Department of Defense scientists perfected infrared cameras that allowed them to shoot explosions at 1,000 images per second. When O’Brien trained those cameras on a forest fire, he found he could measure how temperature changed over time and space. With that information, he could determine how much energy the fire was putting back into the sand, even at the scale of a single clump of grass. Now, by mapping the energy distribution, O’Brien can predict which plants will spout where. Fire diversity creates biodiversity, and this longleaf pine forest is at its most biodiverse when it’s burned every year.

“When the flames go, the biodiversity follows,” O’Brien says, clearing his lungs with a cough. He says fire is an ecologic imperative—as important to the forest as water and sunlight. If these woods don’t burn for as little as two decades, they become too dense and wet to burn at all. Eighty-five percent of American forests are fire-adapted, but removing fire from most of those places produces a more familiar result: The forests grow thicker, and when the unavoidable fires return, they come as firestorms like those that are right now prompting the evacuations of thousands in northern California. O’Brien and all the scientists here think there is a universal “silver bullet” to America’s fire crisis: more fire.

You might call Kevin Heirs the Billy Graham of controlled burning. Heirs is a wildland fire scientist with Tall Timbers, the most evangelical prescribed-fire organization on the planet. He’s also the incident commander overseeing this research burn. “So it rained two inches two days ago, and we’re still gonna burn this afternoon,” Heirs told a room full of scientists wearing agency T-shirts tucked into green pants. It was the morning before the fire began. Tall and trim with a buzz cut, Heirs was standing at a dais at Tall Timbers Research Station. The fire-focused think tank sits on a former cotton plantation across a lake from Tallahassee. He wore a T-shirt that read “Wildland Fire Lighter!” On the wall beside him was a framed front page from the Tallahassee Times with the headline “It Seems Smokey the Bear Was Wrong!”

Though no work has been done to catalog all the land in the country that needs fire or thinning to restore it to its pre-European conditions, the Forest Service estimates that significantly more than half of the 193 million acres the agency manages is in a “disturbance deficit,” a calculation that also includes the average annual area either thinned with chainsaws or burned by wildfires over the past century. According to Nicole Valliant, a fire application specialist who wrote the report for the Forest Service, that number will only increase if nothing changes. And for much of that land, that means the risk of high intensity fires ratchets up. Heirs had invited around 90 different land managers and scientists from a dozen different state and federal agencies to this burn. He wanted them to approach prescribed fire-lighting with the same collaborative spirit that land management agencies take to firefighting. “Better science,” Heirs told the crowd, “will lead to more burning.”

The researchers had spent the past three days setting up more than $1 million in scientific equipment in the plot they’d burn that afternoon. In addition to O’Brien, one scientist had come from the University of Idaho to study pyro-aerial biology—microbes released by fires. Using a drone rigged with filters to capture particulates in the air, she was studying whether smoke can spread disease to people and crops. A scientist from the EPA was sharing that same drone to measure whether the smoke from megafires is unhealthier for people than smoke emitted from low-intensity burns like today’s. Another scientist from the Missoula Fire Lab was sampling gases released by the fire using “a seven-foot-long fishing pole.” Still another scientist from Florida State University had a crate-sized device developed by the wind turbine industry to measure wind speeds from 200 feet above the canopy to the forest floor. He wanted to measure fire’s feedback on the atmosphere.

Of these projects, the one Heirs found most promising for decreasing the risk of prescribed fire was by Rod Linn, a physicist from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Linn was funneling the results from these studies and more into a model that could predict how prescribed fires burn. Coarse models for forecasting a wildfire’s spread already exist, but none can predict a fire’s effect on the land: how placing more fire in one place might change the fire intensity in another; how heat released from the flames influences the atmosphere and how that feedback affects the fire; where the smoke will go, what’s in it, and how far it will travel. If he does his job, Linn can help land managers engineer their fires so they achieve exactly the results they'd hoped for. “If we can capture the physics correctly on small flames, the big flames get easier,” Linn says.

On the dais, Heirs, who calls prescribed burning an art and says that everywhere he goes, he imagines setting the woods ablaze, was twitching like he’d had three too many cups of coffee. For a certain type, setting the woods ablaze is joy. “Now let’s go see some fire!” he said.

For years, Florida’s fires were renegades. In the 1900s, Gifford Pinchot managed to squash American wildfires everywhere but in the Panhandle. For about 20 years, Floridians tried his ideas. Then hunters noticed that the quail they loved disappeared, so they flipped Pinchot and his suppression mandate the bird and brought torches back into the woods. The quail returned, and Floridians haven’t stopped since. Today, controlled fires are as cultural as NASCAR.

“The Thomas Fire burned 280,000 acres in Los Angeles and was front-page news for weeks,” Heirs tells me on the drive out to the research burn. That fire burned 1,000 homes. “In a 30-mile radius around Tallahassee, we burned the equivalent land, and it never made the news because we didn’t lose a single house.”

There are more fires in America than just disastrous ones. Last year, 202,250 prescribed fires burned approximately 12 million acres; 160,000 of those burns (8 million acres’ worth) were in the South. Ranchers, hunters, and homeowners all burn because it’s faster than raking and better for their pastures and woods. They usually skip the fire-resistant clothes and opt for blue jeans. At about 3,500 lightning strikes a day, Florida is our most electrical state, but fire and smoke are so common there that when a bolt does ignite a wildfire, it can burn for weeks and never cause a problem. “We really don’t have a good handle on how many acres burn in Florida each year. It’s a huge concern, because we want to know what hasn’t burned so we can know where to focus our efforts in the future,” Heirs says.

If it is a problem, it’s a palatable one because the fires are usually nonthreatening. Florida’s forests are damp and gridded with roads (“We never build hand line”). It’s flat (“Not many hills for them to run up”). Rain is forever on the near horizon (“We burn 365 days a year”). Even still, Heirs estimates Florida should be burning 1 million more acres each year than it does. He blames the state’s fire deficit, in part, on prioritizing suppression over ignition. When wildfires are burning, firefighters are shipped from every corner of the country to the front lines, leaving the forests that depend on prescribed fires without the workforce they need to light them. “We are creating problems where they didn’t exist by focusing exclusively out West,” Heirs says. Take, for example, the 2016 fires in southern Appalachia that destroyed 2,400 buildings and killed 14. Tennessee hadn’t seen that brand of fiery chaos in generations.

For many fire ecologists, “fire breeds fire” sums up their ideal exit from the fire trap. By letting wild flames burn, igniting more prescribed fires, and tying both of these into existing burn scars, land managers could knock bigger holes into monocultural forests. Controlling the fuel the fire burns checks the fire’s intensity.

