Home is where the heat is

Federal firefighters save houses while the West's woods burn

  • Water bucket carried by a Sikorsky helicopter at Blodgettfire camp

    Mark Matthews
 

PINESDALE, Mont. - The fireplace and chimney stand like an altar in a moonscape. In the cellar, the stove, hot-water heater and bathtub protrude from beneath warped metal roofing and globs of melted glass. Nearby, an unidentifiable vehicle sits on metal rims, its paint stripped bare. Towering overhead is the charred trunk of a ponderosa pine tree, its needles baked.

The Blodgett fire, which burned this house, started as an escaped campfire in late July, then swept down the Bitterroot Mountains into this wooded community about three miles north of Hamilton, Mont. Altogether this summer, fires have destroyed more than 50 homes in the Bitterroot Valley. At this writing, 1,200 more homes have been evacuated as three major wildfire complexes rage out of control.

Since 1985, wildfires nationwide have burned 10,000 homes, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In Los Alamos, N.M., the Cerro Grande fire in June alone left more than 400 families homeless. All of these homes bordered public forests in what officials refer to as the "wildland-urban interface." As suburbs swell toward forest boundaries, this edge is growing, encompassing 139 billion acres nationwide, according to the Forest Service.

Nowhere is the interface more obvious than in the Bitterroot. Ravalli County has been the fastest-developing county in the state for the last decade, with a growth rate of 41 percent per year (HCN, 1/18/99: Bitter farewell: A Montana valley succumbs to growth fever). Recent immigrants include musician Huey Lewis and financial services expert Charles Schwab, who built his own golf course and housing development, where log cabins go for half a million bucks. Many retirees, middle-class workers - and, to a lesser extent, the anti-government crowd - have holed up in the forested mountainsides.

The fires caught many newcomers by surprise. As the flames approached, they desperately worked to fire-proof their homes by removing debris from the forest floor, cutting small trees and brush and putting sprinklers on their roofs.

For many, it was too late, says Jake Kammerer, director of Land Services for Ravalli County. "A lot of people are moving into the woods not having any idea that Mother Nature could turn the tables on them - as is now happening."

A dangerous diversion

Around the West this summer, the Forest Service has put a lot of time and money into defending homes and cabins. In August in the Bitterroot alone, 668 firefighters so far have worked mostly to save private homes, at a cost of $11.7 million and rising. The costs include a half-dozen helicopters with water buckets which hover each afternoon like birds of prey, watching the flames' advance.

"They will wait until the fire threatens the next home," says air support technician Glenn Palfrey, "then put a bucket drop on it, and the fire will curve right around the home."

Hotshot crews have dug hand lines across ridgelines to protect houses. Pinesdale resident Dee Long Bow gushed with admiration for the firefighters who helped save her home. "They looked like black-faced minstrels," she said. "All you could see were those big smiles. They were just so kind."

But with firefighters busy protecting structures, says Steve Frye, incident commander of the Blodgett fire, "there are just not enough resources to take containment action on the fires." Which means every day the breadth of the fires increase, some days doubling, even as lighting storms ignite more fires.

So far, four major fires have charred more than 265,000 acres in the Bitterroot, burning everything from logged-over areas to wilderness. Frye worries that high winds could make for a repeat of the 1910 fire season, when a cold front whipped flames across 3 million acres of Idaho and Montana, charring a 160-mile long, 50-mile wide strip from Clark Fork, Idaho, to Moose Creek, Idaho.

"This year, you have fire positioned in so many different places that virtually any wind event will pick up some fires and make them move," says Frye. "Only a major weather event will stop these fires. Either rain, or snow."

In mid-August, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot declared the entire state a disaster area, closing all federal, state and tribal forest lands to the public as more than half a million acres burned across the state.

Still, many defend their homes in the woods.

"There's nothing wrong with people living in the deep woods, as long as they are prepared for it," says John Long Bow.

A solvable problem

Arizona State University fire historian Stephen Pyne tends to agree with Long Bow. Development in the wildland-urban interface area "is obviously a growing problem," says Pyne. "Not just in the West, but all over the country."

But the problem is solvable, he says. A combination of county zoning, building codes, housekeeping, insurance, and fire-protection measures will largely eliminate the danger of houses going up in smoke. In Florida, he says, if landowners don't clear brush or set prescribed burns, state officials will do it for them.

The West has been slower to take action. Some grassroots groups have formed to address the problem, among them the Southeast Arizona Wildland-Urban Interface Coordinating Group, the Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators Group, and the Grand Canyon Forest Partnership (HCN, 3/1/99: Working the land back to health). But for the most part, the problem has fallen through the institutional cracks, he says.

Pyne, who owns a cabin on the edge of the Apache National Forest in Arizona, says his community is "slowly slouching" toward addressing the dangers of wildfire. "You don't see wooden roofs anymore. We now have a volunteer fire department, and the Forest Service routinely inspects homes to see if they are defensible. People are raking up pine needles and doing some trimming of trees."

Communities will have to make some tough choices, he says. "Some places, the fire equivalent of floodplains, shouldn't have any houses."

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar,"Protect yourself from wildfires."

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho at 208/387-5050, or find fire statistics and updates on the Web at www.nifc.gov.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Mark Matthews

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