Fire World

Thorp Mountain lookout
Thorp Mountain lookout

Washington State is on fire. Over 350,000 acres have burned so far in 2014, more than five times the yearly average. And it’s only August 11. Fire season could extend into October. Just about everyone I know in the Forest Service has stopped doing what they normally do. We are all working for fire now. I spent six days at Thorp lookout for fire detection and monitoring. Watched four big smoke columns go up every afternoon. While hiking out, I listened to a radio drama play out. A new fire was spotted by the observer plane, and personnel hurried to the scene. It grew quickly from four acres to a hundred, and burned actively all night.

The next day should have been a day off, but I went to work to help organize the closing of roads and trails for public safety. The next three days started with the morning briefing at 0600, then hours of driving, scouting, mapping, asking questions, getting answers, then returning home at 7 or 8 PM to water my garden and get some sleep. As a Resource Advisor, I represent my local ranger district and work with the team of wildfire specialists who have come in to manage the fire. Every aspect of fire suppression can affect water, soil, vegetation, roads, trails, cultural and historical features, wildlife. The effects are both short-term and long-term. My role is to facilitate conversations and cooperation that lead to best practices so that when the fire is out, we have caused the least amount of harm. The forest will recover. Eventually.

I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. It’s daunting. As I drive the dusty roads and listen to the radio, watch the helicopters bustle back and forth with water buckets and pay attention to weather and smoke, I realize that I’ve gained a lot of useful experience over the years. During the 1980s and 90s, I went out with twenty-person crews as a basic firefighter. It all starts there–digging fireline, mopping up, patrolling for smokes. Spent time in lookout towers, observed weather, worked as a fuels technician on prescribed burning projects. Did some dispatching, rode around on fire engines, sprayed water, pulled hose. I gained some specialized qualifications and started going to fires as a single freelancer. My reputation as a backcountry-capable lookout/observer grew. I know my way around a fire camp, but prefer smaller fires with few social and political complications. You don’t always get what you prefer, however. So I find myself on a small but complex fire moving across multiple land ownerships with expensive homes a mile away. The terrain is steep and partly unroaded. There is a critical shortage of personnel and equipment. Eight thousand feet of fire hose was ordered two days ago and has not been delivered. Helicopters come to drop water on this fire but are diverted to another fire. It’s hot and dry with more lightning and wind in the forecast. Today was a difficult day and the fire grew, pushing on the ridge above town. Smoky air comes in the open windows of my house.

It’s Day 10 for me, and it feels like somebody threw gravel in my eyes. My throat is permanently dry. Tomorrow I sleep in, a one-day respite to do laundry and other mundane chores related to daily life. Then it’s back to whatever fire season throws at us. It feels like we’re in for a long haul. Now I’m glad for all the time on firelines, in lookouts and in the backcountry. Glad to be a generalist interested in everything rather than a specialist. Glad to be learning new things, and helping out where I can. And glad for cool night air and sleep.

Morning, before the fun starts
Morning, before the fun starts

2 thoughts on “Fire World

  1. As a resident of Washington I thank you and all the firefighters. We are getting a little rain right now in northeastern Washington and so far no lightning. I love driving over to the “other” side of the state but I think I’ll dread it now since all my favorite routes seemed to be marred by fire. Hope it ends soon.

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