In early September last year, I threw my lower back out. I drove to my job in Salmon, Idaho, but by noon I could hardly stand. I scooted myself to the office lobby on a wheeled chair, then hobbled as far as the sidewalk before my legs buckled. I lay panting on the cool concrete, knees bent.
Across the river, a helicopter chopped slowly up toward the forested ridge high above the Salmon River, rising through the heavy smoke. I sneezed, fished a handkerchief out of my pocket, and blew some yellow snot into it. I had a sinus infection, and felt dehydrated and in need of antibiotics. But lying there, eye-to-eye with a bed of dessicated poppies, all I could think of was the money — the overtime lost by hurting my back now.
It wasn’t about the money, at first. When the Clear Creek Fire in central Idaho ran eight miles in two hours and grew from 1,000 acres to 23,000 acres, I stood outside the Salmon-Challis National Forest headquarters building with the few other people still working on a Friday afternoon and watched the monstrous white clot of smoke rise over the mountains into the hot July sky. Someone turned to me. "Can you run us some maps?"
Tickled to death to be asked, I ran to the map room and started pulling the mylar originals of topographic quad maps from the hanging files and making copies of them on the blueline machine. The orders kept coming, and I worked until one o’clock in the morning, and all day Saturday, and all day Sunday. Since then, my take-home pay had doubled.
But now all I could do was roll onto my side and drag myself along on one hip. I stopped in the red sunshine under the mailbox, closed my eyes, and listened to the water in the nearby irrigation ditch purling gently through a culvert.
In 1994, after spending over $40 million with little result, the Forest Service gave up trying to stop the fires burning through western Idaho. A lesson learned, I thought. But by Sept. 4, 2000, the Salmon-Challis National Forest alone had spent over $63 million fighting fires that common sense said only wet weather would stop. And still the money flowed on, like water.
South of town, the Forest Service was paying the owner of a large dry field $5,000 a day for a fire camp site. The land itself could have been purchased for much less than the agency eventually paid him. Camp trailers rented for $400 a day, to the horror of one fire team leader with 30 years in the outfit. "Since when," he demanded, "do those camp slugs need trailers? My guys are sleeping in tents over in Montana!"
The parking lot was full of new pickup trucks, rented to the fire teams by a local car dealer who would eventually clear a million dollars by leasing vehicles to the Forest Service, then taking them back and selling them.
Firefighting is the cargo cult of small Western towns. For a long time, locals have profited by working on fires or selling supplies to the Forest Service, but lately the firefighting cornucopia has created a class divide among Forest Service employees. The fire organization, with its many lower-graded and seasonal employees, has become fiercely protective of its rice bowl. Knowledge is power, so keep it to yourself. The result? A shortage of experienced hands in other departments when the big fires come. Many higher-graded permanent employees, financially secure, can and do avoid working on fires.
"I just got tired of the whole fire attitude," one non-participant told me this summer. "If they want me, they know where I am."
I knew that in a normal fire year, we of the mapping section would have been ignored. Now, overwhelmed, the fire gods cried for our skills. So we endured hours of ammonia fumes in the blueline room as we ran hundreds of copies of maps, spelling each other when we grew dizzy from the smell. We worked for days with fever and diarrhea before the signs went up in the halls warning us that the water was bad. We drank Gatorade and ate sandwiches brought in by the Army Medivac crew, as we worked into the night, building an outsized aerial photo collage so they could pilot their low-flying helicopters through the smoke.
When fires threatened outlying communities, we worked all weekend on map packages for the structure protection and evacuation crews, making overlays, ripping labels off when we made mistakes, printing more labels on a small machine, over and over. We built computer databases of every building within 20 miles of Salmon, while fire team leaders stood at our elbows to snatch the maps and printouts from our hands as we finished them. And as time went on and the adrenaline wore off, we thought more and more of that doubled paycheck and the difference it would make during the long winter layoff.
But as fire money helped us, it also irretrievably harmed the world around us, and its creatures. I thought of the biologist who sat slumped in a chair and talked about admonishing bulldozer operators — in vain — to raise their blades when crossing creeks. He screamed at helicopter pilots not to dribble fire retardant — deadly to fish — into streams. "Between the Cats and the retardant, they wiped out a lot of spawning habitat where the fires did almost no damage," he told us.
"It’s testosterone overload," another ’ologist told me later, as we looked at a briefing map showing the new firebreaks bulldozed into the Napias Creek drainage, critical habitat for chinook salmon. "The Forest Service hears all the locals screaming ‘Do Something!’ so they hire 18 bulldozer operators. Once you do that, it’s just a matter of time before they put those blades down and run hog-wild, whether it actually helps or not. And in this country, it doesn’t." I heard a pair of feet scuffling near my head, and squinted up at a familiar face. "Are you okay?" he asked. I pulled my truck keys out of my pocket and held them up to him. "No," I croaked. "No, I don’t think I am."
I watched Steve’s sneakered heels retreating down the sidewalk. Ahead of me lay two days of aspirin, hot and cold packs, and finally, a little rest. Seven months later, as the scant snowpack recedes up the mountains under a still unreliable April sun, there is already talk of another drought, another bad fire season. A hundred years of putting small fires out have only made the big fires more dangerous and unstoppable. So the fires will come, and money will be poured upon them.
With last year’s fire checks now gone into the pockets of grocers and dentists, I know that eventually the money will lure me back. Someone’s going to take it home, I say cynically to myself, and it might as well be me. Multiply me by thousands, and you have the reason why wildfire prevention — thinning trees and and setting controlled burns -— will not soon compete with the largess of wildfire fighting.
Louise Wagenknecht works each summer for the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho. She raises sheep and lives in Leadore, Idaho, and is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range.