As it is, the national strategy for thinning and burning prioritizes the 1.5 million homes and $50 billion in property built in areas designated as extreme fire risk. And very little gets done. Out West, fewer than 1 million acres see prescribed fire each year. The reason for this is partially that each national forest acts as a fiefdom, burning whatever acreage it can with whatever limited personnel are available before the fire season sucks them into triage. Heirs thinks we’re plugging a dam breach with Scotch tape. “Those are deployment sites,” he says, meaning a place where firefighters can survive a last stand beneath fire shelters. “How does a few hundred acres of treated forest protect a town from a fire that’s throwing embers two miles ahead of itself?!”

His is a risqué stance. (“That thinned forest is an anchor point, a place that gives firefighters a place to start protecting the communities and protect themselves,” says Valliant, the Forest Service’s fire application specialist. “Why wouldn’t you want that buffer?”) But Heirs believes the workload is too great and the workforce too small for all the towns and cities in the path of future megafires to simultaneously manage their way to safety. A better way, he says, is to triage extreme fire prevention just as we triage firefighting. Money and firefighters from around the country could come together and restore healthy fire to large chunks of one national forest at a time, then move on until the islands of fire-adapted woods once again become continents. And in the short term, brace for more of the same. “It took us 100 years to get into this problem. It’s gonna take that long to get out,” Heirs says.

We’re a long ways out. In the West, prescribed fires burn just 1 million acres a year. The woods are dense and often drought-stricken, which means to keep prescribe fires from becoming wild, burn plots first have to be thinned with chainsaws or tractors. Then there are budgets. In California’s Sierra Nevada alone, the backlog of land that needs either fire or thinning is about the size of Kentucky. Restoring that would cost between $6 billion and $8 billion. This year, the federal government made a record investment in fire mitigation, which includes prescribed burning. That was $430 million. Money and forest conditions are nuts-and-bolts challenges: knotty but solvable. “I’m not sure we could get it all done with a blank check,” says Jeremy Bailey, director of the Nature Conservancy’s fire program. The bigger problems are social. Westerners don’t like smoke and have good reason to fear fire.

After decades of industrial abuse on public lands, laws that protect clean water, clean air, and rare species intentionally slow management. Prescribed burns must meet National Environmental Policy Act muster. That can take years. Get through NEPA, and then air-quality boards have to sign off on smoke pollution that is unhealthy and unpleasant. Then a week must come when it’s dry but not too dry and windy enough to transport the smoke but not too windy to fan the flames. A 1,000-acre prescribed burn in Sequoia National Park took the incident commander a third of an almost 40-year career to find a window when all the various factors lined up. In the meantime, megafires, like those that for weeks inundated the Sacramento Valley with the worst air on the planet, turned 3.5 million acres of what was pine forests into brush fields. In many cases, the pines in California, like in New Mexico, aren’t likely to return.

“What we need is rapid conservation,” says Tim Male, director of the Policy Innovation Center, a nonprofit working to modernize environmental legislation. “We either act now or we lose species or forests permanently to climate change.” That will almost certainly require loosening the restrictions that slow prescribed fires, a difficult conversation. But if we do nothing, megafires will quickly lead us into whatever comes next.

Not surprisingly, Heirs thinks the model for the way forward is happening right here outside Tallahassee. “I mean, look at that,” he says, pointing out the window. A long strip of flames was several dozen feet from a home and near a major highway barely 15 miles from the capitol building of the country’s fourth most populous state. Nobody perceived a threat, and not a siren could be heard.

Back on the line with O’Brien comes the satisfying whoosh of gas catching fire. A few men and women in green and yellow fire-resistant clothes are pouring flames near O’Brien’s cameras to give him a bit more to work with. Pine needles near the ground begin to shake in the updrafts of rising heat, and the tiny lights on instruments blink out their confirmation that science is happening.

“There’s a legacy in the country of environmental nihilism, that everything humans do to the land is bad,” O’Brien says, stepping across the three-foot-wide swatch mowed into the forest to keep the research burn in its half-acre box. He spins off a story about the recent discovery of a 14,500-year-old mastodon tusk, the marrow “scooped mechanically” as he put it, in a nearby limestone stream. The evidence of human-lit fires in the geologic record appears around the same time, which strongly suggests to O'Brien that the plants in these forests evolved to fires lit by people to cultivate food, make travel through the woods easier, or, as native Hondurans who still use fire today told O’Brien, “because it looks better.” Historically, America’s lands were structured by human ignitions.

That’s as true today as it's ever been. In the Flint Hills of Kansas, ranchers burn more than 2 million acres a year to restore grasslands. If a ranch owner doesn’t want their lands burned, it’s their responsibility to keep the flames away, not the burners’. In Orleans, a tiny town in Northern California, the population of mostly Karuk Indians proactively burn around their homes so the Forest Service doesn’t have to fight the fires that come to their backyards every summer. Naturally or unnaturally, one new study found that people, by starting wildfires with our cigarettes, campfires, and dangling trailer chains, have tripled the length of the modern fire season. O’Brien shrugs at this, then bristles at the fact that we fight to the death any fire not lit by lightning. He says we shouldn’t judge a fire by how it started but by what it does for the land. “At what point did we become unnatural?” O’Brien asks. “We should be asking the same question people have always asked, which is what do we want the land to look like?”

Smoke from the tiny fire lifts and disperses, and the drone buzzes off to somewhere else, leaving O’Brien amid the pop and crackle of grass that burned this year and will burn again next year. O’Brien knows burning and thinning challenges modern environmentalism: Man isn’t nature, and nature can handle itself. He’s OK with that. As a conservationist, O'Brien doesn’t like the alternative.

“Whether we plan the direction it goes in a thoughtful and sophisticated and reasonable way or just let it happen, nature marches on,” O’Brien says. “But I’ve got a little girl now. I hope we go the planned way instead of letting the chips fall as they may.”

A Rattle with Death in Yosemite

20 Jun

My parents like to say they raised my older brother, Garrett, and me in the Church of Seventh Day Recreationalists.

As a kid growing up in Oregon, I remember asking them if we could actually stay home one weekend instead of camping or hiking or canoeing. They relented, but that was the exception to the rule. Through that prism, you might say I was preordained to be with my family on that bridge, with that snake, on that warm April morning in Yosemite. Through another, you might say I was overdue.

