Thursday, August 16, 2007

Where The Heck Is Yellowpine? - Part I

Photo Caption: This is the bumper sticker that is making the rounds of fire camps on the Cascade Complex Fire in Idaho.

Where The Heck Is Yellowpine?

"Where The Heck Is Yellowpine, and why am I risking my ass to save it?" For the past month, the several hundred people that I am working with have been asking this question.

As I write this, dozens of giant wildfires spread across wide swaths of the Northern Rockies. This is nothing out of the ordinary, of course - these forests rely on fire for regeneration and cleansing, and lightning has drilled dry Western forests regularly for thousands of years - everyone knows this.

But political cowardice drives a fire suppression policy that defies all measures of common sense.

For the gypsy crew of wildfire managers and FireWar Profiteers that we roll with, our 2007 fire carnival is a four ring circus set in Central Idaho - with each ring representing a huge fire. These landscape-scale burns are in an apparent race to consume the collection of cabins, mobile homes, and junker snowmobiles that comprise the 'historic' burg of Yellowpine. 'Historic' as in "something happened here once..."

Map of 4 fires threatening Yellowpine - active fire in red, completed line in black.
From: http://www.fs.fed.us/idahofires/news/closures/maps/0816/area-closures-0816.pdf

There is an outside chance that all four fires will converge upon the town in one tornadic afternoon: wings of flame sweeping together, clanging like giant anvils colliding, cleansing Yellowpine in yet another natural purge.

Everyone tasked with fighting these fires reaches three basic conclusions:
1. Once these big fires become established, no amount of firefighting will stop them 'until the snows fly'.
2. We are fighting these fires because some people live in these woods, and nobody wants to be the person who burned them out, and,
3. After 50 years of saving Yellowpine, we could have paid Big Sur land prices to buy out each and every hermit between Yellowstone and Oregon, and still come out ahead.

How might one column-driven fire steer another? Will one monster fire roasting an entire drainage in an afternoon create indraft winds which are strong enough to suck another huge fire - five miles away and across a canyon - into itself? If we set a backfire on one fire, will it suck or be sucked? These are the questions that fire managers must consider as they game-out tactics to steer landscape-scale fires. And that's what we are trying to do out here, to steer these monster fires away from a 'ranch' here, or a hillbilly commune there; just doing something, anything, to save the day.

The 'ranches' that we are protecting are a few dude ranches that wealthy outsiders can fly into for a weekend - a couple of horses and funky cabins grandfathered into National Forest land covered with thickets of lodgepole and fir (the natural cover here). The 'communities' are the Lower-48's equivalent of Fairbanks, Alaska - the end of the paved road, an oddball collection of heavy drinkers that have no use for society or government until their roads need plowing or a wildfire threatens.

Most of the characters that I met in Yellowpine look like they would be happy living in the 19th century. That's fine with me, but we should recall that the West of the 1800s had no organized wildland fire suppression, and that frontier towns burned to the ground on a fairly regular basis. As much as I would hate to deprive Yellowpine's residents of an authentic historic experience (wildfire burning their town), I am even less excited about putting wildland firefighters in there to chase spotfires through hazmat shacks, ammo caches, and tire fires as the big one rolls in. [for photos of Yellowpine, click here]

Now don't get me wrong: I have nothing against people living in the hills, being off-the-grid, or collecting a personal treasure-trove of 'might-come-in-handy-someday' car parts, old trucks, snowmachines, old barrels of acid, or junk lumber. The personal junkyard is a Western Institution, and I would be a hypocrite to advocate for its abolition; just don't expect me to put my ass between your junkpile and a running wildfire.

In the last several decades, great progress has been made in restoring fire to its natural role in the Great American Backwoods. Large expanses of roadless and wilderness land in remote areas of America's Interior West now have Fire Management Plans that designate large areas as "Fire Use" areas. Here, naturally-ignited fires burning may be allowed to fulfill their natural ecological role. Yet we allow one burg here, and a hamlet there to influence land management on the scale of millions of acres. In the case of Yellowpine, the hundreds of thousands of acres on the surrounding Payette and Boise National Forests that would benefit from a 'let-burn' policy are off limits to Fire Use, as natural fire represents a threat to the cabins, dude ranches, and bible camps scattered there.

Why are we risking our asses and squandering our fortunes on a few cabins in the sticks? We are here because America's politicians and land managers don't have the political backbone to ask:

"Who really gives a damn where Yellowpine is!"

--- Fire Hobo

NEXT POST - Fire burns our circus tents


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