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Remembering the Past

Published: Monday, July 8, 2013 11:23 a.m. CDT

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Our nation has had a number of situations arise recently that have kept us all watching, listening and reading the news. Very close to me were the devastating deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a contract forest fire fighting crew from Prescott, Arizona.

My affinity for the Granite Mountain Hotshots is based on my personal history of making my way through Utah State University working summers with the U. S. Forest Service.  In 1961, following six weeks of intensive training at the Forest Management and Fire Training Camp in Logan Canyon, Utah, I was accepted into the Blue Hats Hotshot firefighting crew.  We were comprised of 18 members, and stationed at the U. S. Forest Service Center at Missoula, Montana. 

Superior training and experience soon taught me that forest fires are highly unpredictable.  The combination of fuel (dead-falls, branches, evergreen canopy and ground cover, etc.), an unimpeded flow of oxygen and a means for starting the fire are the three factors that cause the problem.  Add to that the presence of rapid changing topography and forested canyons that retain the winds and heat created by the fire itself and you have highly dangerous situations.

Forest fires can grow quickly with an abundance of fuel and the super heating of coniferous trees (pine, fir, spruce, juniper, pinion, etc.) which create aromatic oils and gasses that virtually explode when ignited.  Thus, along with self-created convection, a fire can grow from 300 acres to 3,000 acres in a matter of hours.  I know, for the Blue Hats and a crew of just short of a hundred Blackfeet, Crow and Northern Cheyenne Hotshot Indian firefighters experienced this on the Rabbit Point Lookout Fire of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area in eastern Idaho, just west of Darby, Montana. We called in many an aircraft that dropped the pink water/bentonite clay slurry that kept the fire confined to three major canyons before containment.

A week later, the Blue Hats were part of the famous Sleeping Child Fire, just east of Darby, Montana, in the Bitterroot National Forest.  Insects had killed tens of thousands of acres of forest in the 1920’s, and “blow-downs” along with virtually impenetrable coniferous ground cover caught a lightning strike on August 4, 1961.  Over the next two weeks, we, as a part of 1,700 firefighters, were able to contain the fire, but not before slightly less than 30,000 acres had burned.  No lives were lost.

For three summers of firefighting, both ground and aerial, I was able to put myself through college.  By far, it is the hardest work I have ever done.  I was a sawyer (chainsaw) with a backpack holding the saw, fuel and chain oil, and military style ready-to-eat meals (MRE).  To this day, I can’t eat “pound cake,” a hearty serving in each packet of food. 

Yes, there were several close calls, but we were always thinking ahead with situational escape strategies.  One such close call on the Sleeping Child sent us into the Selway River, as the fire stopped at adjacent marshland within a hundred yards.  On this fire, we were 30 miles from the nearest logging road.  Once the fire was contained, the Blue Hats were evacuated back to Darby by helicopter.  Following a day’s rest, we were on our way to another fire.

Forest fires are part of nature’s way.  However, man has so changed the forest ecosystem that more fuel is present than ever before.  Add to that the fact that housing developments have become the norm along major roads through a forest.  Thus, a fire brings with it the loss of not only forest, but also thousands of homes with all their furnishings and even lives.

Perhaps this tragedy at the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, which will live forever in the annuls of U. S. Forest Service history, will cause Congress, land managers and the public in general to reconsider how our wild lands in the western U. S. are developed and used.  The costs rise each fire season, and more fires are occurring each year.  Besides the loss of important natural resources, you and I are paying the bill.

Next week’s column will lay-out the state’s strategy for nutrient management and cleaning up our surface waters. This too will be a costly endeavor, yet one that has to occur.

Any questions or comments, call me at 515-975-8608.

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