Our son, Bridger, was two weeks old when my wife, Turin, and I decided to take the road trip. We were lying with him on the swing in his room, beneath a giant tree frog Turin had painted on the wall. She had three months off for maternity leave. My job was flexible. We wouldn’t have another chance to take a long vacation until we didn’t know when. Two weeks later, we bought a 1988 Ford TransVan, a converted RV that we dubbed Queen, and left our home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, around Bridger’s five-week birthday.

Turin and I had been married for seven years. I was 33. Before I became a writer, I was a wildland firefighter and filmmaker who traveled the world making adventure TV for National Geographic. I’d stepped on a fer-de-lance snake in Belize, been held up by guerrillas with AK-47’s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and dodged a snapping crocodile in Papua New Guinea. Somehow loose bowels had been my worst affliction. What guided my decisions was the belief that most things work out and the fear that they won’t is largely exaggerated.

kyle dickman
The author at home with Bridger (Courtesy of Kyle Dickman)

Turin’s lust for adventure matched mine. Since our wedding, she’s taken 14 international trips, in some cases for her job, studying climate change at Los Alamos National Laboratory, but mostly for fun. Fun for her is rafting 145 miles through the Alaskan wilderness, which she did during her first trimester.  

Every website Turin and I consulted about preparing for a newborn said “babies thrive on routine.” Routine wasn’t our plan. On our road trip, we shivered in Canyonlands National Park, went canyoneering in Utah’s San Rafael Swell, and surfed waves on the Oregon coast. Bridger was easygoing when we were outside—he was either curious or asleep. He wasn’t smiling yet, but we have photos of him in the West’s most spectacular places looking, as we interpreted his expressions, happy. We have no photos of Bridger crying at 12, 2, 4, or 6 a.m. In fact, Turin and I were exhausted. In the days before we reached Yosemite, the last stop on our monthlong trip, Bridger grew colicky.

My family was awaiting our arrival. For seven years, Garrett, 36, has lived in El Portal, a National Park Service company town near Yosemite’s southwest entrance. He manages the park’s vegetation—all 748,436 acres—and keeps its forests looking like they did when John Muir wandered the hills. But what he really loves is climbing. So does his wife, Erin, also a botanist. They recently bought the 1908 railroad depot in El Portal, with a basement filled with ancient cat shit, because it’s ten minutes from perfect rock.

My recently retired parents, who’d moved into their RV three years earlier, had been in El Portal helping rebuild the depot since January. We spent the night we arrived in their trailer, passing Bridger and glasses of wine around and telling stories. The next morning broke warm enough to wear shorts, and Garrett suggested a walk in the wildflowers above town. “They’re peaking,” he said.

We climbed for three miles from El Portal, through meadows and granite blocks toward 50-foot Foresta Falls, a cascading drop just beneath the community of Foresta. It felt like hiking through a Renoir. Garrett and Erin named off blooms of all colors, and we snapped pictures of the valley and flooded waterfalls. At 11:45, we reached a bridge that crossed a sliding waterfall, and Bridger chirped his need for milk. Turin stopped to nurse him on a granite outcropping.

Snacks were passed around. My parents grazed. Erin lay on the bridge’s downstream rail and napped. She was the only one besides me who saw the snake. “Brown and big” is how she remembers it. I recall seeing a dust-red coil in new grass, but to me the snake was more of a sensation: a light tap just above the sock on my right ankle. Then I passed out.

When I awoke, and after I’d finished my first bout of violent vomiting, I heard my parents already talking through the options to get me out. My mom had been an emergency-room nurse and a physician’s assistant for 35 years. But on the 700 missions she and my dad had conducted as volunteers for the Bend, Oregon, search and rescue team, neither had ever dealt with a rattlesnake bite.

Lying on my back in the grass, I thought maybe that was all the venom would do—make me sick. Or maybe I was dying. I didn’t know it then, but in the medical community, the rule about rattlesnake bites is “time is tissue.” How many minutes or hours elapse before you get the antivenom, usually in a hospital, determines your fate: an afternoon in the ER, amputation, or perhaps, in my case, death on a stone bridge.

I threw up every few minutes, in intensifying waves. “I’ve never seen anybody that sick,” Garrett would later tell me. He was already running back toward El Portal to get cell service and call dispatch. On a map, Crane Creek Road, where I was bitten, looks drivable. It isn’t. Two wildfires had recently burned the area, and it’d be generous to call what was left a two-track. The dispatcher didn’t know this. She ordered a Life Flight helicopter, standard procedure for rattlesnake bites, and an ambulance stationed in Yosemite Valley, then asked Garrett to run to Foresta to guide the incoming paramedics.

By then, rivulets of blood, thinned by the venom, ran from the puncture wounds. My leg burned from snake proteins that had evolved to cause pain. I was in shock and lying beside a large puddle of vomit, the by-product of toxins. I felt like I had after eating bad fish in Laos—except I was terrified. Turin had nursed me through that sickness with Cipro and orange soda, and I asked her to marry me on a pirogue on the Mekong four days later.

Turin couldn’t help me through this one, though she tried. “Bee sting?” she initially asked, trying to figure out what was going on. She started shaking soon after hearing my one-word reply. For a time she rubbed my back in consoling circles between bouts of vomiting.

“Get Bridger out of here,” I told Turin. My request hurt her. But I couldn’t stand the thought of her or our son watching me die. So she carried him back down the road, watching from a distance while I gripped my parents’ hands.

In late September, six months after my bite, I visit Southern California’s Loma Linda University, one of the country’s leading treatment centers for snakebite victims. I’m there to meet Bill Hayes, a biology professor who has studied rattlesnakes since he was 18 and smuggled cottonmouths into his parents’ car on family road trips. He’s 56 now, and has spent several decades researching everything from the distance pit vipers travel from their winter dens (up to 15 miles) to how the volume of venom a large snake injects is affected by denim (it drops by 60 percent). Hayes’s current focus is the varying severity of snakebites. With the help of graduate students, Hayes has culled the medical records of 166 victims treated at Loma Linda over the past decade. What they found: the bigger the snake, the more severe the bite. “What it really boils down to,” he says, “is how much venom the snake injects.”

Like many conclusions in science, his rest on piles of dead mice. To determine how much venom little snakes use compared with big ones, Hayes released genetically similar male mice into a small arena containing hungry snakes that ranged from nine inches long to four feet. After each mouse was bitten, Hayes stole the snake’s meal, tossed it in a blender, and used a combination of antibodies and dye to isolate the venom from the mush. “Kinda gross,” he says. Hayes found that, contrary to a persistent myth, adult snakes are far more lethal to humans than baby ones. The reason is intuitive: they’re bigger and produce more venom. Hayes found that four-foot snakes injected close to 100 milligrams into the mice. The nine-inch snakes injected less than five milligrams—only a couple of drops.

