Letters from the West

Rocky Barker: Human spirit can compete with fire’s power

One hundred and five years ago today, the Big Blowup of 1910 was in its second day.

It’s déjà vu all over again.

Fire this August has burned across the state, from Porthill to Homedale, with a ferocity that has left scores of families homeless, killed hundreds of livestock and wildlife, and burned through thousands of acres of rangelands and forests, resources that are the foundation of the lives of many Idahoans.

The fires are still burning, and experts don’t see an end for weeks or even months.

The details are different this year than in 1910. Back then, more than 1 million acres of forests burned in two days in Idaho and Montana, killing 78 people. These days we are better able to get people out of the way of wildfire. Sadly, firefighter fatalities continue to remind us of the risks these heroes take to protect our resources and property. But fire managers have learned from these tragedies and are much more careful about placing personnel in front of infernos when it’s hot, dry and windy.

But there remain voices in our communities who believe that if we just had more equipment, firefighters and will, we could stop these fires. Others believe we can halt fires through better or more aggressive land management.

Having been out on the fire lines this month, I found the one force that can overcome the awesome power of wildfire: the human spirit.

I saw it with the outpouring of help from Treasure Valley residents for their neighbors in Owyhee County, and for the firefighters who risked their lives to save homes and wildlife habitat.

I saw families unloading food and water donated for the firefighters and ranchers caught up in the Soda Fire. At the University of Idaho Extension office in Marsing, little girls had tears in their eyes as they unloaded pickups filled with boxes of supplies.

I saw a man stop along the road where firefighters were mopping up the still-burning fire. He went to the back of his small truck and pulled out a cooler of water and carried bottles to each of the thirsty firefighters.

I saw ranchers working day and night to help their neighbors find their tired, dead and injured cattle and horses. They were holding back tears, because they knew if the tears came they might not stop. Other people across Southwest Idaho were offering temporary and even long-term pasture land for the ranchers who face years of waiting before they can return their cattle to the range.

Up north in Kamiah, people are inviting neighbors who lost homes to stay with them.

I got a call from Brenda Richards, Owyhee County’s treasurer and a rancher who lost 90 percent of her grazing range along with her cattle in the Soda Fire. She spent the week on horseback, looking for cattle and horses. She could have been angry, frustrated and despairing.

Richards instead praised the effort of the Bureau of Land Management in fighting the fire and working with ranchers to try to save their stock. She’s got issues with many of the agency’s management policies. But instead of attacking agency officials, she talked about the opportunity to work with them to make ranching and the range more resilient.

She’s hopeful. She told the story of a small, wet patch of unburned willows on her own land. Two coyotes were standing there and, as she approached, 20 deer bolted away. As she got even closer, she found six sage grouse huddled together. Isaiah 11 comes to mind: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together.”

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