THE BUZZ: Where there’s smoke…

By on August 25, 2015

Wildfires burn all around us. How long will we stay lucky?


It’s a constant reminder. As the smoke of dozens of distant fires drifts into the valley, we inhale carcinogens and exhale with hope. The ash of conifers, homes and lives lost in wildfires torching our Western neighbors fills our lungs with every breath we take. It’s so close you can taste it.

What’s on fire?

On the heels of a hot, dry summer, Washington State has exploded into flames. Towns have been evacuated, three firefighters are dead and for the first time in state history authorities are accepting help from civilians to fight fires.

California has at least a dozen wildfires still burning in drought-ravaged regions of the Golden State. More than 11,000 firefighters are battling everything from fast-moving grass fires to 50 square miles of scorched timber in Kings Canyon Park on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.

Dozens of homes have been lost to conflagrations in timber-rich Oregon. The state’s fires have received less national resources and attention than Washington and California. Without adequate manpower, crews are hoping for calmer winds in central and eastern Oregon headed into this week.

Idaho also has multiple fire complexes burning. So does Montana.

If things get hot here

If something were to pop up right now in the Bridger-Teton or Grand Teton, fire managers would find themselves in desperate circumstances.

“The Forest is at ‘draw down’ for fire resources at both management and ground level,” BTNF spokesperson Mary Cernicek said. “We have been doing our best to send resources to critical areas of the country.” In addition to handling information out of the USFS Jackson office, Cernicek has been on the front lines of a wildfire.

Some resources have trickled back to the region but most everything – from engines to air support to hotshots – was deployed long ago to the Pacific Northwest and other areas that sparked first. Demand on national firefighting resources has drained every pool dry. And there’s no end in sight.

“There will still be a continual national demand for at least the next seven to 14 days,” Cernicek said. “While we expect some short-term moderation in the weather over [last weekend] in the [hardest hit] geographic areas, long-term assessments indicate that no season-ending or season-slowing events are on the horizon. Fire managers need to prepare for a marathon rather than a sprint.”

Four geographic areas are under wildfire preparedness Level 4 or Level 5 (the highest there is) – the Pacific Northwest, Great Basin, Northern California and the Northern Rockies. That hasn’t happened since 2007. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

It’s true, USFS has never budgeted more to fight fires than they do now. In 1995, fire comprised 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget, according to the USFS 2015 Fire Budget Report. Half the agency’s annual budget is dedicated to fighting fires this year. “However, the agency is at a tipping point,” the report warned.

Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now an average of 78 days longer than they were in 1970. And the fires are bigger now. The six worst fire seasons since 1960 have all occurred after 2000. Twice as much acreage burns now in an average year than it did three decades ago. Forest Service scientists think that number will double by mid-century. That is if there’s anything left to burn.

No amount of money can buy additional help for firefighters risking their lives on the lines in Washington, California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. There simply isn’t anything left, not even Incident Commanders. Emergency measures are being taken. The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) is actively seeking military assistance – everything from MAFFs (Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems) to ground firefighters to aircraft – through both National Guard and Department of Defense channels.

When those sources tapped out fire managers went international, calling on help from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. With a quiet season in Bridger-Teton so far, nearly every pulaski tool and anyone with a pulse has been deployed west – some on third assignments of the season.

Teton Interagency Fire’s Engine 365 is on loan combating the Route Complex fire in California. Engine 4 is in McCall, Idaho. Jackson District ranger Dale Deiter is off to Oregon. So is PIO Angelica Cacho. Even the National Elk Refuge is pitching in. Lori Iverson was shipped to Oregon. Chris Dippel landed in Idaho.

Smokey says

BTNF fire prevention specialist Lesley Williams-Gomez normally spends her time educating the public on fire safety, helping homeowners to create defensible space around their property, and patrolling for abandoned campfires. A cool, wet July and chilly start to August lowered fire dangers close to home and had many thinking we’re going to be just fine. Williams-Gomez knows better.

“This moisture has allowed our fine fuels like grasses to grow very lush and tall,” she said. “With our nights getting colder, these plants are curing and drying out. They will actually carry fire rapidly now with a little wind. With hunting season coming that adds an extra element of hazard.”

Williams-Gomez is especially worried about hotspots like Shadow Mountain – a rugged, heavily timbered area with little access to water. Curtis Canyon and Fall Creek Road also give her sleepless nights. Given the availability of resources now, if a wildfire were to break out it would receive little more attention than monitoring.

“If we have a small fire in the middle of the wilderness, that’s going to be looked at differently than a fire that is upwind of a community,” Williams-Gomez said. “Things are tight right now. I commend our interagency firefighters out of the park and forest [service] that have been running and gunning all season, some on their second and third roll, and that gets tiring. But they are committed, and staying strong, and ready to come home and do it right here if they need to.”

Williams-Gomez implores hunters to be careful with their fires in the coming weeks and months. “Be smart. Assess the risks. Know the weather,” she said. “Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to build that fire tonight?’”

As for defensible space, it’s probably too late to think about that now.

“I think we got a little lax in the years after the Green Knoll Fire,” Williams-Gomez said, referring to the epic blaze that threatened the town of Wilson in 2001. “I think people are more reactive when there is smoke in the air like now. But the time to do it is not when the smoke is in the air. People need to think about it in the spring. We have many contractors in our area that are great at this stuff. We also have federal grants available to help.” PJH

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