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Extreme wildfires are here to stay. Can human beings really fight them?

By Henry Mance

13 Jul 2023 · 16 min read

The fire is in front of me. Wind drags the smoke into my eyes. One of the firefighters steps back, overwhelmed by the fumes. The rest of the line continues to work almost robotically: 10 people swatting with beaters, made of metal and rubber. “Up! Down! Move! Step!” our group leader chants, above the crackle of burning grass. With that rhythm, we try to suffocate the fire.

When we trained for this exercise, our instructor, a burly 57-year-old South African named Dean Ferreira, warned us: “There’s no such thing as an average fire. They all have potential.” In other words, if you assume that you’ve seen this fire before, you will misjudge it. The wind may be stronger, the vegetation may be drier, the slope may carry the flames faster. “Be a student of fire,” we are told, because there is much to learn and little margin for error.

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