We’re having intermittent showers of ash in Cody the last few days. Due to my nocturnal work schedule I’m privy to both sunrise and sunset, and they are a matching blood red. Even the crescent moon is a bit rusty. In the daytime Heart Mountain is in dim outline as if someone pencil sketched it onto the northern sky. Other nearby mountains are hardly visible at all.
I was planning to do an autumn forest fire piece late next month as a season-ending post-mortem, but our recent local blazes are hard to ignore when the hot sun bathes Cody in a day-long surreal orange glow, and your smoke-weepy eyes feel like they have sand under the lids.
Articles about forest fires are a summertime staple for me. But this year I’ve decided not to bore the reader with the typically mundane facts about drought-ravaged, brush-choked forests full of towering brown bark beetle-killed pine and fir, or the many times wrongheaded federal fire suppression policies of a century, or the astounding mismanagement of the western public lands during the Clinton years resulting in an 80% reduction of commercial logging on those lands.
And conversely, I don’t want to write about the legal skullduggery of hordes of wacko environmentalists and their venal lawyers. I don’t care to document the astonishingly silly propensity of New Westerners to build their dream log homes in those tinder-dry-beetle-dead-forests, places one bilious Denver Post columnist routinely calls “The Stupid Zones.” President Bush’s “Healthy Forests Initiative” notwithstanding, western forests will burn hot every summer for many years to come.
Other than for a few stragglers, the tourists quit Cody two weeks ago because two lightning-caused fires (“The East” and “The Grizzly”), totaling 20,500 acres, nearly merged (then named “The East Complex”) and forced the closure of the East Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Along the North Fork Highway leading to the entrance the Forest Service evacuated campgrounds, and warned Lodge proprietors and homeowners to be ready to go on short notice, though in the end those latter folks weren’t evacuated. Today a new 10,000 acre inferno (“Boulder Basin”) roars along in uninhabited terrain twenty-five miles up the South Fork. 450,000 acres across Wyoming and Montana have been scorched — mostly by dry lightning storms — in the past two weeks.
So the tourists are gone, and while this fact is usually unnerving to the boosters down at the Cody Chamber of Commerce (Cody continues to put all its eggs in one economic basket, but that’s a subject for another story), they’ve been replaced (the tourists unfortunately, not the boosters) by an army of Forest Service firefighters drawn from throughout the West (700 on the East Complex; 250 at Boulder Basin), with the local Shoshone National Forest making voucher arrangements with Cody motels and restaurants for services during firefighter rest periods and travel time to and from fires. Lately, the motel where I work is usually half full of coming and going firefighters, two to a room, and most only staying a night, though at the end of every day air tanker and helicopter pilots land at the airport, and unlike their earthbound compatriots, can look forward to a daily restaurant dinner, shower and motel bed.
The western public lands are in extremely poor shape and burning at such an exponential rate (an average of five to eight million acres annually in recent years, as compared to roughly a half million acres per year in the 1970s) that the “fire season” of August and September is becoming a dependable “shoulder season” between the tourist and hunting seasons in Rocky Mountain resort towns. If the woods are going to burn, we might as well make some money, so the boosters aren’t so glum after all.
Westerners have never been fussy about who butters their bread. Tourist dollars, energy company royalties, or federal taxpayer largesse in the form of large public works projects — it’s all the same to us. Whether you’re touring Yellowstone, drilling a natural gas well on a patch of Wyoming sagebrush, or building Hoover Dam: just spend it and get outta Dodge.
Anyway, the streets of Cody are full of a fleet of green Forest Service trucks of all sizes. There’s pickups and water tankers and olive drab buses hauling Hotshot crews wearing their blue hardhats, expensive Santa Rosa boots, and asbestos-lined yellow fire shirts. The “Shots” spend most of their time in mountain base camps or even farther out in remote “spike” camps.
They are young and make $11.00 per hour plus overtime, of which there is plenty. Their pre-season training is almost military in nature, with optimum physical fitness required for the hard labor of clearing fire lines with chainsaws and “pulaskis” (a tool that is the combination of an ax and a hoe, and named for its inventor, a legendary early 20th century wildland firefighter named Ed Pulaski). They are a diverse lot. A large percentage are Hispanic and Native American, seasonal firefighting being for the latter the best way to prosper and beat the tough economic odds on the reservation. And more women than ever serve on the fire lines.
As a college student in Northern California in the ’70s I worked a summer on the Plumas National Forest. I was part of a crew responsible for trail maintenance and campground cleanup, but we did help “mop up” (burying small hotspots with dirt) one fire after the local Hotshots had left. I’ve always admired them for their finely tuned firefighting skills. We sure need them now.
The other morning a Hotshot crew from the Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado checked out, and were on their way to Boulder Basin. A guy named Gary I’d previously dealt with because of voucher paperwork for the crew, turned in his room key.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Yep,” he said.
“No, I mean for what you do,” I said.
“No problem,” he smiled, and shouldered his backpack.
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