“So how much do you think the snake injected into me?” I ask, arriving at the point of my visit.

“That’s tough,” he says. For one thing, his research suggests that snakes tend to put more venom into predators than prey. He asks me to ballpark the length of my rattlesnake. The only metric I have is the distance between the fang wounds on my ankle—about an inch and a quarter. He pulls up a chart on his laptop that displays snake sizes and venom yields and spends a few minutes clicking. “Baw,” Hayes says, giving up. “Math isn’t so fun.” (In a couple of weeks, he’ll e-mail me his best guess. “Certainly a big snake at 46 inches.” That would make it as thick as my forearm.)

For a more practical demonstration, Hayes leads me to the hallway. He wants to show me how he figured out how much venom snakes use in defensive strikes. “Gerad’s coming out with a western diamondback,” he tells me. Gerad is a graduate student and Hayes’s snake tender. Hayes disappears into the snake room and returns holding a three-foot-long pole with a saline-filled orange glove taped to a hook at the end.

“Do you want the honors?” Hayes asks.

I say sure, not yet realizing that the goal is to get the diamondback to strike the pretend hand. When Gerad walks out holding a three-foot snake, Hayes hands me the pole, but my confidence cracks. “I don’t know that I do want the honors,” I say.

“No, no, no, you’re fine,” Hayes tells me. Then he sees my face. “You want me to do it?”

Gerad sets the snake on the tile floor. Hayes reminds me that we are in a hospital that counts among its employees the best snakebite physicians in the country. Then he offers to shoot a video with my phone. I hear myself agreeing to hold the stick.

The snake coils into a defensive position and strikes at Gerad’s own stick. “Woo-oo!” he says. “This one’s a live wire.” He should know. He spent nine days in the hospital two years ago after a snake bit him during this same test.

“Ugh,” I grunt. “This is totally making me very uncomfortable.”  

“You gotta dangle it,” Hayes says. “Get closer. You’re fine.”

“Get it within six inches of his face.”

There’s six feet between me and the snake, which is now coiled and ready to strike, looking like the Karate Kid prepping for a crane kick. When its had enough of me poking its outer coil, the snake lashes at the glove in a whiplash motion that I’ll watch on my phone hundreds of times over the next few weeks. Its jaws swing open; the fangs, each an inch of needle-sharp, hollow bone, unhinge from the roof of its mouth. The moment the fangs touch the glove, the venom glands plunge like hypodermic needles, shooting poison into saline.

Gerad recaptures the snake. “Good work, buddy,” he coos to the still rattling diamondback. Normally, they’d put the punctured glove over a bucket of water and then isolate the venom, but they’ve already tested this snake and know that it injects around half a milliliter—a quarter-teaspoon. That’s enough to kill more than 2,000 mice. Or a 150-pound new father.

Garrett sprinted toward Foresta until he reached the bridge over Crane Creek. But the creek was flooded, and the bridge was burned out except for four steel girders that were wet from mist and shaking from the thundering water. Downstream, the creek swept off a 150-foot drop. This gave Garrett pause. My brother isn’t reckless. He is calculating, confident, and experienced—all of which had little to do with why he decided to cross one of the girders anyway. Across the valley, he could just make out my parents huddled over me. “You were actively dying,” he told me later. He grabbed the rail with both hands, dropped to his butt, and scooted his way into the downpour.  

(Courtesy of Kyle Dickman)
(Courtesy of Kyle Dickman)
(Courtesy of Kyle Dickman)
(Courtesy of Kyle Dickman)

According to dispatch logs, Garrett ran more than two miles and up 800 feet in 19 minutes. That included the bridge crossing. By then, Jason Montoya, a park ranger in Yosemite who also specializes in technical rescues for the elite Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR), was speeding from the Valley toward me, lights on and sirens blaring. He’d ordered a second helicopter, plus a litter team with six volunteers to hike up from El Portal, should the helicopter fail. Based on the coordinates Garrett gave to dispatch, Montoya figured they’d need to fly me out of the canyon with a hoist-equipped helicopter, then transfer me to a Life Flight with a paramedic on board. Best-case scenario, he thought, I’d be in the emergency room in an hour and a half.

During the busiest times of the year, there’s a hoist-equipped helicopter stationed in Yosemite. But it wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another week. Dispatch tried its usual backup but it was on another call. A second backup was sidelined with an oil leak. Finally, at 1:11, a helicopter took off from Paso Robles, an hour and 45 minutes away. By then April 23 was turning into an unusually busy day for park search and rescue. Shortly after my bite was reported, other calls poured into dispatch. There was a back injury from a moped fall at Upper Pines Campground, a lost kid at Camp 4, a sheet covered in blood found at Yosemite Falls, and a woman knocked unconscious after stumbling at the top of Vernal Falls—all of which fell under YOSAR’s jurisdiction.

Just below Foresta, Garrett crossed back over Crane Creek on an intact bridge and met the ambulance. A fallen tree had blocked its path and one wheel was stuck in the road’s soft shoulder. Three medics were scrambling to pull gear from the truck: IVs, an inflatable backboard, drugs, and medical supplies. Garrett recognized one of them immediately. The year before, he’d met Levi Yardley, a 34-year-old paramedic from Savannah, Georgia, on a climb that required crossing from a detached pinnacle while dangling 2,000 feet above the Valley. Yardley threw him a bag of medical equipment, and Garrett, Montoya, Yardley, and one other medic took off down the road. When they reached the burned-out bridge Garrett had scooted across 20 minutes earlier, YOSAR’s medics turned around. “If someone slips, they’ll be dead,” Montoya remembers thinking. “We couldn’t take that risk.” So they ran more than a mile back up the hill they’d just descended and crossed Crane Creek on the upper bridge. Then they bushwhacked toward me across cliff bands and through waist-high poison oak.

They did all this within an hour of my snakebite. It was 12:51 when they arrived. The scene took Yardley by surprise. My pants were half off. For the past hour, my mom and dad had been rolling me from my back to my side to vomit or shit. Diarrhea had started about 20 minutes after the bite, and my dad made a joke about not having wiped my ass since I was Bridger’s age. The dirt around me had long since soaked up the liquid that had been in my body. I was pale and sweating, moaning in pain. My blood, unable to clot, wept from the puncture wounds on my ankle, and bruising, a sign of internal hemorrhaging, had bloomed to above my knee.

