Letters from the West

In age of megafires, firefighters shouldn’t be receiving blame

Every year, firefighters put out 97 percent of all wildfires that get started.

Many of the other 3 percent explode into the megafires that can burn tens of thousands of acres in a single day during extreme conditions that foresters acknowledge cannot be tamed or even moderated by forest management. But that doesn’t stop the people who suffer the loss of homes, business or clear air from placing the blame on the people or agencies who weren’t able to stop the fires.

In 1988, my first big story of the Yellowstone fires was about how Forest Service firefighters blamed national park rules against bulldozers for the escape of the largest fire of that season. Had firefighters been able to get a line around the fire that first night, a crew chief told me, they could have controlled the fire that had started in the national forest with a woodcutter’s tossed cigarette.

A review panel afterward said even building that fire line would have given no more than a 50 percent chance of halting the wind-driven fire, which sent burning embers bigger than bowling balls a half a mile ahead, starting spot fires. Since few of the folks on the review panel had seen such fire behavior, I think today that they were overly optimistic that anything could have stopped that fire.

Today, scientists and forest managers recognize that Western forests evolved with fire and that removing fire from the natural life-cycle has not protected the forests — in many cases, it has added fuels to the forests that make fires even more explosive. But even those decades of fire suppression are secondary as a driver of megafires to the warmer and drier climate that is making the fire season longer and fiercer.

But the basic belief that we can and should control nature dies hard, especially in rural communities that also have watched their timber industry all but disappear. That belief became the basis for a series and editorial a week ago by The Oregonian about 2015’s 110,000-acre Canyon Creek Fire in eastern Oregon.

In the series they researched for a year, reporters Laura Gunderson and Ted Sickinger effectively captured the loss and the heartbreak of the residents whose homes and timber burned in the fire. Their analysis needed something to blame — and they found it.

Their research showed, they said, that the inability of the Forest Service to thin and reduce enough fuels in the forest beforehand, coupled with local fire managers’ decision to send crews to other fires, left firefighters shorthanded even as weather predictions were dire.

What that analysis lacked was context and the bigger picture.

A year ago today, fires were spreading from the Nevada state line to Canada. The Lawyer Fire had just destroyed 64 homes around Kamiah the same day 48 homes burned in the Canyon Creek Fire. Three firefighters died near Twisp in Washington, where 176 homes were lost to another fire.

Even though 554 20-person hand crews were working on wildfires in the West, there were outstanding orders for 160 more crews that federal fire managers were unable to fill. Fires were burning across North Idaho with no firefighters on them because they simply weren’t available.

I repeatedly heard the same kind of fire scandal story last year about the Tepee Springs Fire, which burned 95,000 acres in Adams and Idaho counties. The story goes that the fire started with a lightning strike on one tree Aug. 12. Firefighters fought it but left it burning. The tree fell and rolled down the hill during the night; when firefighters returned the next day, the fire took off. If they just would have put it out, millions of dollars would have been saved and the forest would not have burned.

The first part was right. The lightning had struck one tree in rocky, steep country, far from any road. No smokejumpers were available, and three other fires had been reported the same day. A helitanker watered down the area until a small hand crew walked six hours into the fire and began fighting it with water, dirt and shovels.

The tree could not be felled safely because it was wedged between two rocks and in a steep area. The firefighters dug a line around the fire. Then the team, short on food and water, was ordered out. During the night, the tree fell and the fire spread over a wide area.

When the firefighters returned the next morning, they couldn’t get a helitanker — on top of the four fires that started the day before, four more fires had started. Some retardant was dropped, but in the volatile conditions across the region, the fire quickly grew to 100 acres and the firefighters were ordered off for their safety.

Had they stayed all night, could they have gotten the fire under control? No one knows. Like all fire commanders, those on the Tepee Springs Fire had to balance the risks.

At the same time, the Canyon Creek Fire commanders in Oregon were making similar decisions.

The most important fact: No one died in either fire.

In the end, the landscapes are recovering. Fire returned, as it has for thousands of years. Residents have learned painful lessons about the need to make their own homes and communities safer in a fire ecosystem.

The debate over how much forest management can do to reduce the size and ferocity of these fires will continue. And 3 percent of the fires are going to continue to escape, no matter what human beings do.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Rocky Barker is the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America. He has covered wildfires across the American West for 31 years.