Letters From the West

Tragic fire season reached new extremes we should learn from

Firefighters light a back burn near Pine while fighting the Elk fire Wednesday Aug. 14. (Kyle Green/kgreen@idahostatesman.com)

Firefighters light a back burn near Pine while fighting the Elk fire Wednesday Aug. 14. (Kyle Green/kgreen@idahostatesman.com)

This was an tragic fire season that ends sadly here in Idaho with the memorial service today for Bureau of Land Management smokejumper Mark T. Urban at the Interagency Fire Center at 2 p.m.

He died a week ago near Prairie when his parachute did not open. He is the 33rd firefighters to die this year, the most since 1994.

Nineteen firefighters died in June when a fire that burned through Yarnell, Arizona suddenly made a 180-degree turn.  We don’t know why they they were in harms way and may never know.

I’m writing about this season of extremes in Sunday’s Idaho Statesman.

In Idaho, when the Elk Complex and Pony fires began racing across the landscape east of Mountain Home, fire bosses pulled everyone off and told people to get out of the way until the weather changed. And state and private firefighters working for forest protective associations learned from mistakes last year and showed caution in the face of dangerous conditions in fires that still killed a bulldozer operator.

The Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs killed two people and destroyed more than 500 structures in June in an area far from public lands. Then, beginning Sept. 9, a low-moving cold front stalled along the Rocky Mountain front, dropping up to nine inches of rain, flash flooding through fire scars that turned trickling streams into fire hoses of whitewater that knocked down trees, washed away houses and left thousands stranded.

The Beaver Creek Fire raced to the edge of Hailey in August. This led to the second evacuation of the Ketchum-Hailey area in six years, as firefighters struggled to save hotel-sized houses that still had not been made fire-wise. It filled Idaho communities from Boise to Salmon with smoke that chased away visitors in the height of the short tourist season.

Communities like Stanley are looking to burn their forests in the late fall or early spring so they can get on with their lives. As fires burned areas for the second time in only a few years, foresters decide whether to try to replant trees or allow forests to naturally change to brush.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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