Around the time Yardley and Garrett arrived, my mom noticed patches of blood in my bile but didn’t mention it. “Why scare anybody worse?” she said later.

Among American snake enthusiasts, Stephen Mackessy is known as a venom guru. The rest of us would call him a biochemist. In mid-October, seven months after the bite, I got an e-mail from his office at the University of Northern Colorado. Someone had sent him a venom sample from a snake found 50 miles or so south of Foresta, and he thought it could be useful in explaining my symptoms. He also mentioned that, two weeks earlier, a 31-year-old had been bitten on the ankle by a rattlesnake near Golden, Colorado. The victim “coded before he got to the hospital,” as Mackessy put it.

“May have hit the saphenous vein, which would be sort of a direct line to the heart—a random and tragic event,” he wrote. He thought my snake had also hit a vein, albeit a smaller one on the outside of my ankle that’s about an inch from the saphenous.  

Mackessy is 62, with a gray beard, gray hair, and the quiet thoughtfulness of a man who views the world through a microscope. A few weeks earlier, I’d visited his office in Greeley to see if he could explain the extreme variety of my symptoms. We didn’t explore the question until late that evening, after Mackessy showed me the lab where he pulls venoms apart using molecular weight or polarity. Most predators kill or injure mechanically—like a paw swipe to the temple. Rattlesnakes work chemically. Their venom is biomimicry at a molecular level.

A quick refresher on the foundations of life: Grouped atoms make molecules. Grouped molecules make proteins. Grouped proteins make cells. And cells, in networks of billions, make every living thing on earth. When proteins click together just perfectly, chemical reactions occur that prompt all kinds of human functions, from sweating to smiling.

Snake venom contains a suite of proteins that dock perfectly with the cells and proteins humans use to regulate our respiratory, vascular, and digestive systems. Except that when the venom proteins dock, it’s sabotage. “Mammals operate within very narrow parameters,” Mackessy explains. “We don’t tolerate big swings to our heart rate, -temperature, or blood pressure. Venom is like a shotgun blast to the intricate inner workings of a watch.”

Mackessy calls venom’s ability to affect so many different life functions a product of “evolutionary warfare.” He points to a dead fence lizard stuffed into a vial in his lab. This species of lizard, which came from a sky-island mountain range in Arizona, has developed resistance to the venom of the rattlesnakes that prey on it; however, over time and through evolution, the rattlesnakes are also adapting, developing proteins to sidestep the lizard’s defenses. This one-upmanship between predator and prey explains why venoms, and the actual mechanism they use to kill or harm, vary not only between species of rattlesnakes but also within populations of the same species. One example of this hyperspecialization can be seen in the southern Pacific rattlesnake, which claims the bottom half of California as its territory. One researcher recently discovered that a bite from a Pacific rattlesnake near sea level in San Bernadino County prevents a victim’s blood from clotting. But get bitten by the same species in the mountains of the same county and your blood will clot.

Snakes brew their venom in glands located behind the eyes. In a snake’s lifetime, these glands can weaponize—or attempt to weaponize—many proteins that have alternative functions in its own body. One that digests food may be tweaked to break down living prey. Or a protein that increases the snake’s blood pressure could be altered to decrease that of its meal. For a sense of just how sophisticated and varied venom is, consider that all 300 of the world’s venomous snake species have been fine-tuning their toxins for millennia. In the venom of the rattlesnake species that bit me, a northern Pacific, more than 75 proteins have been identified—and Mackessy thinks many more may yet be discovered.

We’re now in his office, where mason jars filled with rattlesnakes coiled in alcohol line the shelves. Mackessy says he’s hesitant to describe what any one venom protein did to my body, because it’s like describing the role a single note plays in a sonata. It tells an incomplete story. Proteins work in concert.

Caveats aside, Mackessy starts with my first symptom: fainting. The body regulates blood pressure through proteins that cause veins and arteries to expand or contract. Northern Pacific rattlesnake venom contains a protein that functions identically. Within moments of getting struck, Mackessy explains, the venom “rapidly and inappropriately” relaxed the vessels that regulate blood flow. “Blood pressure went like this,” Mackessy says, whistling and sliding his hand down an imaginary slope.

My body tried to correct this by flooding my vasculature with a protein that constricts blood vessels. And here’s where venom gets particularly nasty. The same venom protein that caused my blood pressure to drop also destroyed my body’s tools for increasing it. “That’s just one thing—one component in one venom,” Mackessy says.

While I was passed out, he goes on, an enzyme called metalloproteinase broke down my leg veins’ walls until I began to hemorrhage internally. Meanwhile another venom protein, disintegrin, acted as a magnet to my platelets and fibrinogen, molecular components that help blood clot. As my body sent them racing to plug the puncture wounds, the snake protein destroyed them, like a host who throws a house party and clubs guests the moment they arrive. Welcome!

Mackessy describes a toxin that made my smooth muscles—those in my digestive tract—convulse, pushing my stomach’s contents out both ends. Another liquefied the cellular architecture in my leg, releasing fluid that led to elephantine swelling while simultaneously quickening the venom’s spread upward by turning flesh, as he describes it, into “diluted Jell-O.” Still another digested my muscle tissue. He shows me a picture of an untreated snakebite case taken nine days after the strike. The victim’s foot is a mess of exposed bones.

In my case, all these processes happened almost instantaneously because the rattlesnake’s fang hit a vein.

After assessing the scene, Yardley rip-ped open his medical kit. During the summer, Yosemite keeps a small supply of anti-venom on hand for cases like mine, but those vials had been used the previous year and hadn’t yet been restocked. Instead, he tossed my mom a blood-pressure cuff and grabbed 2,000 milliliters of saline, a pill to stop the vomiting, and fentanyl, a powerful painkiller. My mom, the ranking medical professional on the scene, drew the drugs into syringes, and as Yardley worked he asked her to start an IV. She paused. “I don’t feel comfortable doing that,” she said. “I’m a PA, but I’m a mom first.”

Yardley took over, sticking a 16-gauge needle—a medical railroad spike—into each of my arms. The drugs worked. I hurt less and stopped purging. And the IV rehydrated me temporarily. Then Montoya showed up, and a little later, the litter team from El Portal loaded me onto the inflatable backboard. I mustered a smile when they put aviator sunglasses on me to protect my eyes, anticipating that the helicopter was about to arrive. We even made time to snap a family photo, with Turin, Bridger on her chest, giving a thumbs-up and me looking like smiling death.

At 2:07, the litter team carried me to the helicopter pickup point. “That’s when things started to unravel,” Montoya says. He’d discovered that he couldn’t transmit radio calls from the canyon.

