Idaho Gov. Butch Otter told reporters last week, after touring the Trinity Ridge and Halstead fires by helicopter, that he backed federal firefighting commanders plans for protecting his state.
His support for the plans putting resources in front of communities, while allowing the fires to burn into wilderness and where past fires have reduced fuels shows that the West is evolving to accept the new realities of fire.
Like hundreds of others who own second homes in the forest communities along the South Fork of the Boise River, Otter had been up at his cabin in Pine the week before getting it ready for the fire at his door.
It seems like it takes an incident like this to get people to do what they should have done before, Otter said.
He and his wife, Lori, raked up pine needles and carried the wood stacked on the porch away from the house. They made it ready for the day they hope never comes, when firefighters have to decide what they can protect and what they must sacrifice.
The firefighting community is still recovering from the ultimate sacrifice made by 20-year-old Moscow firefighter Anne Veseth. She died Aug. 12 when a tree fell on her while fighting a 43-acre fire in northern Idaho.
Otter talked about her death and what the loss means to her family. And he expressed confidence that federal and state firefighting commanders are placing first priority on the health and safety of the thousands of men and women like Veseth on the front lines.
We just dont want to see that happen again, Otter said.
Fire is not new Otter. He was a wildland firefighter in his youth.
When he came into office in 2007, the toughest season in Idaho since 1910 gave Otter his own trial by fire. It began when he joined Republican Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo in a press conference in July of that year condemning federal fire officials for allowing the Murphy Complex Fire to burn out of control.
Otter had been told by ranchers in the area that the fire, which grew to 652,000 acres before it died out, could have been stopped. Ranchers had lost hundreds of cattle and access to grazing; they were convinced that had they been allowed to use their own bulldozers to cut lines in the initial hours of the fire, they could have stopped it.
Otter called the rules regulating firefighting The Dont Book. He said relaxed rules could have allowed crews to stop the fire.
I think we need to have more flexibility, he said.
His remarks alienated the firefighting community, which was facing fire behavior it had never seen before, officials said. Conditions went beyond their ability to monitor.
Some recalled that a Salmon area rancher was burned on his bulldozer when he tried to cut a fire line in 2000.
Otter was expressing more than his opinion that day. He was influenced by a set of values that made putting out fires the moral equivalent of war, as author Stephen Pyne described it.
The early Forest Service integrated those values into its own creation myth in the wake of the huge Idaho fires of 1910, pushing for a policy of putting out all fires. In war, unfortunately, there are acceptable casualties.
When the role of fire in the ecosystem became widely understood in the early 1990s, and 14 firefighters were killed in a fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., in 1994, that policy officially ended.
But some still cling to those beliefs, as demonstrated in the safety report filed by a Montana Hotshot crew leader the day before Veseth died. He and his team saw numerous snags rolling down the steep hills and injuring inmate firefighters. People were fighting the fire without fireproof clothing, like that rancher on his bulldozer in 2000, desperately trying to put out the fire before it got out of control.
We told him we had a list of safety concerns and mitigations if he would like to hear them, a Hotshot wrote in that report. We read him our list and he said they have a different set of values and do things differently.
Otters tone had already changed in 2007, after he toured a series of fires, culminating in the Castle Creek Fire. That raging blaze was halted on the edge of Ketchum, saving millions if not billions of dollars of homes and businesses.
But last weeks support for the commanders nuanced plans to save Otters neighbors in Pine and Featherville, as well as communities like Idaho City, Stanley and Sunbeam, was unusually strong.
Theyve got a good plan and theyre working that plan, Otter said. They know what theyre doing.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484