One Lightning Strike Away From Disaster
Sam Bonovich steers his truck up the steep rutted road on the outskirts of this Boise Front community that is a collection of trailers, shacks and a few carpenter-built homes.
The chief of the Clear Creek Fire Department heads into thick forest, which is nearly all private and unmanaged, and talks about one of Idahoans’ greatest fears: wildfires.
When the Walker Fire broke out here in the Grimes Creek drainage just to the east, Bonovich tried singlehandedly to stop a fire that a cabin owner had sparked trying to burn pine needles around his shack.
“You can’t prepare for stupid,” Bonovich said.
The fire got away from Bonovich and later his department in the extremely warm, dry conditions of Oct. 10 and eventually grew to 6,000 acres. It destroyed three cabins and added almost $5 million to the nearly $80 million tab the Idaho Department of Lands had this year from fighting fires — a record and a 600 percent increase over the average of recent years.
Like the Lawyer Complex that became the Clearwater Complex around Kamiah in August, the Walker Fire started on private land and burned in a zone where fire is managed by the state, not federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service.
Bonovich is always negotiating gulches and narrow canyons lined with homes — many accessed by a single thin driveway — nestled in the forest canopy. It’s the same in places such as French Creek, where the Tepee Springs Fire burned east of Riggins, and up in Church Canyon, northeast of Kamiah, where homeowners confronted firefighters and told them to leave after 48 homes burned.
“These people all think they know what the (Forest Service) should do,” Bonovich said. “It doesn’t matter what you do on the forest. It’s what they do on their land that counts.”
Bonovich, the top volunteer in a department of volunteers, is working with a group of local officials, federal and state foresters, timber companies, environmentalists, bikers, skiers, anglers and others on projects to thin and log the national forest around Robie Creek and north to the Bogus Basin area — all in hopes of reducing the load of forest fuels that can power a conflagration.
The collaborating parties have reached consensus on the Bogus Basin project, and the U.S. Forest Service hopes to have a plan out for public comment soon, which would be the next in a series of steps to get the plan approved, funded and then into the forest.
We’re a lightning strike away from disaster. Should any of this ever get started up in there where we can’t reach it ... it’s going to go over the top ... into Bogus and it’s going to keep on going until it gets to Boise.
Sam Bonovich, Clear Creek Fire Chief
But Bonovich doesn’t want to wait for that process to play out. He wants the Idaho Legislature to budget funds for thinning and other fire-prevention projects on private lands, to go along with the tens of millions Idaho taxpayers will end up paying for fighting fires this season.
The federal government provides money for such projects through a competitive program that requires a local match.
“It will probably burn before you get this (federal) project started,” Bonovich said. “When it goes, it goes. It’s going to cost a lot more than a thinning project.”
FOCUSING ON THE INTERFACE
Nationwide, 46 million houses lie within the “wildland-urban interface” and are vulnerable to wildfire. Many are in the East, where wetter conditions make wildfire rare. The challenge lies in the West, where 1.9 million homes have been built since 1990 in the middle ground between wild and human landscapes.
So far, just 16 percent of this fire-prone zone has been developed, but growth is adding 4,000 acres a day. Still, most of the debate over the rising cost and growing size and ferocity of wildfires has focused on the federal lands that make up the majority of land mass in many Western states, including Idaho.
Author Stephen Pyne says the fire debate should focus instead on this zone around communities and homes. The Arizona State University professor, who has written scores of books about fire after spending 15 years on a Hotshot crew, has written a history of contemporary fire and firefighting called “Between Two Fires.”
He says the nation first tried fully suppressing fire in the early 1900s, and that worked until fuels built up, making fires hotter and more ferocious. Then in the 1960s, the U.S. began an experiment in restoring fire to some landscapes through prescribed burning.
Fifty years later, this strategy of burning and thinning has proved insufficient. Along with a changing climate, we now face annual crises that this year put 32,000 firefighters — at a cost of more than $2 billion — on the 3 percent of fires across the West that turned into megafires.
Politicians in Utah, Idaho and other Western states argue that transferring control of federal land back to the states would solve the fire problem. But Pyne and others argue that there are several fire problems, and none larger or more important than protecting homes and people.
Instead of transferring control of lands to the states, Pyne recommends transferring control of the wildland-urban interface zone to states and local governments.
“Having the Forest Service providing coverage for the WUI is just nuts,” Pyne said.
Fire and its effects are local, he said. States and local governments can best decide how to harden their communities and decide what logging and thinning should take place around homes. If those states and communities choose to allow people to build deep into the undeveloped forest without taking proper steps, or if they want to keep scenic trees, they can pay the appropriate firefighting costs, he said.
“I think you have to negotiate everybody’s rights,” Pyne said.
He knows such a shift won’t happen immediately. But management decisions at the national and local level can make it easier to live with fire, Pyne said.
“We can negotiate with fire,” he said. “We are not helpless.”
Bonovich negotiates every day with property owners who love him when he arrives to fight a fire but sometimes carry a gun and shoo him away when he comes to tell them to stop burning illegally.
“The problem is there are some who would pull the trigger,” he said.
He said he doesn’t care whether the house is a shack or an expensive lodge — what matters is that homeowners are willing to carve out the defensible space around the buildings that his crews will need to protect when the fire comes.
Bonovich knows what it’s like to watch your life go up in smoke. His childhood home burned in Illinois. “I lost everything but the clothes on my back,” he said.
On his tour of the rural home sites in the Clear Creek area, Bonovich met with Dave Walker, who lives near where the fire that carries his name started last month. Walker’s home survived because he had cleared brush and other fuels.
“I’d glad I got my pump working in the creek for my sprinklers,” Walker said.
Bonovich likes the idea of shifting the responsibility for protecting the WUI from the federal agencies to the state and local governments. He knows that will come with costs, but it will make new rules easier to swallow.
“People don’t like the (federal) government telling them what to do,” he said.
Idaho State Forester David Groeschl said he doesn’t want to tell people what to do, either. But this year the state was in charge of putting out fires on 75,000 acres. Getting people to be more responsible could help reduce property loss and taxpayer costs.
740,000The number of acres that burned in Idaho in 2015
The Walker Fire and the Clearwater Complex were his to fight, and overall Groeschl called in 27 expensive national incident command teams to fight 14 state fires. He’s already looking ahead, working with counties on planning and zoning so they understand the costs when they don’t require people to make their homes and developments safe.
Idaho County, for instance, has no zoning ordinance at all.
“For me a big part of this is getting folks who live in these communities to recognize their shared responsibilities,” Groeschl said.
In “Between Two Fires,” noted fire historian Stephen Pyne recounts how after the1910 fires, a policy of fire suppression became a costly all-out war. It was replaced by a mix of prescribed fire and suppression that fell short of its goals and led to the era of megafires. Pyne also is the author of “Fire in America” and “World Fire.”