Ten minutes later, yet another emergency page went out—the 19th of the day—further occupying resources. Since my bite and the other slate of mishaps that morning, a woman had suffered a heart attack and broken her ankle on the Mist Trail, bears were pestering tourists on the Southside Trail, and a man in his twenties had had a seizure in Half Dome Village. Now there was a garage fire in El Portal. From where he stood, Garrett could see black smoke rising across the street from his house. Between us and the flames was a grass field that three years earlier had torched in half an hour. The helicopter was still 20 minutes away.  

“If we don’t get him out of here now, we’re going to have a critical patient on our hands, and I don’t have the meds to deal with him,” Yardley told Montoya, who was overseeing the incident. It had now been more than an hour. The drugs had run their course, and my symptoms had returned. Then, while the seven first responders stood around me, a bee stung my thigh. “Fuck!” I said. “I’m allergic.”

Yardley told somebody to get an EpiPen.

“Please don’t,” I pleaded. I was worried that the epinephrine would agitate the snake venom. About then the helicopter finally appeared over the ridge, and Yardley gambled that if I hadn’t gone into anaphylaxis yet, I wouldn’t.

It was 4:30 p.m. The brush beat about in the downdraft, and a cable was lowered. I felt myself tugged from the ground, and a surge of relief.

As the thumping of the helicopter faded, Turin gave in to the dark thoughts she’d been ignoring for the past three hours. “Compartmentalizing,” as she calls it. She and my parents broke into sobs. Bridger didn’t make a sound. He hadn’t—not a single colicky cry—since the bite.  

Bill Hayes keeps a collection of snakebite kits in a display case outside his Loma Linda office. There are dozens. Some contain razors to cut the wound, to milk the venom out. Others have pumps to suck a bite dry, or sulfide to sterilize it. That day in Yosemite, we didn’t have one of these kits, which is probably just as well. None of them work. Nor do any of the folk treatments people still try today, which call for everything from freezing the wound to slathering it with motor oil, silver nitrate, or a poultice made from the snake’s crushed head. “Antivenom—that’s the only cure,” Hayes told me.

Today’s antivenom isn’t so different from the stuff developed in the 1890s by French scientist Albert Calmette. After a flood pushed water-averse cobras into the Vietnamese village where he was studying, 40 people were bitten, and four died. Calmette, who was a protégé of Louis Pasteur, applied the same techniques his mentor was using to produce vaccines for rabies and anthrax. He milked cobras and injected tiny amounts of venom into horses. After a few weeks, Calmette extracted the horse blood and spun out antibodies that targeted cobra venom.

Snakebites were more lethal back then, but the World Health Organization still considers them a global health crisis. Each year snakes kill more than 81,000 people and maim hundreds of thousands more. Modern antivenom is still made in livestock, and while it has gotten more effective over time, it is mostly species-specific. In the U.S., it’s also outrageously expensive. A single vial can cost $18,000, which goes a long way toward explaining why many physicians refer to the supply of antivenom in this country as a “drug drought.” Many clinics and hospitals don’t stock it, and it’s rarely carried by search and rescue teams.

After the helicopter touched down at Doctors Medical Center of Modesto, nurses wheeled me into the emergency room and cut off my shorts and T-shirt. Five and a half hours after my bite, they hooked me up to my first IV laced with antivenom. Over the next 72 hours, I’d receive 18 vials.

Each of the half-dozen doctors I saw told me this was either the first snakebite they’d ever seen or the worst. Poison Control, which the nurses called every two hours, guided my care. My leg, from toe to hip, turned black and yellow and eventually swelled to 24 inches, more than twice its normal circumference. My blood chemistry mimicked a pattern the nurses compared to that of drug-overdose patients. During my first day in the hospital, I received morphine every two hours, yet the pain remained too severe to sleep. It felt as though nerves were popping in my leg.

The orthopedic surgeon grew convinced that I had developed compartment syndrome, a side effect of swelling that cuts off circulation to extremities and in the worst cases leads to amputation. Fixing it requires an only slightly less intrusive emergency surgery—deep incisions along the length of my leg to relieve the pressure. My night nurse, John, was a 71-year-old Vietnam vet who’d been struck twice by rattlesnakes and recommended I do as he’d done and eat the snake that had bitten me. (“More gamy than fishy,” he said.) It was John who saved me from going under the knife. In the early morning, he found a pulse at the top of my foot, a sign that I still had circulation—enough to keep the surgeons from operating.

(Courtesy of Kyle Dickman)
(Courtesy of Kyle Dickman)
(Courtesy of Kyle Dickman)
(Courtesy of Kyle Dickman)

It took four more days for me to move from a bed to a chair. Two more to stand up. And eight before the doctors released me. By then my platelets had finally stabilized at a level high enough to rule out spontaneous bleeding. In the end, the total bill for the final stop of our monthlong road trip to introduce Bridger to the West was $450,000. I guess our monthly health care premiums paid off.

“It’s lousy with prey,” Garrett whispers as a lizard skulks across the road. It’s September in Yosemite, and we’re on our way to revisit the bridge where I was bitten. This time we’re joined by two herpetologists: Robert Hansen, who edits the journal Herpetological Review, and Rob Grasso, Yosemite’s resident park ecologist. The pair, dressed in safari gear, are flipping over rocks and logs with a rake. Meanwhile, Garrett and I strap on Kevlar chaps, as though we’re preparing to disarm a car bomb.

Hansen rolls his eyes when he sees us. “They don’t want to bite you,” he says, then wades deeper into the oak trees, where he thinks he’s heard the high-pitched zzzt of a baby snake’s rattle.

We’re here because the snakebite did more than scar my ankle and leave me with a searing curiosity about venom. I felt fine physically but was consumed with an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability. I’ve returned to the bridge in search of some kind of closure. To be snakebit also means to experience a period of bad luck, which is what I’ve lived through since the ordeal. Shortly afterward, our dog Mud got hit by a car. He survived, but weeks later we had to put down our other dog, 13-year-old Lucy. A friend sustained a severe concussion while we were biking. Another broke his neck skiing. Yet another lost his dad to a stroke. Then there were the many news events of 2017 that don’t need rehashing. Plenty of good happened, too. That I lived comes to mind. Waking up to Bridger every day. My parents bought a house near our home in Los Alamos to be closer to us.

But the good was obscured. I felt broken. Fear was no longer thrilling—just scary and everywhere. At night I’d grab Turin in my sleep because, I insisted, she was falling and I needed to catch her. I struggled to walk in the woods without seeing something slither.

