Rocky Barker: The wildfire journey from Yellowstone, 1988

Idaho StatesmanDecember 16, 2013 

Firefighters watch as the Elk Complex fire burns in Pine, Aug. 12, 2013.

JOE JASZEWSKI — jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

My favorite stories seem to revolve around journeys.

Jick McCaskill rides with his dad to supply sheep herders in Ivan Doig’s “English Creek.” Along the way he comes of age in early 20th-century Montana. Brigham Young leads the Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley in Vardis Fisher’s “Children of God.” It’s free-spirited Dean Moriarty discovering imponderables in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

In each of these stories the characters learn about the land they inhabit and about themselves. My journey from the Yellowstone fires of 1988 has told us such a story.

Each year, we have a meeting at the Idaho Statesman to map out our coverage of fire season. We examine the weather up to that point in the spring.

We gather stories we have heard in the offseason that should be examined when temperatures rise and humidity drops. Anniversaries provide opportunities to look back and see where we have come.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the fires that burned through our public awareness of ecological change like a crown fire through a hand-dug fire line. It was the signal fire of climate change, only we couldn’t really see it until we looked back.

In 2008, Heath Druzin and I did a series on fire called “FireWise?” We reported then that we spend billions attacking almost every wildfire. Yet scientists say that’s bad for the forest, can put firefighters in unnecessary danger and doesn’t protect communities as well — or as cheaply — as we now know how to do. Soon after it ran, the Oregon Trail Fire burned into Columbia Village. Boise residents saw the effect of advice of fire experts such as Jack Cohen, that clearing brush and other flammables around homes and requiring fireproof roofs can decide which homes survive.

We told how a combination of thinning and burning to reduce fuel in the low-elevation ponderosa pine forest that makes up much of the Boise National Forest can reduce the fury of fire and bring it from the crowns of the pines to the ground, where it can be controlled. This wasn’t a new story.

The Idaho Statesman had been reporting a version of this well-understood scientific story since I arrived in 1996. We told it again in 2000, a banner year for fire across the West and here in the northern Rockies.

In 2007, National Park Service Fire Ecologist Dick Bahr and others told me they were seeing fire behavior across the West like they had never seen before. Even with all the firefighters on the scene and all the equipment they needed, they couldn’t stop new fires because they were growing too big, too fast.

I had heard that before in 1988, when both Bahr and I had seen fire behavior largely unseen since 1910. It gave me pause.

This year I heard it again, but there was more.

Hundreds of thousands of acres burned in the Pony, Elk Complex and Beaver Creek fires southeast of Boise in a couple of days, even incinerating forests that had been thinned and managed for 20 years. The folks in Fall Creek saw their homes and cabins turned to ash in a tight canyon that fire experts and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter described as indefensible.

In Colorado Springs this year and last and in Pocatello, entire neighborhoods were burning up because, as Cohen’s research showed, we were only beginning to understand how fire burns from wild land into urban areas. Once houses start on fire, what happens on the public lands surrounding our communities becomes almost irrelevant.

When 19 firefighters died while trying to protect Yarnell, Ariz., it became clear this reality has not yet fully been appreciated by the firefighting community. Yet I reported this year how the Idaho Department of Lands and private forest protective associations joined federal agencies in the recognition that saving trees and even homes wasn’t worth people’s lives.

We have come a long way from the time when the father of Doig’s Jick McCaskill was fired because he allowed a fire to get out of control. Now some fire bosses have even faced criminal charges when they forgot the people they put on the lines.

Ultimately, my editors directed me to examine how fire was not only changing our world faster than we understood, but faster than we can understand. It’s one of those imponderables.

Bahr and others broke through my own denial to help me see how much the lands I love are going to transform over the next 50 years. If you like Boise climate, in 50 years you might have to live in Coeur d’Alene.

I turned to fire expert, historian and poet Stephen Pyne for a way to tell the story of our journey at this point on the highway.

“Our task is not to fix what can’t be fixed,” Pyne told me, “but to pass between the flames as best we can.”

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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