Wildland firefighting changed after 1988 Yellowstone fire
FORESTHILL, Calif. -- Rowdy Muir's voice cuts through the smoky air over a scratchy, public-school loudspeaker.
The men and women who are listening lead crews that have labored for weeks to pound wildfires out of a steep, gnarly canyon a few miles east of this schoolyard. Many watch their new commander wearily in sweat- and soot-stained fire clothes even though it's just past dawn.
Muir stood in their boots 20 years ago, when fire roared through Yellowstone National Park and thousands of firefighters scrambled to protect visitors and employees, along with Old Faithful Lodge and other treasures. He won't send these crews into the chaos he found at Yellowstone. He reminds them of their mission on this summer morning, after a frantic month of trying to get California's wildfires under control.
Wildfire czars have declared this Sierra Nevada blaze the second most important fire in the nation, he tells the crew leaders. They want this fire out.
"It's a large task, but this group can do that," Muir says. "Next couple of days, heads down, butts up and let's put this thing to bed. Agreed?"
"Yes," a few call back.
Living with fire
Stop the wildfire.
Or let it burn.
It's a debate that vaulted into public consciousness at Yellowstone. And although the 1988 fires showed the world the natural value of fire, the debate rages on.
Fire historian Stephen J. Pyne says we're still stuck on Smokey Bear and the question: "Does fire belong?"
"That's easy -- of course it belongs," he says.
"The issue is how do we do it? How do you put the fire back in? We're still struggling with that."
Meanwhile, the need for answers has become more urgent since Yellowstone. The size of wildfires has grown exponentially. More forest and range is susceptible to fire. More lives and more property are at risk than ever before as more people live and play in the West's wildlands. Firefighting costs have ballooned.
Yet Americans still don't know how to live with fire.
In mid-July, as Muir's incident management team takes over the American River Complex fires, he appears to take pains not to send the firefighters into the same policy quagmire he found at Yellowstone.
"Yellowstone was mass confusion," he recalls. "We would wake up every day and get a different assignment. There was never really consistent firefighting."
Muir spent 64 days on Yellowstone's North Fork fire with just one, four-day break in the middle to visit his young family near Flaming Gorge. A longtime fire management officer at the Ashley National Forest in eastern Utah and one of a cadre of incident commanders who handle the nation's worst wildfires, he still calls 1988 the longest fire season of his 23-year career.
Wildland fire-fighting has changed a bit since then.
The national, multiagency system for managing big fires is better organized and involves the best-skilled experts from local state and federal agencies. Firefighting tools -- maps and radios and computers -- can help predict, track and tackle wildfire better than ever. And, thanks largely to Yellowstone's hearty comeback, there's widespread agreement that fire is a good and natural part of the ecosystem.
But, in many ways, Muir and other public land managers still struggle every day with the nation's fitful fire strategy.
"It's tough," says Muir. "I can't say it's not."
"Like I told someone a while ago fighting fire is the easy part."
One of the first things Muir did after getting orders for the California fire was study a map of the area's fire history. The map tells him the area west of the canyon, toward the charming towns of Grass Valley and Foresthill on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, is less likely to catch fire because it burned over the past century. That and the deep canyon geography suggest the fire will move east, where dead trees and thick underbrush can provide fuel under the right conditions -- say, a lightning strike, Santa Ana winds and hot, dry summer days -- to carry the fire all the way to Lake Tahoe.
"To me, that's Mother Nature running an ecosystem," he says.
Since the 1960s, national policy has been that fire started by people is put out. Fire sparked by lightning or other natural causes is free to burn unless it threatens people or valuable structures.
But the California fires have been overwhelming: More than 2,000 fires have destroyed more than 500 structures since June -- including 181 residences. More than 1.2 million acres have burned and 15 people have lost their lives.
Fire managers at Yellowstone -- where blazes scorched 1.4 million acres and killed two over four months -- "struggled with the same issues we're dealing with" today, Muir says.
"Fire was fine to burn across the park naturally and do the things Mother Nature meant to do until we had full suppression at Old Faithful," he says. "And then we do full suppression here and there, and then we're doing full suppression all over."
Like Muir, Joe Krish worked the California fires this summer on a national incident management team. The rest of the year, he works as Yellowstone's fire manager, a job that forces him to juggle what's good for the ecosystem with what's good for the park's 3 to 4 million annual visitors.
"The safety of the public and the employees is paramount," he says, standing below a mountainside where new trees have sprouted in a forest of scorched lodgepole near where the North Fork fire burned in 1988.
Many parts of Yellowstone would benefit from fire today, he notes. One is a large swath of forest north of Yellowstone Lake, where the "resource benefits" of fire haven't been seen in hundreds of years and that caught fire three weeks ago. But, with park buildings and people at risk, the Lehardy fire has been contained on the south and west edges, but firefighters have been pulled out on the north.
"This is a fire we're managing to minimize the risk to the firefighters," Krish says. "There may be a secondary benefit to the forest, but it's certainly not an objective."
Land managers use the term "wildland-urban interface" for areas where people have built homes and businesses in the forests and on the range.
And, because of the risks involved in letting wildfire loose in such areas, they have developed tools for helping the two coexist, for helping people live with fire.
They can "treat" acreage with high potential to burn out of control, with thinning trees, trimming branches and mowing underbrush. They can set small, controllable fires to tidy up a fuel-rich forest floor or easily combustible grasses surrounding, say, a cabin.
This creates a buffer zone against fire.
In Utah, the state forester counts about 7,000 buildings in the wildfire zone. It's a sobering number considering that Utah wildfires burned an area nearly the size of Rhode Island last year.
In California, Gloria Marie has tried to create a buffer zone between her home and the thick woods surrounding it. She and her neighbors have propped up posters thanking firefighters for their efforts, and they cheer crews each night with cowbells and shouts as tankers and crew trucks rumble past on the way back to camp.
"Fire is fire," Marie says, noting that she would rebuild if fire ever claimed her home. "You deal with it the best you can."
Dollars and sense
Cost adds a whole new complexity to wildland fires. A blank check from Washington covered Yellowstone's expenses, but that's history.
Washington leaders want spending cut.
Congress gave the Forest Service $1.2 billion for firefighting this year, less than last year. But, just halfway through the fire season, more than $1 billion has been spent already and another $600 million probably will be needed. About $30 million budgeted for trimming susceptible forest undergrowth already has been shifted already to fighting fire.
Muir runs a frugal operation. He used only half the funding alotted for last year's Milford Flat fire, the largest fire in Utah history at 363,000 acres. Before taking over the American River Complex, he prods managers to economize and bring down the fire's $1-million-a-day cost.
"We're not going over that. In fact, that's coming down over the next few days."
Before lunchtime his first day as incident commander, he meets with a finance official from Washington representing the U.S. agriculture secretary.
Wrap it up
In the smoky morning light, Muir reminds crew leaders not to let firefighters work too many shifts and to report any lost or damaged equipment. He reminds them of the dangers built into rocky canyon slopes and the poison oak and bears populating them. He's a "ground-pounder," he tells them, likely to join them on the fire lines at any time.
Deciding which fires we should live with, which we should prevent, and which we shouldn't -- that's not their problem today.
"Believe it or not, they know what you are doin', and they like what you are doin'," he tells the crew leaders. "So keep it up."
Just over a week later, the crews will have laid down the fires and be heading home.
New tools for fighting wildland fire
Technology and management changes have added precision to fire fighting. Improvements include:
-- Judy Fahys