“Maybe you just see the world like the rest of us always have,” one friend suggested. Maybe, but I missed my old optimism. Instead I felt sad, grateful, dazed. Turin went back to work, and watching Bridger fell to me. After putting him to bed, I’d disappear into my phone and a bottle of wine. Tears came often and too easily. “Is everything OK?” Turin asked me one morning. It wasn’t, and she knew it. I was a ghost.

Around that time, some close friends came over for dinner. They have two sons—one three and the other one and a half. We loaded our boys into Queen and pretended she was a fire truck. We drove through the neighborhood, hosing down fake flames licking at the steps of houses. At one point we spotted a herd of deer, their coats thickening for winter. Our friends’ oldest son, Max, and I snuck out of Queen and crawled through dead, dry grass until we lay within 20 feet of a family. “They’re in a herd because being together is how they survive the coming winter,” I told him in a whisper. “That’s the mom there, and those are her babies.”

“Where’s the dad?” Max asked. He repeated the question a few more times, because I didn’t have the answer. I wasn’t sure what bothered Max about the sight of an incomplete family, or if that was it at all. But I did know that three days earlier, his mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Probably like her, I wanted to know if I’d done something wrong to deserve my fate. Maybe I violated some rule of nature unknown to me. Maybe the bridge would reveal answers only the herpetologists can interpret. Rattlesnakes, Hansen tells me, emerge in spring hungry, spend their summers hunting, and head back to the same den in the fall to breed. Hansen and Grasso suspect that I was bitten after stumbling onto a den during spring emergence. Finding snakes here might confirm their suspicion.

Finally we reach the bridge, the exact spot where I was struck. I’d always thought of rattlesnakes as the gentleman’s viper—considerate enough to warn you before they bite. Mine never rattled. I ask Grasso why, and he’s not sure.

“I mean, I have to harass the shit out of them to get them to coil in strike position,” he says. He’s now at creek level, craning his head into a fissure in the granite on the bank which might be a den. “I don’t think it could feel your vibrations,” he says. Because the creek had been flooded at the time, he posits, the snake’s senses might have been overwhelmed by tremors of rushing water shaking the bridge. It was probably hunting and unaware of me until I stepped into its field of vision and boom! “I’m surprised you lived,” he says. Which I hear as “You’re lucky to be here,” and suddenly it feels nice to be lucky.  

“You guys want to eat something?” I ask. We all sit on the bridge where I almost died and eat mushy Red Delicious apples. I suppose I should feel reverent about this spot, but I don’t. It’s just another beautiful place where a bad thing happened.

“That ledge there, that’s my best guess,” Hansen says, pointing to a shadowy overhang located about 30 feet up a slab of sloping granite, where he imagines the den might be. Neither he nor Grasso feel comfortable climbing up to it.

Garrett turns to me. “Want to check?”

“Yeah,” I say, trying to sound bold. “Fuck these snakes.” When we reach the ledge, I peer into a dark crack and see a mouse skitter across the base of the opening, but no snakes. Hansen’s right—rattlesnakes don’t want to bite people. They don’t even want to be seen. Sometimes we just step on a piece of bad luck. And then get stung by a bee. 

Contributing editor Kyle Dickman (@KyleDickman) is the author of On the Burning Edge, an account of the Yarnell Hill Fire.

What If Our Forests Don’t Come Back?

9 May

On a warm day in April, at the outset of the 2018 fire season, Laura Trader, a fire ecologist at Bandelier National Monument, braced herself against a 50 mile per hour wind and looked out over several hundred-thousand acres of burned land in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. Trader was near this same mesa on May 10, 2000, when a prescribed fire lit inside the monument escaped its lines and destroyed 235 homes in the nearby town of Los Alamos. The so-called Cerro Grande Fire caused such astronomical damage that Congress allocated a billion dollars just to clean up that one fire. Bandelier’s chief received death threats in the aftermath. Trader was also here on June 26, 2011, the day when the Las Conchas Fire erupted and incinerated 43,000 acres of Jemez Mountains pine forest in 11 hours. From this one mesa, Trader has witnessed two of the most destructive fires in American history. Though she doubts one will start here today, she cannot recall a New Mexican winter more conducive to extreme fires than this past one. But then nobody alive can—it was the driest winter in 125 years of record keeping.

“Usually we’ve got green up this time of year,” says Trader, toeing her Keen hiking shoe into a grass clump that’s as brown as everything else we can see. “This year, it’s brown up.”

If it feels like America has entered an era of never-ending fire seasons, that’s because it has. Wildfire smoke is now in the air from April to December, almost three months longer than in the 1970s. The last startling news from 2017, a year packed with fire tragedies, blew out of California in December, when the Thomas Fire hopscotched through Los Angeles and became the largest in state history. This was just three months after 43 civilians died in Napa Valley fires.

Last year, for the second time in three years and the second time in history, more than 10 million acres burned nationwide. Federal land management agencies spent nearly $3 billion fighting fire, just 15 years after that figure first crested $1 billion. The total costs of rebuilding, including some of the 12,000 homes and structures destroyed last season, will likely exceed $25 billion. Here we are, a little more than three months after last year’s embers cooled, and what promises to be yet another historically expensive, destructive, and very likely deadly fire season is starting anew. Over the coming months, we’ll explore in this column how fires became so intense, so expensive to fight, and so deadly, as well as some of the solutions being tested by top foresters, economists, and scientists to restore fire’s place in the forest. In other words, we’ll ask: What is the future of fire in America?

According to Trader and many experts in her field, that question may be best answered here amid the remnants of Bandelier’s forests. What is happening here, she says, foreshadows what may be coming to many North American forests. In 1995, when Trader first came to the monument as an intern, Bandelier was forested with great stands of ponderosa pines and other conifers that had stood for millennia. Because of recent fires, much of the area is now dominated by locust shrubs; those pines may never return.

“We’ve never seen this before!” Trader yells over a gust of wind so strong it knocks her off balance. “The vegetation—the composition and structure of the forest—it’s totally different than it was!”

I met Trader that morning in her office in the recently constructed East Jemez Interagency Fire Center, a regional command post for wildland fire managers. Surrounding the metal-paneled barn outfitted with retired helicopter rotors as ceiling fans are thousands of acres of torched and forever-altered forest—standing sticks, as Trader calls them. Firefighters’ Subarus and trucks were backed into spaces, a cultural norm for those whose job requires quick movement, while their owners discussed risk mitigation strategies inside.

