If Hell has mountains, they must look like the Northern Rockies. As my fire spotter and I fly an insignificantly small airplane over our territory in western Montana, we weave through brown tendrils of wind-shredded smoke that curl around granite peaks.
Sudden explosions of dark
ash rise into the air above stands of trees as they torch with
flame. Blackened rings of incinerated dog-hair timber stand out
like pockmarks on once-verdant slopes. A suffocating layer of haze
hangs over the scene, extending to over 11,000 feet above sea level
into the weak blue sky.
Montana’s Big Sky Country
shrank this summer to a visible radius of less than 3 miles -- in
some places less than a half mile. We circle and dip low over the
bleak landscape, straining to see any new fires that may be brewing
beneath us. Our plane is wrapped in a cotton cocoon the color of a
used cigarette filter. I have no visible horizon to help me keep
the "shiny side up, the rubber side down." This has become a
stressful job, in spite of my love of flying.
year’s fire season began early for our state, before the
middle of July. My spotter and I were asked to fly every day from
the second week in July into (so far) the second week of September.
Exhaustion set in long ago. On July 12, an enormous
thunderstorm passed through Idaho and western Montana, igniting
over 300 fires with strike after eye-blinding strike of lightning.
The day after the storm, we flew for six hours, combing our
territory for "smokes." There was no shortage of sightings. By the
time the day ended, the dispatchers were so tired, they were
laughing with each new location we called in on the radio. They
couldn’t assign fire numbers fast enough, and suppression
equipment had long since been depleted. Every smokejumper had been
deployed from the base, every helicopter commandeered, and every
fire engine for hundreds of miles rushed into service. Retardant
bombers were lumbering off runways throughout the area, dropping
their fire-quenching loads and returning for more.
Laughter stopped the next day. With superhuman effort, hotshot and
fire aviation crews held most of the fires to less than a few
acres, but the blazes that got a good start took off and ran. Over
500,000 acres are now on fire in western Montana, and though the
pace has slowed a little in the past week after one small cooling
rain, there is still no wrapup in sight.
Locals hack and
cough their way through air quality that rates from marginal to a
serious health risk. Outdoor activities have ceased. The woods are
closed to loggers, fishermen, hunters, hikers, campers, even river
rafters. We hang on every word the weather man utters, hoping for
some relief from the hot, dry days plagued by inversions.
Residents of many small enclaves in the forest were evacuated when
wildfire threatened their homes. Some of those homes were destroyed
outright by flames; others are no longer surrounded by the lush
green beauty that drew their owners to the mountains.
President Bush’s administration is pushing for thinning of
the national forests to help prevent wildfire seasons like this
one. As we flew over a particularly dense area of forest last week,
my spotter commented, "Maybe George should be set down in that with
a chainsaw to see how fast it can be thinned." The task would be
monumental. The expanse of trees is not even a speck on the map of
all our federal holdings. We see from the air that logged areas,
thinned areas and virgin timber all burn with equal ferocity when
drought, lightning and wind combine.
Though homeowners are
learning how to create clear defensible space around their forest
dwellings, and forest-fuel reduction through government-sponsored
prescribed burns around the "wildland-urban interface" has helped
save some communities, there will never be a guarantee of
Sometimes the homeowner’s lesson is taught
by firefighters working in the swirl of embers preceding a
firestorm. Occasionally, a prescribed burn flares out of control
and destroys more than what was planned. In either case, the home
may become an island surrounded by a hundred square miles of burnt
sticks. Yet, in spite of the risks, people continue to build in the
That leaves it to those of us who work in the
fire business, from the hotshot "grunt" scraping a fireline bare,
to the air attack officer flying above an inferno to direct the
battle, to do the best we can.