The Fire Next Time

By Jim Petersen, Co-founder and Executive Director, the non-profit Evergreen Foundation

Remarks at the Annual Meeting of Intermountain Forestry Association, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, December 10, 2009

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

…[M]y friend Dick Bennett asked me recently… if I knew where we might find a map showing all of the timberland ownerships in northern Idaho — not just an ordinary map, but one that had an overlay that shows at risk federal forest lands — these being lands that pose an insect, disease or fire risk to adjacent private and state timberland owners.

I thought for sure that the Forest Service’s Region 1 office in Missoula would have one, but they don’t.

How strange that the very public agency charged with protecting our region’s great forests from catastrophic fire would not have such a map. …

If we had the map Dick hoped I would find we could illustrate the problem with the very cavalier attitude the federal government seems to be taking toward dying national forests and resulting big fires.

Among other things, we could show the public what will happen when the Day of Reckoning finally arrives — and we have another 1910-scale fire or perhaps something even larger, which I think is entirely possible. …

I have photographs of my grandfather’s first mill. It doesn’t look like much, but it was all that he had, so I can’t begin to comprehend what he must have felt on the afternoon of August 20, 1910. That was the afternoon when all hell broke loose in northern Idaho: Day 1 of the three-day holocaust we still call the Great 1910 Fire.

Much has been written about the 1910 fire, not just in Evergreen Magazine but also in many other publications by other fine writers who were drawn to it as I was — all of us like moths to a flame. …

I won’t bore you with the reasons why the West’s forests are burning in horrific wildfires because you already know the story as well as I do. But if you are one of the fortunate few who saved their copies of The West is Burning Up, our first big 1910 story — portions of which still grace the Idaho Forest Products Commission website — you know that the fire made front page news all across the nation. …

In two terrifying day and nights, more than 3 million acres of timber and grassland in northern Idaho and western Montana was incinerated. It is all very difficult to comprehend until you realize that the Great 1910 Fire was not one big fire when it started. It was several hundred smaller fires that were blown together by the force of 80-100 mile an hour winds that blew in from the Palouse on the afternoon of August 20. It was the wind that transformed all of those little fires into one big blowtorch.

Along the Idaho-Montana border, south of the Lookout Pass ski area, there are still spots were nothing grows. Heat from the fire melted the organic layer in which early succession plants normally take root after a fire. The area is windswept, so it may be hundreds of years before the slowly accumulating soil is again deep enough to support plant life.

People who know that I know a little bit about the 1910 Fire sometimes ask me if I think there is another fire like it in our future. The odds certainly favor it. All we need are a few hundred spot fires - probably set by lightning - and a big wind. The stars in this terrible constellation have been in near-perfect alignment several times in recent years.

But The Fire Next Time will be different from the 1910 Fire in two very significant ways. Many more lives will be lost and far more property will be destroyed, simply because there are many thousands more people living in northern Idaho and western Montana than there were in 1910. I also think The Fire Next Time will be a bigger fire than the one my family escaped, simply because there is more dead and dying timber to burn than there was in 1910.

This brings me back to Dick Bennett’s hope that I will be able find a good set of maps we can use to show the public what will be lost in The Fire Next Time - because the losses will extend far beyond Region One’s national forests, which are no longer managed for any perceptible reason. It will also destroy adjacent state and private timberlands - lands on which every company represented here today depends for its economic lifeblood.

It’s bad enough that the federal government no longer even bothers to go through the motions of managing the public’s timber, to say nothing of its municipal watersheds, fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands. Now, through dumbfounding neglect, it is also endangering other economically and environmentally important state and private timberland ownerships.

I think this is criminal, but until or if the Congress decides it is time to stuff the litigation genie back in the bottle, there is not a damned thing that any of us can do except watch and wait for The Fire Next Time.

In western Montana, I am told that state and federal fire officials have already huddled behind closed doors to discuss what to do about a hypothetical fire that could conceivably burn from Seeley Lake, 90 miles south of where I live, all the way to Dillon - a straight-line distance of 125 miles through dead and dying mixed conifer forests that belong mostly to the American people.

More than a dozen communities lay in the path of such a fire - but if the fire should suddenly veer to the east, it would take out Helena, our state capital, in a heartbeat. In fact, it is now possible to stand in our governor’s office and see dead trees on the surrounding hills. The mortality in mixed conifer forests in the mountains west of Helena is breathtaking, and it gets worse the further west you go - over McDonald Pass and on toward Clearwater Junction and Seeley Lake. …

Could such a conflagration really occur? No one can say for sure, but what I find so dismaying about the possibility is our government’s smoke and mirrors response to the increasing risk that such a fire could occur. We go through the pretense of thinning in the so-called “wooey.” That’s government jabberwocky for the Wildland Urban Interface, the perimeters around hundreds of small communities that dot the rural West. Most of these towns were recruited by the Forest Service back in the days when the government was hell-bent on settling the rural West. Now it seems the government is hell-bent on running everyone out. But that’s a story for another time.

What I also find astonishing about these “wooey” thinning projects is our government’s wink and nod claim that these inconsequential treatments are actually capable of stopping a big fire that is moving fast in dead and dying timber. Let’s remember that big fires often create their own weather — and are quite capable of launching burning chunks of wood more than a mile ahead of their courses. Let’s also remember that these fires are capable of outrunning birds in flight. I know — having seen the sad result in the charred aftermath of more than one big fire I’ve covered over the last 25 years. …

So mark me down as one of those crackpots who thinks that the next 1910 scale fire is only going to slow down in Seeley Lake or Helena or Kamiah or McCall long enough to kill everything in sight, including young men and women that our government will send into harm’s way to try to stop it. …

Next August marks the 100th anniversary of the Great 1910 Fire. I imagine there will be lots of commemorations, and I suppose the Forest Service is already up to its armpits in the planning. It’s too bad the agency isn’t also thinking about what it could do to reduce the risk of such a fire occurring again, but we live in strange times …



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