“We had a relative humidity of 3 percent in March,” Trader says, with a laugh. She’s a small woman of around 40 with curly hair, a nose ring, and a Grateful Dead ornament swinging from her rearview mirror. Three percent was 2 percent lower than the relative humidity on the day Las Conchas blew up. Trader’s laughing a grim laugh because this year that measurement was taken three months earlier than when that fire burned. From this point until the monsoon arrives in July, it only gets drier.

Nationwide, forecasters predict above-normal fire potential arriving for most of the West in June and lasting through September, which means we’ll likely see somewhere between 7 and 10 million acres burned this season. But in a sign of just how bad the season could be for the Southwest, fires are already burning in mountains that in most Aprils are still under four feet of snow. At the time of this writing, more than a thousand firefighters were battling some 85,000 acres of fire in the Southwest, including one blaze on Arizona’s Coconino National Forest that burned 8,000 acres in a single afternoon and has since forced more than 500 evacuations. Expect more to come. Chuck Maxwell, the lead forecaster of the Southwest’s regional fire headquarters in Albuquerque, compares this season’s outlook to 2002 and 2011, the two most destructive fire years in Southwest history. A severe drought is centered over the Four Corners region, and most trees and brush, even those above 10,000 feet, are already dry enough to burn. “This year has the potential to be epic,” Maxwell says.

How the season plays out is at the whims of weather. Take last year. It wasn’t expected to be a bad fire season, let alone among history’s worst. What took many fire experts by surprise is how quickly a few extraordinary heat waves dried out forests in places that had normal or even wet winters. Park Williams, a researcher at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University who has written extensively about the relationship between climate and fire in the Southwest, told me that every degree of warming does more to promote fire than the previous degree. With hotter summers as the new normal, that goes a long way toward explaining why the western United States has experienced a 1,000 percent increase in acreage burned just since 1984.

Historically, American wildfires were as varied as the forests they burned. Depending on how often lightning struck or native peoples lit fires, sequoias in California, ponderosas in the Southwest, and longleaf pines in Florida and Georgia all burned at campfire intensities every year or every ten or 20. Aspen stands in Utah’s mountains, on the other hand, need extreme fires every few centuries to regenerate. So too, at varying frequencies, do lodgepole pines in Montana and Idaho, black spruce in Minnesota, and pitch pines in New Jersey. The towering flames and visceral fear those burns generated prompted the U.S. Forest Service to treat all fires as a scourge. The irony is that 100 years of fire suppression later, the policy not only homogenized American forests, making them dense with trees of mostly the same height and age, but it also homogenized America’s fires, turning more of them into the very monsters the Forest Service feared.

Unruly vegetation caused this change. Think of a campfire as fire in the Jemez a hundred years ago. Now add wood to it like you’re trying to get a steam-powered train to break the sound barrier. That’s today’s fires. Trader pulls up a chart on her computer that plots fire frequency in the Jemez. Sheep, she says, knocked the fire regimen out of rhythm when ranchers introduced tens of thousands of them to the Jemez in the 1890s. The animals grazed on the grasses that historically carried fires. Then suppression took root. Before these changes, forests here burned every five to 20 years at such low intensities that a ranger on horseback could control flames over hundreds of square miles with little more than a shovel; after, fire all but vanished. Now it has returned as Las Conchas or any number of other blazes that have yet to burn this summer.

“It’s a statement on what the structure of the forest was,” Trader says, clicking through pictures of burning forests that could be mistaken for weapons tests on Bikini Atoll. Before fire suppression, there were around 100 trees per acre. Today, in places that haven’t burned in a century, there are often 3,000.

“This view still breaks my heart,” Trader says. Over her 23-year career, she’s seen ponderosa pines disappear from this part of the Jemez. We’ve left the mesas we toured earlier and are now at 9,000 feet overlooking Bandelier’s recent major fires. Across the Rio Grande Valley, we can see Santa Fe, with the pine-covered Rockies behind it. Below us are canyons that would look at home in the Mojave. The view is a study in contrasts. Through darker lenses, it’s a look into the future of many western landscapes.

The reasons the pines aren’t coming back here are myriad. Some seem obvious: Ponderosa pines sprout from seeds held in cones, and there are essentially no cone-producing trees for tens of thousands of acres. Others are less so. For example, the fires actually changed the soil’s composition. A recent study on how fire affects artifacts found that the only way to replicate Las Conchas’ heat was in a pottery kiln set to 900 degrees for 15 minutes. When Trader first came back to the park after that fire, the ash was as fine as baby powder and knee-deep. Then the rains came and swept the ash and soil into the Rio Grande in biblical floods.

“Bandelier is a canary in the coalmine for North American forests when it comes to climate change,” says Craig Allen, a researcher at U.S. Geologic Survey who has studied these woods for most of 40 years. Under optimal conditions, the Southwest lies on the dry margin of where ponderosa pine forest can exist. Allen says the warming climate is pushing parts of the Southwest, particularly the lower elevations where ponderosa pine historically dominated, outside those margins. “As a general principle, extremes will get more extreme everywhere,” Allen says.

Most concerning for Allen is the warming temperature. According to one recent paper, the Southwest is three degrees warmer than it was in 1950. That change has already extended fire season by two additional months across much of the West, making it essentially year-round in places like California and New Mexico. In the Southwest in particular, that’s delivered nine extra critical fire danger days a year and has increased the acreage burned by a factor of ten. By century’s end, climatologists expect the average to climb another three to six degrees and the pace of acreage burned to keep pace.

Allen says the change is already visible in the Jemez. Before suppression, the largest fire he’s aware of in this landscape that killed most of the trees was on the order of 1,000 acres. Since 2000, forests in New Mexico and Arizona were torched by the Cerro Grande (48,000 acres), Rodeo-Chediski (467,000 acres), Wallow (538,000 acres ), Las Conchas (156,000 acres), and Whitewater Baldy (289,000 acres) fires, all of which burned in drought years like this one. At some point, Allen says, the megafires will become self-limiting. The holes that the previous burn tore into the ponderosa forests are slow to (or may never) regrow as forest, and with less fuel to burn, the fires wither. It’s a grim thought that the most likely way out of this new paradigm is for our forests to burn themselves out.

“There are plants out there,” Trader says, nodding toward the canyons radiating out below us. “Vegetation is coming back slowly. It can’t not. It just won’t look anything like it did before.”

Another strong gust strafes the rock outcrop we’re sitting on. A tornado of dust spins toward Santa Fe. A burned tree falls somewhere below, and my wife texts me an emergency warning. A fire has just started in a patch of unburned forest between our home and the monument. The road I drove to Bandelier has been shut down. We’re in for another long fire season.