Mothering a good forest fire isn't easy

  • The Ute Creek fire marches on while monitored by helicopter

    Michael Cook
  • Helicopter pilot Dick Good helped attack another fire that became a killer

    Ray Ring

MEEKER, COLO. - The helicopter flew us toward the smoke. Even in the air, we wore heavy leather boots, jumpsuits and gloves made of Nomex - nothing that would ignite or melt easily. We had to be prepared in case of a forced landing. The Nomex felt surprisingly lightweight: thin protection.

We topped the ridge, and the Ute Creek fire sprawled below us: blackened and smoking earth, a forest of charred sticks and flames still coiling.

Mike Frary, our fire-behavior analyst, pointed out the sights:

"... A good candle going there."

A 60-foot-tall spruce had reached ignition temp. As it candled, surrounded by trees that were not yet burning, its orange flame seemed leisured, graceful.

With deceptive ease, the helicopter swung over steep mountainsides and narrow flats, as we checked the dozens of pieces the fire had broken into. The smoke was lazy and the fire fairly quiet: there wasn't much wind.

A different day, a different moment, the wind could change, the fire could adopt another personality. Not long ago it had raged and there was no doubt it could again.

Now, there was nobody on the ground dedicated to fighting it, no battle cry to put crews directly in front of the flames.

We only watched the beauty of the flames proceeding at their own pace.

The U.S. Forest Service had invited HCN to come see how letting a wildfire burn did not in any way represent a let-burn policy.

"The Forest Service has no let-burn policy," explained both Sonny LaSalle, supervisor of the White River National Forest, and the forest's Blanco District Ranger, Bill Hahnenberg. Affable and professional men. We had sympathy for how they had been boxed into semantics.

The White River forest runs from around Aspen, Colo., into the northwest quadrant of the state. Lightning had touched the Meeker District the morning of July 12, igniting a fire at about 8,500 feet elevation along Ute Creek.

At first the attack had been by rote: smokejumpers, slurry bombers, helicopter bucket-brigade, crews on the ground hacking out a fire line, budget drawdown approaching $2 million.

Yet as soon as the Ute Creek fire was blocked from advancing on private property, firefighters were pulled off and sent elsewhere. On the southern front, where the fire was into the Flat Tops Wilderness, it burned on for weeks without opposition.

The Forest Service felt a need to justify.

Even a wildfire that is being allowed some leeway needs a war room. At the White River forest's Blanco District office, a large central conference room had been taken over. Topo maps were taped up, covering much of two walls, and felt pens had been applied and reapplied, drawing the fire's advance on the contours.

Helicopter reconnaissance fed constant updates to the war room. Computers incorporated weather data to calculate the fire's next move and what-ifs. There was a fire-info officer who'd been imported from Idaho and stacks of info sheets and a telephone hotline.

Just monitoring the fire and keeping the public informed was costing $20,000 to $30,000 a day.

Hahnenberg outlined the public relations campaign. The governor, Roy Romer, had been taken on a helicopter tour of the fire; so had a TV news crew, a Rio Blanco county commissioner and a prominent local wilderness outfitter.

The Forest Service hosted public meetings in Meeker, to reassure outfitters and other business people and to quash rumors. The agency even produced and distributed an 18-minute video, featuring favorable sound bites from a state wildlife agent and the local Sierra Club rep.

By now, of course, science and most people accept that fire belongs in any forest. Or at least, people accept fire in some forest over there, and not in this forest that's a little too close.

But with hundreds of thousands of acres burning nicely this latest summer of wildfire, with firefighting around the West costing more than $1 million a day, the Forest Service and other land agencies still have to dance a tune about any little fire that isn't actively opposed.

They dance in the shadow of Yellowstone. When "let-burn" policy covered nearly 3/4 million acres in the park in 1988, national media cast the story in terms of conflagration, apocalypse, acres destroyed. The image of let-burn is recovering more slowly than Yellowstone's new grass.

Around Ute Creek, the forest was especially ripe for fire. After a feast by bark beetles - which the Forest Service can still see only as an "epidemic' - and decades of previous fires doused as quickly as possible, the forest was choked with dead trees. The flames would clear the way for new growth.

Hahnenberg explained how, employing its technology, the Forest Service identified a perimeter of natural barriers - lakes, meadows, wet aspen groves - that the Ute Creek fire most likely will never jump. The agency calculates that the fire will behave within the perimeter now and burn 39,000 acres maximum, until it is doused by rain or snow, representing reduced risk to firefighters and a savings of $1 million.

It had to be touchy, explaining the economics to outfitters and hunters and hikers who must shift their expeditions away from the fire. Touchy explaining the ongoing flames and smoke to a public imprinted with a war mentality.

If the Ute Creek fire somehow escapes, if it again rages outside the wilderness and threatens property and people, it could be a political disaster.

It is the public forcing the Forest Service into mad-hatter insistence that, even in wilderness, far from any trace of tinderbox subdivisions, certainly there cannot be a let-burn policy, only a policy of pulling back, waiting nervously and watching closely, a policy of suppression by "confinement."

Before they were pulled off, as firefighters here worked the fire lines, they heard the updates from another fire near Canyon Creek. A couple ridges to the south, four women and 10 men had been killed trying to hold the fire lines there.

Flying us over the fire here, our pilot, Dick Good, spoke tersely of how he had also provided air support for the attack on the Canyon Creek fire. He had delivered the victims to the fire that killed them.

"Everybody that died in that fire rode in this helicopter ..."

When the Canyon Creek fire suddenly blew, Good was flying above the flames, trying to radio his helitack crewmen, Rich Tyler and Robert Browning, who were on the ground in the fire's path.

Telling us what he could about it, Good seemed to be groping for some meaning. "I kept calling them on the radio, but I couldn't reach them ... The only thing I can imagine is, they couldn't hear because of the noise. It must've sounded like a freight train coming through their living room ..."

Good didn't make much of his own risk, but it sounded like he came close to crashing as he tried to help the people who were running from the fire. "It was like flying through a hurricane ... the heat and wind ... a lot of dirt and grit ripped off the ground like a big dust storm ... It just blows you right out of there. "

Good's crewmen, Tyler and Browning, ran the wrong way and died. "They went a different direction from the crew that survived. They made their decision and went with it. The fire ended up outflanking them by a long ways ..."

The Clear Creek fire got so suddenly hot, it melted chainsaws and other machinery that had been abandoned by retreating firefighters. Good said, when he got a look afterwards, everything on the killing slope "looked like it had been vaporized."

Talking to Good, we understood better what might be saved by the decision at Ute Creek.

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