Two weeks in the West

  • The Bartlett Mountain Fire, a burning in eastern Oregon. The tiny ranching town of Drewsey was ordered to evacuate, but the wind shifted, and the town was spared


This summer, the West is as crispy as that chicken you left on the grill for too long during the Fourth of July. Mercury topped the 100-degree mark everywhere from Boise to Tucson in late June and early July. During the first week in July, records fell in every Western state except New Mexico. Although Phoenix is accustomed to sweltering summer temperatures in the daytime, it was the "coolest" part of the day that broke the most records: Some nights, the mercury never dipped below 90 degrees.

Wildfires have flambeed thousands of acres. Flames swept across a hayfield in northeastern Utah and killed three men as they worked on a sprinkler; in the central part of the state, a lightning-sparked blaze scorched more than 300,000 acres in just a few days. The fire periodically closed I-15, and two motorcyclists were killed when they crashed in a thick cloud of smoke.

In Idaho, a 35,000-acre fire knocked out electrical transmission lines and a substation, further straining already loaded lines. Idaho Power reported record electricity use in the state, as air conditioners all over the West sucked juice and strained the power grid. Fire threatened the Kitt Peak National Observatory and a peak sacred to the Tohono O'odham tribe in southern Arizona, and a flaming bird, electrocuted by a powerline, ignited a fire near Aspen, Colo.

Nineteen dead border crossers were recovered over a three-week period in the Arizona desert along the Mexico border. Extreme heat contributed to their deaths.

Closer to the Canadian border, a dip in the river offered little respite, at least for fish. In Yellowstone National Park, hundreds of trout died when the water temperature in the Firehole River climbed above 80 degrees.

Maybe the V.P. can cool things down. Westerners often bellyache about their lack of political influence in Washington, but a recent series by the Washington Post shows that at least one rural Westerner has too much power: Vice-President Dick Cheney. Born in Nebraska, he moved to Casper, Wyo., as a youngster and has called that state home ever since. According to the Post's expose, Cheney influences his staffers and bullies his inferiors - including, at times, the president - usually at the behest of industry.

Cheney's long arm of power has often reached into public lands in the West. Almost as soon as he arrived at the White House, he called up Sue Ellen Wooldridge at Interior (yes, the same Wooldridge who later resigned amid scandal over her relationship with J. Steven Griles and their shady real estate deal with an oil industry lobbyist) and enlisted her help in diverting Klamath River water from salmon to farmers. He was also a driving force behind making Nevada's Yucca Mountain a repository for nuclear waste; keeping the cutthroat trout in Yellowstone off the Endangered Species list; and formulating the rollback of the Clinton Roadless Plan.

In this case, the stereotype of a politically powerless West crumbles. But that other stereotype, that Westerners have a general disregard for the rule of law, holds up just fine.

One law, however, is like the 11th Commandment in parts of the West. Revised Statute 2477, passed in 1866, gave states the right to build roads on federal lands. Though repealed in 1976, the law still applies to "highways" that were in use before the repeal. Rural county commissioners often invoke the statute as they fire up their bulldozers to convert some forgotten cow trail across public land into a redneck highway.

On June 29, U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Jenkins put some figurative sand in those bulldozers' gas tanks by tossing out a lawsuit by two southern Utah counties with RS-2477 claims in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Most significantly, the ruling says that the Bureau of Land Management, alone, does not have the power to grant RS-2477 rights-of-way. Rather, counties must prove their claims in court. That won't stop the counties, but the cost of litigation may force them to be more selective about road claims rather than making blanket RS-2477 claims that cover hundreds of roads.

The burning West

62 Percent of all wildfires caused by humans.

30, 2 Percent of California wildfires caused by "equipment use" and lightning, respectively.

2.3 Percent of California wildfires caused by cigarettes in 2006.

38 Percent of all new homes being built in the wildland-urban interface (WUI).

46,400 Number of acres in the WUI treated with prescribed burning by the National Park Service in 2005.

$1 billion Estimated property loss caused by an escaped prescribed burn in Los Alamos, N.M., in 2000.

61 Number of wildland firefighter deaths since 2002.

$8 Average hourly pay for a seasonal wildland firefighter.

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