It’s November, and as rain falls and snow whitens the mountains, another Western fire season is over. It was a record-breaking summer. The National Interagency Fire Center (a consortium of federal public lands agencies) in Boise, Idaho, tells us that across the West 4,191 “structures” burned, and of those, 2,196 were private homes. Property losses are still being tallied, but insurance companies will pay out $450 million in Colorado alone. Fourteen thousand square miles, or roughly nine million acres (the size of Maryland) of mostly public land were scorched.
There were notable named conflagrations in Colorado such as High Park near Denver and Waldo Canyon near Colorado Springs, and in Idaho (Hallstead near Stanley; Mustang near Salmon; Trinity Ridge near Boise). New Mexico saw the Whitewater-Baldy Fire on the Gila National Forest, at 465 square miles (297,000 acres) the largest in state history. The Waldo Canyon Fire took the grand prize for structures burned with 347. A hot, dry summer coupled with ongoing conditions of heavy fuel loads in pine beetle-infested forests (thanks to past fire suppression and little timber harvest on federal land) has brought us record fire seasons in the West for the last two decades.
According to a story in Montana’s Missoulian newspaper, recent seasons have seen a sevenfold increase in fires greater than 10,000 acres as compared to the 1970s, and five times more fires larger than 25,000 acres. Current seasons are an average of 75 days longer. Is this last the result of the factors noted above, or those factors and climate change proceeding in tandem? So goes the endless argument on the public lands in the West.
In late August, 45 major fires were burning simultaneously across the West, the smoke affecting local air quality for weeks. Where I live in Salmon, Idaho, flecks of ash like snow flurries courtesy of the Mustang Fire drifted out of the hazy sky and settled on sidewalks and windshields. People, especially the elderly, wore blue surgical masks as they went about their daily business. Every evening a blood-red sun set behind a faded outline of mountains to the west, and returned the same color every morning over the jagged Continental Divide to the east. The Idaho Falls Post-Register told us that Salmon recorded 17 “unhealthy” and 13 “very unhealthy” Air Quality days — one month total — between August 1 and October 24. Another 64 days were rated merely “poor.” During all that time my town, located in a valley in the Rockies, had air quality comparable to a city such as Los Angeles.
My eyes smarted and occasionally teared up, and breathing reminded me of my cigarette smoking days. Local roads were periodically closed due to heavy smoke and reopened, and a few people were temporarily evacuated from their homes, though none were lost. I have friends thirty miles north in Gibbonsville, Idaho, who spent a month on edge as the Mustang Fire burned nearby and the U.S. Forest Service kept the town on “pre-evacuation” status in case the fire came its way. Rafting outfitters saw their river trade suffer on the main Salmon River and its Middle Fork. Tourists generally stayed away, and merchants were glad to have the business that came their way from both individual firefighters and the Forest Service contracts that supplied the fire camps.
Another aspect of wildland firefighting are the support camps located near big fires. The camp near North Fork, Idaho, that the U.S. Forest Service set up to battle the Mustang Fire was the size of a small town, as 800 people (firefighters, support staff, etc.) came and went. The scene was reminiscent of Civil War photographs of army encampments as hundreds of tents (and portable sanitary, shower, and kitchen facilities) dotted a pasture near North Fork (pop. 204).
A young woman named Anne Veseth, 20, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter, was killed when a burning tree fell on her in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest. She joined seven fellow firefighters (mostly air tanker crew members) who died in the field this year. In June a plane crash on a fire in Utah took the lives of two Idaho men, Todd Tompkins and Ronnie Chambers. Another crash in South Dakota this summer killed four, as a donated North Carolina Air National Guard C-130 went down. This brings to twenty the number of aircraft related fatalities recorded since 1987. An aging fleet of air tankers has become a chronic problem.
The standard Lockheed 2V fleet has been in service since the 1960s, and some recently retired aircraft even dated to the Korean War. The airplanes are used to drop fire retardant chemicals or “slurry” directly onto forest fires, which occur mostly in remote, difficult terrain. The list of accidents includes crashes onto mountainsides and into canyons.
After the recent disasters a number of planes in the U.S. Forest Service fleet were grounded for inspections. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center lent the U.S. Forest Service three CV-580 propeller-driven twin engine planes. The Forest Service has a $24 million budget allocated for aerial firefighting. As Forest Service spokesman Tom Harbour told the Missoulian: “We know we can’t have all the aviation we want.” Congress has allocated $365 million for contracts for new aircraft, though these new planes will take five years to deliver.
Individual states carry their share of the firefighting burden. Utah, for example, spent $50 million to battle blazes within its borders as of September 1, astronomically surpassing the $3 million per year that the state legislature usually allocates. In Washington state, that’s $20 million as compared to $11 million allocated.
Idaho’s total bill in federal and state expenditures was $189 million as of October 4. The Big Three (Mustang, Halstead, and Trinity Ridge) accounted for approximately $100 million. They burned 665,000 acres; roughly 40% of the statewide total of 1.7 million acres. All told, more than 1,000 separate fires of disparate severity charred the Idaho landscape this season.
Like death, taxes, and the re-election of the president, Westerners stoically endure the annual wildland inferno.
1,035 Words. Bill Croke is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.
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