Fires

Incident commander comes home to Idaho to fight Lowman’s latest megafire

Fire boss Beth Lund talks about Lowman megafires

Incident commander Beth Lund was a firefighter on the 1989 Lowman firestorm. She came home to lead the fight against the Pioneer Fire, another megafire. (Rocky Barker)
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Incident commander Beth Lund was a firefighter on the 1989 Lowman firestorm. She came home to lead the fight against the Pioneer Fire, another megafire. (Rocky Barker)

Beth Lund handed over command Wednesday of the 1,600 firefighters battling the 65,000-acre Pioneer Fire that surrounded Lowman, the community where she raised her two children and lived for 18 years.

Lund is one of the nation’s 15 Type 1 incident commanders, the generals of U.S. specialized firefighting leadership crews. The 1989 Lowman fire was her first megafire, huge conflagrations that burn tens of thousands of acres and take control of their own weather.

But such fires were rarely seen in the first decade of her career, which she began in 1976 as a Hotshot first-response firefighter in California and as assistant fire management officer on the Boise National Forest’s Lowman District.

On July 26, 1989, Lund was leading crews fighting fires near Lowman where thousands of trees had blown down in 1986. As the relative humidity dropped and the afternoon turned hot, Lund watched two convection clouds form and swirl together, creating a giant pyrocumulus mass of smoke and ash that rose high into the stratosphere.

Chris and Beth Armour became owners of the South Fork Lodge just weeks prior to the Pioneer Fire. "(Fire) is part of being in the mountains," says Chris. But they didn't expect fire to come so soon.

She and the fire veterans she was standing with had never seen anything like it.

“I saw those two older guys, just the look on their faces, their eyes got big,” Lund said. “‘Holy moly, this is serious stuff.’ ”

Today, megafires are almost routine. The Pioneer Fire that was detected July 18 already fits that description and had created its own giant column of fire earlier this month.

It took fire managers a few years to adjust to the new, fiercer behavior firefighters saw in Yellowstone in 1988 and Lowman in 1989. But as Lund and others of the new generation took command in the 1990s, they started rethinking the practices of putting firefighters in front of dangerous fires they can’t stop.

“Certainly it’s something as a young firefighter that imprints on you,” Lund said.

ROTATING LEADERSHIP

National teams like Lund’s lead a large firefight for two weeks and then take a few days off before heading to the next fire. Last year, residents of Riggins and Kamiah complained because they didn’t believe such national teams had the local knowledge to react quickly.

Larry Cromwell, Lowman resident, remembers the Lowman Complex conflagration 1989. "It was a lot scarier than this one," he says comparing it to today's Pioneer Fire, "but that isn't to say this one wasn't scary."

But Lund, one of two women who are incident commanders, was welcomed home by Lowman and Boise County residents, many of whom know her personally. They know she understands both the physical and cultural landscape. Lowman’s population, in the 2010 Census, was 42.

Larry Cromwell, a lifelong Lowman resident with a house along the South Fork of the Payette River, called Lund “a very competent individual.”

In community meetings, she was frank about the fire conditions but also open to residents’ concerns about access, brush clearing and evacuations, he said.

“She was extremely gracious,” he said.

Having Beth Lund here was great.

Trish Woodruff, Lowman cabin owner

Lund said the feeling was mutual.

“People in Boise County have lived with fire,” Lund said. “They ask pretty good questions.”

THEN AND NOW

The big difference between the 1989 Lowman Complex Fire and the Pioneer Fire today is that the area was largely unburned in 1989.

Past management and aggressive fire suppression had left the forest more vulnerable to fire, not less. From 1960 to 1989, the Forest Service put out 70 fires in the Lowman area. Many of the largest ponderosa pines had been logged, leaving mostly smaller fir trees.

The traditional mature stands of 60 large trees per acre had grown into thickets of 1,500 trees per acre providing lots of fuel, along with the dead trees from the 1986 downburst. All that was needed were lightning and hot, dry conditions.

But growth of the Pioneer Fire has been limited by the Lowman Complex Fire and a series of fires that have burned since 1989. Lund points to the 47,000-acre scar of the Lowman fire that surrounds many of the spread-out homes of the unincorporated mountain community as a buffer that has made them easier to protect. Fire managers have been able to herd the fire into those previously burned areas to slow it down.

“The story of this fire is that it was impeded by these old burns,” Lund said.

COMING HOME

Lund, 61, has a home in Garden Valley. When not on the fire lines, she works as a fire official in the Forest Service regional office in Ogden, Utah. Idahoans may recognize her as the incident commander during the critical burning of the 2013 Beaver Creek Fire on the edges of Hailey and Ketchum.

Her calm openness under the media spotlight there grew her reputation as a leader.

“Even in the diciest moments as she bounces from gathering recon to live TV on demand, to fielding questions from strangers, with nearly every step she takes, she remains unflustered — even when she delivers unsavory news,” the Idaho Mountain Express wrote in 2013.

You can’t be talking about models and BTUs (British Thermal Units) and predictions. They just want to know in clear terms: What is the danger and what’s going to happen?

Beth Lund

She began her career as a firefighter after junior college, rising to become a Hotshot squad boss before coming to Lowman as a fuels manager in 1983. Her ex-husband, Bruce, still lives in Lowman and is a volunteer firefighter. They raised their children, Casey and Allison, there.

Casey is a television journalist in Spokane and Allison followed her mother into firefighting, working as a Hotshot. She was clearing a fire line on the ridge above Lowman on Tuesday.

Despite the success of protecting homes and lives during the Pioneer Fire, Lund has no illusions that it will be out soon.

“As soon as we get in the 90s and the humidity drops,” Lund said, “this fire will take off again.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Yesterday’s fires help today

Since 1986, more than 55 percent of the 2.2 million-acre Boise National Forest has burned. The Pioneer Fire already has burned into the 154,000 acres of the 1994 Rabbit Fire. And firefighters are using the burned-over area from the 1989 Lowman Complex Fire to establish a defense line to keep the fire out of Lowman.

When a fire burns into an area scorched by an older fire, its behavior changes depending on its intensity and the intensity of the previous fire. The Rabbit Fire burned hot, but like all fires left areas of lightly burned forest in a natural mosaic pattern.

As the Pioneer Fire burned into the Rabbit Fire, it dropped from the crowns of the trees to the ground, where it is easier to control. The Rabbit Fire acts as a southern boundary that should limit the growth of the Pioneer Fire to the south.

The 1989 Lowman Complex Fire left the slopes around Lowman denuded for two decades despite replanting, leaving large brush fields that are slowing the fires this year because they are not very dry yet.

The Trapper Ridge Fire burned about 18,500 acres of forest 28 miles northeast of Idaho City in 2007. It was designated a “fire use” fire at the time and was allowed to burn to play its natural role on the landscape.

Rocky Barker

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