To Prevent a Nuclear Disaster, Washington Firefighters Burned a Whole Mountain

"Sometimes, you fight fire with fire."

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Aug 3 2016, 1:00pm

The Hanford site in 2005. Image: Getty

The nation's largest nuclear waste dump was almost ignited by wildfire this weekend. The raging inferno, called the Range 12 Fire, threatened to summit Washington's Rattlesnake Mountain, and creep down the other side toward the Hanford Nuclear Site, an aging nuclear production complex that sits along the Columbia River.

On Sunday night, more than 100 firefighters in Yakima and Benton Counties attempted to triage the blaze that had by that point consumed 70,000 acres of land, according to KOMO News. The fire had already hopped several highways, and was making its way toward Rattlesnake Mountain—the only thing stopping "America's Fukushima" from setting aflame.

The Hanford Nuclear Site is no stranger to catastrophe. In April of this year, 3,500 gallons of radioactive sludge leaked out of storage tanks built during the Manhattan Project. Though the site is decommissioned, it still houses 56 million gallons of Cold War nuclear waste.

Aerial view of nuclear reactors at the Hanford Nuclear Site along the Columbia River, January 1960. Image: United States Department of Energy

By Monday, fire teams realized they couldn't prevent the blaze from spreading once it reached the ridge base. At its peak, Rattlesnake Mountain looms 3,500 feet above sea level. This, in combination with its perilously steep slopes, would have made it impossible to manually douse the wildfire, even with the help of aircraft.

So, emergency crews did the next best thing, and set the mountain on fire themselves.

"Sometimes, you fight fire with fire," Marc Hollen, a spokesman for the incident management team, told the Tri-City Herald. Yesterday, Washington firefighters created a "backblaze," or prescribed burn, to incinerate any fuel the wildfire might feed on, successfully containing it.

At face value, this practice seems counterintuitive. How can one fire possibly stop another? As unlikely as it seems, this technique makes sense—the key to halting wildfires is to eliminate their fuel source. In this case, the dense, tinderlike shrub-steppe of Rattlesnake Mountain.

Controlled burns can be used preventatively, or as an antidote to active fires. Though not totally devoid of risk, deployment plans account for variables such as wind, moisture, temperature, and humidity, to better ensure that everything burns safely. If things go as intended, little will be left for actual wildfires to consume.

"Prescribed fires try to mimic actual wildfire. The point is to keep wildfire as part of the natural ecosystem, but more on our own terms, instead of sweeping over vast areas completely out of our control," Peter Morrison, executive director of the Pacific Biodiversity Institute, told me.

"Even indigenous people used, and still use, prescribed burns. It's not same technology, but the intention to light fires to achieve certain land management objectives is the same."

For many ecosystems, fire has rejuvenating properties, much like fertilizer. Not only do naturally occurring wildfires clear away dead underbrush, they also release nutrients locked in vegetation, and disseminate them in the form of ash. Through dendrochronology, or tree ring dating, ecologists know that plants often survive periodic wildfires. And some species, such as morel mushrooms, only flourish in their aftermath.

"Shrub-steppe country, like Rattlesnake Mountain, needs fire. And when it doesn't burn naturally, it can become dominated by grasses. Sometimes, it gets to a point where ecosystems that were there 100 or 200 years ago can be lost completely, or greatly altered," Morrison said.

Fire suppression has been a part of American colonial heritage since the Great Fire of 1910, also known as the "Big Blowup," which burned more than 3 million acres of land across Idaho, Montana, and Washington. As development continues to bump up against fire adapted ecosystems, both the risk of destruction, and the need to control it, sharply rise.

Because of this, initiatives like the Firewise Program are trying to help rural homeowners "fireproof" their homes. When moving isn't an option, there are simple things residents can do to minimize the chance of losing their property to wildfire.

Still, there's little anyone can do about the effects that climate change is having on wildfires. Scientists believe that global warming is causing them to burn longer, hotter, and more frequently. In American West, wildfire season is now 105 days longer than its historical average, making it a nearly year-round phenomenon.

Today, the US Forest Service spends approximately $830 million per year on fire suppression. Between 2004 and 2013, an astonishing 7.3 million acres of land nationwide were burned, compared to 2.7 million acres between 1984 and 1993.

Though Washington responders succeeded in fighting fire with fire, the blaze might have been less damaging if preventative measures had been taken beforehand. If there's one lesson to be learned here, it's that letting a nuclear waste plant sit in a tinder box seems like a really bad idea.