Wandering the West
August 17, 2010
In Montana and Idaho this coming week, citizens are not celebrating, but rather marking the centennial of the Great Fire of 1910, which in a two-day period called "The Big Blowup" burned three million acres of timber and killed at least 85 people. Most of the dead were firefighters working for the ten-year-old National Forest Service.
That stunning wildfire, which consumed towns, houses, ranger stations and thousands of head of wildlife and livestock, established fire policy for the western United States for the next hundred years. In most of the decades since, the Forest Service and local residents considered that the only good wildfire was a dead wildfire, and promised to attack all fires, whether caused by nature or man.
However, as fire ecology became an academic field of study, foresters convinced land managers that fire was part of the natural cycle, and many fires were left to burn themselves out. That’s still pretty much policy today. Naturally caused fires say, those caused by lightning are allowed to burn as long as they’re on public land and not threatening structures or people. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule.
Still, many of the biggest fires are fought with a spectacular array of aerial firefighting planes and helicopters, and ground tankers that spray water or foam. It’s quite a sight to see. This year in the West, forest fires have been few and far between, although a fire in Parley’s Canyon over the weekend got everyone’s attention. This summer the action has been in Russia, with Muscovites choking in near-zero-visibility smoke from unstoppable fires. As I write this, American C-130s are in the air for Russia, packed with firefighting gear and expertise to lend a hand.
One thing I’ve found over three decades of covering forest fires for television is that, as a spectator event, they can’t be beat. With firefighting tankers based at Hill Air Force Base and the Cedar City airport, a Utah fire of any size is reachable in minutes by big vintage aircraft that fly low and slow. They’re guided to their drop zone by smaller lead planes, which tell them when to drop their load of red fire retardant in a spectacular stream. The sight of a low, slow aircraft against a blue sky and flaming mountain dropping red retardant is memorable.
Firefighters may groan when I say this, but if you’ve never seen a forest fire, and the manpower thrown against it, it’s worth a drive, safe and out of the way, to see one. A few years back, a runaway fire at a Boy Scout camp on the East Fork of the Bear River blew up into one of Utah’s largest forest fires in a long time. It burned 14,000 acres in the Uintas and the aerial show was spectacular.
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In the Yellowstone fires of 1988, everything available in North America was thrown at the fire, including scores of helicopters. In pristine Yellowstone, wild game and tourists alike soon got used to a giant loud helicopter dropping an empty water bucket into the gentle waters of a pond, river or lake to refill.
If a wildfire is something to look at in awe from a distance, it’s nothing to get close to. In his book, "Fire in America," fire historian Steven Pyne describes what the "Big Blowup" was like one century ago this week: "Winds felled trees as if they were blades of grass; darkness covered the land; fire whirls danced across the blackened skies like an aurora borealis from hell; air was electric with tension, as if the earth itself was ready to explode in flame. And everywhere people heard the roar, like a thousand trains crossing a thousand steel trestles."
Nooo, you wouldn’t want to get that close, but from a distance a wildfire is like a mountain thunderstorm a part of nature that commands your attention and respect.
Every summer, college students, members of Indian tribes, Forest Service laborers and those looking for adventure sign up for the grueling work of being line firefighters in 20-person crews. I wish I’d known about such jobs in my youth, but in Midwestern farm country we didn’t have forest fires. We didn’t even have forests.
It has been a light year for fires so far and that’s good. But with all the standing dead timber killed by pine-bark beetles, another blowup like East Fork is bound to happen on the Uinta Mountains’ North Slope. It takes brave men and women on the ground and in the air to wrestle them down. And in so doing, they put on a show more epic than any movie director could ever imagine.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.