|UP IN FLAMES|
August 25, 2000
TOM BEARDEN: A weary crew trudged once again into battle in the Bitterroot Valley of Southwestern Montana, still trying to encircle one of the hundreds of forest fires that have consumed nearly six million acres of western timber in less than a month. There are so many fires that all of America's wildfire-fighting resources are already committed. It has forced the Forest Service to hire firefighters from as far away as New Zealand and Australia. Crew leader Michelle Wigand is from Canada; her team is searching for smoldering underbrush.
MICHELLE WIGAND: They're worried about some of this over here spotting across the river. And this is where the structures are on this side of the river. So that's very bad if it comes over. So we're trying to get to them before they develop and they start to spread and cause more damage. So as soon as we find a spot of fire, we put it out right away.
SPOKESMAN: Thanks again for all your help.
TOM BEARDEN: And for the first time, a Canadian management team is in complete charge of a fire on U.S. soil. This fire is known as the Skalkaho complex, south of Hamilton, Montana. Ontario's Matt Myers is the commander.
MATT MYERS: No fire management organization has the ability to plan and be ready for this size of an event, and so therefore, they need help from wherever they can get it. And they've asked us for the help, and we're able to, and we're happy to help them at this time.
TOM BEARDEN: Myers says he's never seen anything like these fires.
MATT MYERS: Never before in history have these conditions been experienced. So we have to be cognizant of that as we go about our business. This isn't a regular fire season. This is not a regular hot fire season. This is not - 1988 - probably the Yellowstone fires were probably the last large, you know, extensive fire season, and this is by far beyond that.
TOM BEARDEN: Managing such a fire is a complex undertaking.
SPOKESMAN: This is all the stuff you did the recon on yesterday.
MAN ANSWERING: Yes.
SPOKESMAN: So now we have to do the infrared and get that on.
TOM BEARDEN: Canadian managers are working in a county fairgrounds building, mapping the extent of the fire, and sending resources where they're needed most. It requires long hours and attention to detail. Myers has to be alert to signs of fatigue
MATT MYERS: There's still a lot happening out there. They're still running on adrenaline. What's going to start happening, as we start turning the corner on this fire and starting to get a handle and making some successes and holding onto line, we'll start getting into what we call the grind. Once we start getting into that grind, that's where, you know, all of a sudden you start running out of energy. And that's what I'm personally watching out for, for my team now. That's the stage we're in right now.
SPOKESMAN: Can you guys see the plume cloud from there?
TOM BEARDEN: The grind is even tougher on the men and women actually on the fire lines. Rob Miramontez runs a firefighting crew from the Bitterroot Valley. It's one of 13 fire crews in this area. Shifts start at dawn, and sometimes last until 11:00 PM. The crew has to contend with grueling physical labor, the heat, and the smoke. Miramontez also has to be on the lookout for exhaustion.
ROB MIRAMONTEZ: First we have to watch their actions on what they're doing out there. Sometimes little things will key in, like a simple thing like just walking, if they're starting to stumble a lot; if they're paying attention; if they're starting to gaze out there and get pretty gazy, that's a good indication that things are starting to wear on them.
TOM BEARDEN: Even though there are slightly more than 2,000 people involved in the firefighting effort in the Bitterroot Valley, just 260 people are actually on fire lines. Do you have all the help that you need?
ROB MIRAMONTEZ: We could use a lot more, that's for sure. But at the present time, nationally, the resources are short. I would have to say we don't have enough, right now we don't.
TOM BEARDEN: More bodies? More equipment? What?
ROB MIRAMONTEZ: Yeah, more bodies. Sometimes the mechanized equipment can only take you so far and then you have to go on foot from there. Air support... everything is stretched thin this year. This fire season is - you know - everybody is working pretty hard out there.
TOM BEARDEN: The fires have been equally hard on local residents.
RESIDENT: When I first moved it here, this was almost like a rain forest. See these hills? They were dripping with water. Now it's so dry.
TOM BEARDEN: Bud Yearsley was forced to evacuate his mountaintop home nearly three weeks ago as the fires swept over nearby ridges.
BUD YEARSLEY: Here we are. It's good to be home, I'll tell you.
TOM BEARDEN: He lives alone, several miles from the nearest paved road. Yearsley had gotten permission to make a brief visit to check on his property. No one has any idea when he'll be allowed to return permanently. He showed us how he had followed firefighters' instructions on how to prepare his home.
