Everyone appreciates how firefighters risk their lives, often working 24 hours straight or more to contain blazes that come earlier, last longer and burn hotter than ever. But fewer appreciate the tough decisions they and their bosses are forced to make when fire is burning across the landscape.
The loss of three firefighters in Washington shows once again how hard it is to escape fire in extreme conditions, when high winds create firestorms whose ferocity becomes unpredictable. Nonetheless, hundreds of people line up to volunteer to join the fight and to put their lives at risk.
Many of the people volunteering are frustrated that federal fire officials don’t just let them go out and get on the fire lines to protect the places they care about. Oregon ranchers expressed those views during the heat of the Soda Fire.
They wanted the flexibility to use their equipment and their own strategies to fight the blaze. Idaho ranchers, who joined rangeland fire protection associations under the auspices of the Idaho Department of Lands, don’t have that problem.
They work in concert with the Bureau of Land Management and other fire teams as a part of the larger effort and fire managers praised their efforts across Southern Idaho. They have been certified and trained; fire bosses know they can depend on these ranchers to follow orders and make good personal decisions to protect their lives and the lives of others.
The same is true of the loggers who were trained in North Idaho, getting themselves and their equipment certified to join the understaffed fight. But I still spoke with many people who grumbled about the way the firefighters work and who think they should be getting out in front of angry fires to save the range or the forest that is important to their livelihood.
Land managers and firefighters now largely recognize that when fire conditions are so extreme, it is folly — and possibly even criminal — to put firefighters in front of these conflagrations.
Statesman photographer Katherine Jones and I saw the Soda Fire’s extreme behavior Aug. 14 when it ran from the foothills along Wilson Road to Idaho 78.
We parked halfway up the road as the fire ran through sagebrush and bitterbrush like a crown fire through a forest, creating a miles-long line of fire that burned to the road. We got out of its way and drove behind it, until retardant drops and a valiant effort to protect a home cooled the fire down and slowed it enough to stop it at the highway.
It’s a testament to the work of those firefighters that no homes burned and no people died.
The Tepee Fire near New Meadows and many fires up north will remain a threat to communities. Firefighters will be fighting them until snow falls.
Some 29,000 firefighters are out there fighting fire across the West, the most since 2000.
The Andrus Center for Public Policy published a white paper in 2002, and a follow-up in 2004, which I wrote with Boise State University Professor John Freemuth and Andrus Center President Marc Johnson. It called for more cooperation between agencies and more collaboration on preventive measures to make communities safer and protect resources.
But few called for more money for fighting fires. There was a growing recognition that just 3 percent of the fires turn into the kind of major blazes that become so costly. More money and more firefighting won’t change that. But as Congress appears ready to change the way it pays for firefighting — treating fires like the natural disasters they are — perhaps we need to ask new questions.
Do we need a larger force and an international treaty to better coordinate firefighting forces worldwide?
Do we need to do more to make people, communities and states responsible when their policies make firefighting more dangerous and expensive?
Do we need to take a harder look at how we allow people to build deep into the woods, without fire adequate protection? Is it really the state and national taxpayer who should shoulder the cost of protecting rich people’s second homes?
These are just some of the questions that we’ll all be pondering, long after the snows of fall smother the last embers of the fires of 2015.