For three days residents watched as firefighters fought the flames that burned above their homes and lodges in the Clearwater River canyon.
They were ordered to evacuate Friday morning as a cold front pushing winds of up to 25 mph was expected on the 105th anniversary of the Big Burn, which consumed 1 million acres and killed 78 people in 1910. Like residents of rural communities around Priest Lake, Weippe and Orofino, they waited nervously for the winds that could turn the already fierce blazes burning across North Idaho into firestorms.
But the winds never came. Firefighters on Saturday were going on the offensive for the first time in more than a week, shoring up thin dirt lines and adding reinforcements such as loggers and U.S. Army soldiers.
Jins Ulauannan, an employee at River Dance Lodge on U.S. 12 in Syringa, had watered down the roofs and trimmed brush from around the cabins. His boss, Peter Grubb, bought a firetruck Wednesday to aid their defense.
“The firefighters backburned the lodge Friday, and if the weather holds, we’re going to be good,” Ulauannan said.
Rain fell for 10 minutes in Priest River, where residents north of town were told to prepare to evacuate. The Tower Fire there had begun in Washington and burned into Idaho. Fearful residents filled the phones lines all the way to Sandpoint; the Bonner County sheriff’s website got 19,000 hits Thursday.
Wildfire is a familiar August threat to Southwest and Central Idaho residents. But the wetter forests of North Idaho have not seen a season like this since 1926. Dozens of fires are burning from Porthill on the Canadian border south to Kamiah, Elk City, Riggins and even the McCall area.
More hot weather is forecast for the next week, and officials warn that the extreme fire conditions won’t end until the weather changes and the humidity drops dramatically.
Many of these fires have been left unmanned as national firefighting resources have been used up, forcing officials at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise to call in firefighters from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Tower Fire had just one helicopter Friday, and the 300 Army soldiers who arrived needed training before they could be put on the line.
Many loggers and equipment operators in north-central Idaho volunteered to help fight the fires that burned more than 50 homes near Kamiah on Aug. 14-15. But without training, certification for their equipment and fire bosses to manage them, state and federal officials didn’t want to put them in harm’s way.
So on Tuesday, the Idaho Department of Lands conducted a training session in Orofino; more than 200 loggers came for lessons on safety, operations and how to use fire shelters. Similar sessions were held in Priest River, Bonners Ferry and Moscow.
“There is a lot of fire season left, and it is encouraging to firefighters to know there are so many more trained individuals prepared to assist them if the need arises,” said Idaho Department of Lands area manager Zoanne Anderson. “The high attendance at the training shows the willing spirit and can-do attitude of our loggers in the area.”
‘REALLY TIGHT UP HERE’
Some homeowners took matters into their own hands. Tammy and Mark Crandall were ordered to evacuate from their home northeast of Kamiah on Aug. 14, when the Lawyer Fire burned through the area. It hadn’t reached their canyon a day later, so they and their neighbors returned, building their own fire lines and saving all 14 homes and ranches.
“It was a family thing, everyone came back,” Crandall said. “We’re really tight up here.”
On Aug. 15, federal and state firefighters also showed up. Crandall said residents were glad to see them.
But in Church Canyon, the next canyon to the east, homeowners on Monday confronted Hotshots who came seeking to shore up the defenses there. Firefighters had a single eight-foot bulldozer line between them and the fire, and they wanted to do a burnout — an intentional fire that creates a fuel-free break — as firefighters had done near River Dance Lodge.
“They (residents) didn’t want us to do that,” said Mike Cole, a spokesman for the incident command team managing the Clearwater Complex of fires from Kooskia to Pierce. “They thought we should hold that fire with the line in place.”
With winds carrying firebrands as far as 2 miles ahead of the fire into extremely dry forests and grasses, fire managers aren’t confident such lines will hold. But since the wind did not arrive Friday, they have more time to build bigger fuel-free zones on many of the existing lines.
STATE AND PRIVATE LAND
The Lawyer Fire that burned around Kamiah started on private land and is burning in a mix of state and federal lands, with Idaho responsible under the cooperative agreements used for managing wildfire. That has put Idaho State Forester David Groeschl in the same place federal firefighters are nationally.
“Where life and structures are at risk, we have to prioritize,” Groeschl said.
That means thousands of acres of state endowment forest lands already have burned and even more could before the season is over. Most of the state’s highly productive forests are in the north, including the Priest Lake State Forest on the east side of Priest Lake, just a few miles from the Tower Fire.
These are the lands managed for maximum return where logging sales produce millions of dollars for state schools and other agencies. They also are some of the most intensively managed forests in the state.
“What we’ve seen, in areas that are managed in moderate burning conditions, the fire has remained (moving comparatively slowly) on the ground,” Groeschl said. “When we have a range of extreme conditions — high winds, dry fuels, when it gets on the extreme end of things — it will burn, managed or unmanaged.”
Until a week ago, Idaho’s bill for fighting fires was $16 million. In the past week, the state added eight incident command teams and hundreds of firefighters, at an additional cost of $7 million to $10 million, Groeschl said. That will come out of Idaho’s general fund. And it could get worse.
Still, some residents of Kamiah have been unhappy with the firefighting effort that left more than 50 homes burned and many residents still sleeping in public buildings set up as temporary shelters.
Elbert Hendren, a contractor from Kamiah, said firefighters stood around for three days and allowed the Lawyer Fire to grow.
“That really upset me,” Hendren said.
Cole said firefighters have been working through the night and in locations the public often can’t see. But once the initial attack is past, he acknowledged, it’s difficult even with maximum resources to stop fire burning in extreme conditions.
In what has become an unfortunately commonplace process in the past week, Hendren said he’s talked to his insurance adjuster. He learned much of his property wasn’t covered under his policy. All of his personal things are gone.
“I’m just glad my daughter, my son and my grandchildren are safe,” he said.