BUD YEARSLEY: They wanted everything away from the walls all around. So like I say, I got about seven truckloads of furniture out and there, it looks like the wreck of the Hesperus. You can see how clear the walls. I had a hutch here, a clock on the wall, and furniture all around here.
TOM BEARDEN: What's the point of that?
BUD YEARSLEY: Because of combustion. If the heat were to come through, it could catch on the house, it has a feeder all the way through. So they had us throw the drapes down.
TOM BEARDEN: Is it worth it all this hassle to live up here?
BUD YEARSLEY: Yes.
TOM BEARDEN: Why?
BUD YEARSLEY: Well, not to put Jersey down but I came from New Jersey where it was 10,000 people to a square mile, and then I have this - you make your own comparison.
TOM BEARDEN: Yearsley is staying with relatives, and is confident his home will survive. But not everyone is this sanguine. A few local residents have criticized the Forest Service for not attacking the fires more quickly. In the regular meetings that Commander Myers holds, he tries to explain what can and can't be done.
MATT MYERS: Up on top of the ridge, the fire was laying in a gulch. And it's an extreme watch out situation for us. We knew because of the fire behavior - predictions for that day, we knew that fire was going to come up out of the gulch and come up to the top of the hill, and we didn't want our fire crews going up on top of the hill and have that happen simultaneously.
TOM BEARDEN: Rod Richardson is the supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest.
ROD RICHARDSON: I see a lot of stress in people - not only in the firefighters and in the community as well because this thing is so frustrating. It's so hard to have control of anything in your life right now. But I would say most people are very understanding, and even those who are angry, they're just looking for somebody to vent. It's a tough time for them. There's very little in their life they can control. If they're out of their homes, they don't know when they can go back. It's just upsetting a lot of lives right now.
TOM BEARDEN: We just spoke to one gentleman who lives on top of a hill. Why can't you tell him when he can go back?
ROD RICHARDSON: The nature of the fires this year is such that until we get a secure black line right down to our mineral soil line, whether it be from a cat line or a hand line, we can't guarantee that that fire won't jump and take off again. We've been getting spotting on these fires, fire brands that move with the wind or with the column, two miles ahead of the fire on the big days. So anyplace we have any risk like that it would be unadvisable to go back in.
TOM BEARDEN: The fires have also had a devastating effect on the local economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism. National Guard troops man checkpoints on many highways, enforcing federal and state orders that have closed nearly 20 million acres of public lands to recreation. Chuck Stranahan runs a fly fishing shop and guide service. Last August the shop grossed $10,000. This August: Under $300. Out of state fishermen have canceled their vacations. And he's not sure his business will survive.
CHUCK STRANAHAN: It's been disastrous for my end of the local tourist economy.
TOM BEARDEN: Stranahan says when you couple the financial stresses with the physical discomforts of the fires, like smoke so thick that sometimes you can't see more than 100 yards, some people are starting to get depressed.
CHUCK STRANAHAN: You can't help but find it depressing, and people are on edge. But I think underlying that, we know it's bad out there, we know this can put us on edge. So what do we do? We deal with it. We try to rise above it, try to take a long-term view, and hang in there.
TOM BEARDEN: But forest supervisor Richardson says even that's not going to be easy since in the long view, these fires will inevitably lead to difficult discussions about recovering.
ROD RICHARDSON: What I know out of this right now is we need to find a better way to go through the recovery process, bringing the communities along with us as we do. Right now the emotions are pretty raw on all sides, and so it's hard - you know - it's just hard for people to be able to express those emotions. and I think as time goes by, I'm going to work hard at trying to find solutions that pull the community together.
TOM BEARDEN: And is anybody to blame for what happened here?
ROD RICHARDSON: I don't like to go to blame because blame doesn't get to any solutions. I'm hearing blame here in the community. We may not be fighting the fires hard enough like we used to -- those kinds of things going on. And I don't see any solutions coming out of that. I know there is a large cohort of folks out there looking to affix that on no matter where that will come from. I would rather take what we do know that's common between us and move forward with that than dwell on that other end of it.
TOM BEARDEN: Unfortunately for the people of the Bitterroot Valley, the recovery stage can't really begin until the fires are out, and fire managers readily concede that even though the government is spending millions of dollars to protect structures and build hundreds of miles of fire breaks, many of these wildfires will continue to burn until snow arrives in the fall.