Don't Let's Let It Burn 

A changing environment means new priorities

Two weeks ago, Julie and I watched fire come over a ridge two miles north of us, headed in our direction. Within a few minutes, the 210 Fire surrounded a collection of houses above the Salmon River, burned the trees at the edge of the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery and crossed Highway 75. It looked as if the houses and the hatchery would burn, but they didn't, thanks to the efforts of air tankers, helicopters and ground crews.

The fire never reached the dry sagebrush and dead fir on the east side of Sawtooth Valley. It was stopped before it ran free in the bands of beetle-killed lodgepole that stretch from Copper Mountain to Galena Summit. When the electricity went out, we assumed that power poles had been burned, but they hadn't, and our lights and refrigerator were back on by 9 p.m. the next day.

It could have been much worse. Since I'm writing this account a week before you'll read it, I'm hoping that in the interim nothing will have happened to prove how much worse it could have been.

Forests as dry as ours can explode into great hurricanes of flame that destroy homes, dreams and livelihoods. Deer and antelope and squirrels and ground-nesting birds all are turned to ash. Those old Smokey Bear posters express a grim realism.

We didn't know if the fire could be contained at first. We did know the Interagency Fire Center was throwing everything it could at it. At times, we could see four aircraft and a helicopter silhouetted against the fire cloud. The tankers used our house as a pivot point.

When a C-130 is 500 feet above your house, the only analogous experience is from the movies: The alien ship casts its shadow on the White House, and then the camera pans back to show that it's also casting its shadow on all of Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia. You briefly stop worrying about the fire. You start worrying that a monstrous chunk of equipment is going to fall out of the sky onto your roof.

Nothing fell out of the sky, except fire retardant and water, and they blessedly fell on the fire. The fire cloud is gone. The campgrounds at Redfish Lake are again full. But firefighters remain in the valley. We hope they'll stay through November.

Julie and I have watched wildfire head our way before. In September 2005, we looked out our windows to see flames outlining the ridges above the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch. People knocked on our door and told us to prepare to leave. We went through the house and photographed the rooms, inventorying possessions for later discussions with the insurance people. Thankfully, that fire was put out, too, before it destroyed the ranch's lodge and cabins, or our home.

A realization: Photographing your stuff is an eventually happy exercise that allows you to see that stuff can be replaced. What cannot be replaced are the fragile lives of those you love. The terror of losing a home and its contents screens us from a more intense terror.

I was not much concerned with loss or the fragility of human life when I fought forest fires during my college summers. At that age, getting close to death was a tonic, not an invitation to philosophy, even when I rode to fires in a tiny Bell helicopter whose pilot had come back from Vietnam with alcohol issues. Some mornings he had to grab the control stick with both hands to stop the shakes. Once, after he had dropped two of us off at the end of Sawtooth Lake, he took off at a speedy horizontal tilt, heading at lopping altitude toward a low forest of alpine fir, before he realized that two firefighters and their fire packs no longer balanced the aircraft.

At the time, Forest Service policy decreed all fires had to be out by 10 a.m. the day after they were reported. Fires were hit quickly and hard. Helitack crews were dropped off at the first sign of smoke. Usually they were able to put a line around the fire, but if they called for help, they got it.

Even fires in designated wilderness were suppressed. That's why I'm one of the few non-Congresspeople who has taken a helicopter to Sawtooth Lake.

Then came an official realization that 75 years of fire suppression had created a region-wide destined-to-burn artifact, a Burning Man for people who couldn't go to Burning Man.

The 10 a.m. policy was dropped, and an unofficial let-it-burn-if-it-won't-hurt-much policy was instituted. It was an ambiguous doctrine, with nobody admitting anything deliberate, because nobody was ever sure how much it might hurt. But I suspect that the Halstead and Trinity fires of last summer, which damaged Sawtooth Valley businesses and had people using their headlights on the daytime streets of Challis, had been herded into fuel-laden wilderness canyons rather than suppressed.

That accidentally-on-purpose policy appears to be over. If it's not, it needs to be. Our new climate has changed the formulas. No one can send firefighters out to herd a fire these days without worrying that evergreen forest will not regenerate, or that a fuel-clearing operation might turn lethal.

As bureaucracies go, the Interagency Fire Center is nimble, but it's not as nimble as required by a climate no longer connected to the past. Carbon dioxide at 400 parts per million, Amazonian deforestation, the heat islands created by cities and intensive agriculture, open Arctic waters, methane volcanoes--all these have created an Idaho where we need to protect what little green we have left.

Idaho is on schedule to gain dunes, even as it loses trees. Areas of the Valley Road Fire, 10 years after, grow only sand and charcoal. It's disturbing to remember that the Sahara was once covered with trees.

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