Saturday, August 22, 2015
Yellowstone National Park some years back, during one of the fire seasons
From what I have been reading, some are blaming the catastrophic wildfires in the West this year to environmentalists. I don't know if that idea originated with a radio pundit or just those who resent any environmentalism, but I thought I’d put out a little history on wildfires.
They were factors in nature long before men even got here. They would rage across the land with only weather eventually to stop them. Nature is good at starting fires with those dry thunderstorms. Native Americans also used fire to clear land as heavy timber wasn’t as good for their survival needs. If you read much about Lewis and Clark, they nearly starved coming through miles and miles of thick forest where nothing edible was to be found.
I have personal experiences with fire. I grew up in the Columbia River Gorge and our farm property went up into a wilderness made famous as the Yacolt Burn. There was more than one Yacolt Burn but the most well-known, with the greatest loss of life, was in 1901-- http://www.lewisriver.com/yacolt/burn/
A later Yacolt Burn was a factor in my life. I was nine years old when fire came down out of the hills to threaten our farmland and home. I am not sure how that one started, but I remember going to sleep at night with the glow of red on the horizon. I left to catch the school bus, unsure if there’d be a home when I returned. My father and the other neighbor men started a backfire to protect their land. The firefighters at that time were only trying to protect homes. The backfire turned the fire back into the wilderness. The authorities were angry at the men. Backfires can be risky. Men have to know how to set them or they can make it all worse—but the men did know, and it saved our home, barns, and those of our neighbors. My parents had some timber burned but were able to sell those that were salvageable (my brother made good money by opening our farm gate for the loggers to go through without having to get out of their trucks—jealous? A bit).
The other fire from my childhood was the Tillamook Burn. As with the Yacolt Burn, there were more than one of them. We would drive to the Coast through the burned out forests. It was great for stirring the imagination of children—until the hills were replanted and soon you’d not know it had happened.
I’ve also been in Montana during fire seasons, seen fires on the hillsides and the air so heavy with smoke that you couldn’t breathe without it making you sick. I got some of the most beautiful photos ever in Yellowstone one year from that smoke and the glow. Some of the forests there have naturally reseeded themselves. Some still are bleak many years later due to the fierceness of the heat. Arizona has also had its share of terrible fires. A big one roared out of the hills and took Zane Grey’s historic cabin up on the Mogollon Rim country—which was a big loss to someone like me who had been there twice but hoped to go again someday.
Environmental practices can lead to less fire risk by thinning forests and doing selective burns. Clearing out brush around homes (no, it’s not as pretty), not having cedar shingled roofs (we gave up our beloved shingles for that reason), and cutting down trees that are too close to the dwellings can help reduce risk. In the end though, a catastrophic blaze will overpower all in its way.
We’ve spent a lot of money and time this year being sure we have irrigated our farmland as much as we can although our cattle graze on leased, tinder dry land, and we can’t do anything about that. Every time I smell smoke, I go outside to look at the horizon in all directions. A few times, it’s been there. Several small fires have started this year but the firefighters have gotten on them right away. Logging and farm equipment can start fires even with all the precautions responsible users take. Once we had to take some of our possessions into town because we were on one of the advance warning categories-- incidentally, what I wanted protected were photos and irreplaceable Native American pottery and rugs.
Late summer and early fall is when country dwellers worry. What might happen here or in any rural location is not an event brought on by an ideology. Sometimes, it’s manmade. Often it’s nature, and although many humans want to think we are beyond nature—we’re not.
Fighting these fires is the most dangerous job I can imagine as they are unpredictable, winds change their direction, but they create their own winds. When those elements combine with dry thunderstorms, there is often no protecting the wildlife, livestock, humans, or structures in their path. It would be nice if there were pat answers as to how to stop them and the kinds of catastrophe we are seeing this year. I don’t believe there is.