Friday, August 30, 2013

Epitaph for a big fire


   The Yarnell, the Black Forest, the Beaver Creek, the Rim. If you are a Westerner who lives in the dry, high country, you understand. You may even have had the experience. These names—not unlike the names of famous warships that engaged in the most dramatic naval confrontations of the Second World War—are dug into our cultural memory now. If you hear them, you must pause to remember and consider them.
    Of course, these are the names of some of the great fires of the summer of 2013. What has set them apart is their intensity and their proximity to communities and valuable community resources. The Yarnell in Arizona was especially tragic, resulting in the loss of 19 keen and precious young lives. All were lightning starts in a dry, hot, windy summer in terrain loaded with fuels ready to burn.
    The Rim Fire is still being engaged by a huge crew of firefighters down in California. It is garnering national and international media attention because of its location at the edge of America’s second favorite National Park, Yosemite, and its threat to the drinking water supply of one of America’s great cities, San Francisco. ‘Our’ fire, the Beaver Creek, rose to prominence because its flames were accessible to cameras and approached the homes of internationally known celebrities. No matter, the fickle press corps. We who live and love it here in Blaine County know all too well how it has affected us. Each of you has a story to tell.
    On a personal note, the same lightning storm that started the Pony and the Elk and the McCann and the Beaver Creek fires that have burned the Boise and Sawtooth National Forests passed over my house on U.S. Highway 20 the night of Aug. 7. I awoke the next morning dismayed to see the smoke plume above the hills between us in early morning light. County Disaster Services Coordinator Chuck Turner called me Aug. 9 as the Beaver Creek start crossed into Blaine County and we—lots of folks—began to get organized. BLM crews were already throwing at these several fires everything they had. Mother Nature had her own ideas and flames and heat spread rapidly to the north. Thanks to Harry Rinker’s clear thinking and unhesitating generosity, the Forest Service’s Type I team was opening camp along Buttercup Road—the Incident Command Post, or ICP—by Sunday the 11th. The location proved ideal.
    Last Saturday, I flew around and over the fire. It is not difficult to discern the areas of most intense burning, the boundary of the not-too-old Castle Rock fire and why that area, which served as an effective shield for Ketchum and Sun Valley, did not burn this time. Many portions of the official 111,490 acres within the Beaver Creek Fire perimeter did not burn. The fire created a mosaic. Some
of the hottest, most unpredictable and downright scary fire occurred right on our doorstep.
    The Beaver Creek Fire, fought by over 77 person-years of labor (Great Basin Team 1 only) at a cost over U.S. $21 million and counting, should be noted for three important features. First, it was an especially complex fire with many “moving parts.” It burned in the remotest parts of the county and at the edges of three towns simultaneously. It was very fast growing, with a long perimeter, unpredictable, intense and difficult to fight, occurring as it did in very hot, very dry, very windy conditions over challenging, often steep terrain with plenty of various fuels. It defied expectations daily.
    Second, the effective collaboration of all those who fought it—on the fire lines, in the field, from the air, at the Emergency Operations Center and in and among the many tents at the Incident Command Post—stopped it with the loss of only one home, a couple of minor structures, a handful of relatively minor injuries and no lives lost. A unified command was created early. It consisted of the Forest Service’s Beth Lund, Wood River Fire and Rescue’s Bart Lassman and Ketchum’s Mike Elle. All three are well-experienced. They signed their cost share agreements and got to work. The combination of local knowledge and wildland fire-fighting strategic skill was the right one. Cooperation at the level of Incident Management stood atop a foundation of tremendous collaboration and professionalism among many agencies and individuals involved, who shared the same goals and priorities: to protect life safety, preserve homes and structures, shepherd public resources effectively and efficiently and respect one another in the process.
    Third, the communities most affected, the people forced actually to evacuate their homes and figure out where to go, or to pack overnight bags in case the second alert came, or to wonder intently where the fire would be even in the next few hours, read and listened carefully, behaved responsibly, cooperated with officials there to assist them and most of all helped each other eagerly, generously and lovingly.
    What does our experience with the Castle Rock and Beaver Creek fires mean for us who live at the “wildland-urban interface?” What might it mean for the future of public lands management and the health of our nation’s very precious natural resources? Are there lessons of different kinds we can learn and incorporate into our lives and public policy? We, the people of Blaine County, can help to answer these questions. For now, I look forward this weekend to celebrating with you our mutual successes as one of the most remarkable communities anywhere.

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