A confrontation between firefighters and ranchers on the Tepee Springs Fire near Riggins this year shows how cultures can collide in rural Idaho.
The Forest Service is investigating a report by a firefighter that he and others were harassed and threatened with guns by landowners. The owners of Mountain View Elk Ranch were unhappy that firefighters weren’t attacking the fire directly in the steep terrain around their ranch and home.
It came to a head when the firefighters walked off the line — as they are allowed to do — after the ranchers confronted federal law enforcement officers who came along with firefighters. The ranchers met them with sidearms on their hips.
I was just below the ranch on the Salmon River Road the day before the four-day incident started Sept. 2. Photographer Darin Oswald and I were surveying the fire along the Salmon River in the area many firefighters consider one of the most dangerous places to fight fires in the United States.
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The Salmon River Breaks from North Fork to Riggins are a series of steep, forested canyons with swirling winds that can turn a smoldering camp fire into a raging crown fire. In 2003, the Cramer Fire killed firefighters Shane Heath and Jeff Allen in one of these canyons. In 1985, 72 firefighters deployed their fire shelters when they were trapped together on the Butte Fire in the area.
The Walters, who own the Mountain View Ranch, and others who live up the West Fork of Lake Creek were told to evacuate. They left and came back to defend their home, ranch and the elk and other livestock they have there for shooting. But the fire-management team, responsible for the big picture, decided to keep firefighters from directly fighting the fire in what they considered risky conditions , and went with what they call a confinement strategy in the West Fork.
“As firefighting agencies, we’ve just lost too many firefighters to take unnecessary risks in the Salmon River Breaks to put out flames we don’t feel are threatening containment,” said Brian Harris, a Payette National Forest spokesman.
It worked, since the animals and the home are safe, but the rangeland and forest burned. That is not a success for the Walters, who must now buy feed for their animals.
The Walters also see the burned forest as a waste and a threat to water quality. They have the same views that many Idahoans carry, thanks to 70 years of Smokey the Bear and our own natural fear of fire.
Today, foresters recognize the value of fire in the forest ecosystem and the role it plays in the health of the trees themselves. But it was only a generation ago when most foresters shared the view of many rural Idahoans: See a fire, put it out. And the agencies had no problem putting firefighters in front of blazes to protect timber.
The huge fires that burned through Idaho’s forests this summer are mostly still burning, and won’t go out until the snow falls. Money spent now to put them out not only would be a waste, but also would leave more fuel for the fires next time.
The chasm between the views of these rural Idahoans and the firefighters who protect their homes and ranches is as wide as the Salmon River Canyon. I saw it in Kamiah in August, when residents complained that firefighters hadn’t done enough and in other cases told firefighters to go away.
Even Idaho Gov. Butch Otter — whose personal opinions more closely reflect the locals than the firefighters — defended the fire bosses’ tactics there.
Even if you disagree with firefighters’ strategy and tactics, strapping on a sidearm is almost never a good response. It undercuts whatever moral authority your argument carries and could end up getting someone killed.