Tragedy re-ignites wildfire debate
by Rachel Jackson
For weeks, Rick Dittrich saw the writing on the wall. From his Methow Valley home on the eastern flanks of the Cascade Range in northern Washington, the longtime resident says he watched the meadows dry to a blond stubble and felt the hot, dry afternoon breezes sweep through the dense lodgepole pine forests.
"In 20 years, I've never seen it this dry," he says. "This place is a tinderbox to beat all."
Dittrich says he was surprised that his local Forest Service district delayed issuing an open-fire ban this summer, especially since Washington Gov. Gary Locke had declared the state to be in a drought emergency back in March. When the annual onslaught of summer hikers and campers began, Dittrich braced for the worst.
And it came. On July 11, an unattended campfire ignited the forest in a narrow canyon in the upper Methow Valley. Within a couple of hours, high winds whipped a five-acre fire into a 2,500-acre inferno, trapping and killing four firefighters sent there on a "mop-up" mission. Three of the dead were rookie firefighters, 21 years old and younger.
The deaths make the Thirty Mile Fire, located in a remote research natural area within the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests, the worst tragedy since Colorado's Storm King Mountain fire in 1994, which took 14 lives (HCN, 3/6/95: 'Indifference' caused deaths).
It has also rekindled an ongoing debate between fire managers and environmentalists over wildfires. Last year's conflagrations stretched firefighting resources thin and raised questions about the strategy of wholesale fire suppression (HCN, 5/7/01: Back into the woods). With dozens of new fires now popping up on a daily basis in the arid West, those same questions are once again front and center: Should wildfires in remote areas be fought? And how can the region best prepare for what looks to be another long, hot fire season?
A sleeping giant
So far, the 2001 fire season is a sleeper compared to last year. According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, 1.2 million acres nationwide have burned to date; that's half the amount that burned by this time last year. But it's too early to tell if the pattern will hold. Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, says a dry winter across most of the West, combined with a forecast for above-normal temperatures through October, means the West is once again primed to burn big.
Whether or not this year's fire season reaches last year's proportions, fire officials say they are more prepared than ever, thanks to a significant boost in federal firefighting personnel and equipment. Following last year's record blazes, Congress took a careful look at wildfire management practices and funded a $1.9 billion National Fire Plan.
"For the first time in as long as I can remember, we have enough resources," says Butch Hayes, a fire specialist for the BLM in Nevada. Hayes says his office was able to hire an additional 20-person hotshot crew and purchase four heavy fire engines with the new funds.
Guy Pence, a fire and aviation staff officer in the Boise National Forest, says he hired 75 new suppression personnel and completed some long-standing thinning projects around the wildland-urban interface.
"I feel like we're as ready as we can be for what may come," says Pence, who has two daughters fighting fires this summer.
Nationally, 8,000 additional firefighting personnel have been hired this year and roughly $11 million has been spent on new equipment.
But residents, people on the firelines and watchdog groups aren't confident the new resources will make a difference, especially in the tinder-dry Pacific Northwest.
"We're pretty nervous here," says Mike Peterson of the Lands Council, an environmental group based in Spokane, Wash. "If we get lightning strikes in a week or two, it will go crazy."
Pat Murphy, a fire incident commander in Nevada who battled the 14,500 acre Martis fire along the California/Nevada border in June, worries the extra funding is taking too long to hit the ground.
"I'm concerned we're all going to catch on fire at the same time and then run short on resources and push people too hard."
Stretched resources didn't seem to be the issue at the Thirty Mile Fire, though several fires were burning in eastern Washington at the time of the blowup. The Forest Service had sent in a 21-member crew to mop up what it believed was a contained blaze.
"From what I know, nobody anticipated anything more than a good hard day's work," Doug Ferguson, a national fire-management team spokesman, told the Associated Press.
But everything changed when rising winds whipped the blaze into a raging wildfire. The four firefighters - Tom Craven, 30, Karen Fitzpatrick, 18, Devin Weaver, 21, and Jessica Johnson, 19 - died despite deploying their aluminum fire shelters.
The firefighters' lack of experience has been a hot topic of debate in the fire's aftermath. Two of the four were in their first month on the job. But federal fire investigators announced July 17 that they found no connection between the deaths and the training and experience of the firefighters.
Some environmentalists have criticized the Forest Service for even fighting the blaze, which is burning in a research natural area on the edge of the rugged Pasayten Wilderness. Andy Stahl, director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, told AP that the agency should have taken a hands-off approach. "They shouldn't have been fighting it to begin with," Stahl said.
But Joe Stutler, Thirty Mile's national incident commander, said conditions are so dry this year that the Forest Service had to send the crew in. Letting it burn "would nuke the countryside," he said.
Other critics say the resources allocated to the Thirty Mile Fire could have been put to better use protecting at-risk communities along the wildland-urban interface.
"The Forest Service is still focused on the backcountry and the people in the Methow Valley are totally unprepared," says Peter Morrison, executive director of the Pacific Biodiversity Institute based in Winthrop, Wash., just south of the Thirty Mile blaze. Morrison argues that if local communities were given federal firefighting dollars, they would make more practical decisions, such as helping homeowners fireproof their property.
John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League says the Thirty Mile Fire illustrates how the West still hasn't come to terms with fire: "Fire is not devastation and it's not catastrophic; it's change," he says. "We should be seeing more black."
But so far the deaths of the four young firefighters haven't visibly changed the Forest Service's approach. Though the agency temporarily pulled all firefighters from the Thirty Mile Fire, within days it redeployed 600 firefighters to continue the battle.
Rachel Jackson is an HCN intern.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- The National Interagency Fire Center, 208/387-5512, www.nifc.gov;
- Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests, 509/662-4335;
- Peter Morrison, Pacific Biodiversity Institute, 509/996-2490.