Each year my editor Bill Manny and others at the Idaho Statesman and I have a meeting to map out our coverage of fire season. We examine the weather up to that point in the spring. At the end of the the year we gather what we have learned from 30 years of covering fire in the West.
We try to present readers with the latest news from the scientific, economic, governmental and civic community about wildfire and build on what we have reported before. This year we once again reported a fact I learned in 1988 but remains controversial among people who have never been around a big fire.
When the humidity drops to single digits, the wind rises to above 40 miles per hour, temperatures are in the 90s and the fuels are extremely dry, almost nothing is going to stop a big fire. We saw it at the Soda Fire and at what became known as the Clearwater Complex and the Tepee fire this year. Only the human spirit is as powerful.
Fire came this year to North Idaho like it hasn’t since 1926 and on the anniversary of the 1910 Fire’s Big Blowup it appeared like history was going to repeat itself. On Friday the Idaho Statesman will have a report on the cascading consequences of big fires that are reshaping our landscape and our attitudes.
It will build on the reporting we did in 2013 where ecological researchers like Monica Turner at the University of Wisconsin, Penelope Morgan at the University of Idaho and Jen Pierce at Boise State showed the lands we love are going to be reshaped by fire over the next 50 years. National Geographic picked up on our reports earlier this month with its own report about how what they call megafires are reshaping the West.
They quote Dick Bahr, an Interior Department fire ecologist who has been one of my best sources since 2000 and who was in Yellowstone with me in 1988 fighting fire for the National Park Service. They also quote me repeating something he told me and the City Club in 2013: If you like Boise then you ought to move to Coeur d’Alene because that’s what it will look like in the future.
In 2008, Heath Druzin and I did a series on fire called: FireWise? We reported then that we spend billions attacking almost every wildfire. Yet scientists say that's bad for the forest, can put firefighters in unnecessary danger and doesn't protect communities as well- or as cheaply - as we now know how to do.
Soon after it ran, the Oregon Trail Fire burned into Columbia Village and the advice of fire experts like Jack Cohen that clearing brush and other flammables and requiring fireproof roofs around homes can decide which homes survive and which don’t, was showed to Boise residents .
A note: it also put me in front of the flames again for the first times since I was forced to run for my life during the Old Faithful firestorm 27 ago this week. I returned again this August with Katherine Jones on Wilson Creek Road in Owyhee County during the Soda Fire.
Repeatedly we told how a combination of thinning and burning to reduce fuel in the low elevation ponderosa pine forest that grows in much of the Boise National Forest can reduce the fury of fire and bring it from the crowns of the pines to the ground where it can be controlled except in extrme conditions. The Idaho Statesman had been reporting a version of this well understood scientific story since I arrived in 1996. We told it again in 2000, a banner year for fire across the West and here in the northern Rockies.
In 2007, Dick Bahr, and others told me they were seeing fire behavior across the West like they had never seen before. Even with all the firefighters on the scene and all the equipment they needed they couldn’t stop new fires because they were growing too big too fast.
I had heard that before in 1988 where both Bahr and I had seen fire behavior largely unseen since 1910. This year I heard it again but from Idaho State Forester David Groeschl and even from officials who had previously argued we could greatly reduce the costs of fires if we only logged more.
Fire continues to change our world faster than we can understand. But as I report Friday, we are adapting.