Saturday, September 22, 2012

Forest Fire & Smoke


This morning when I woke up, I could spell the scent of smoke.   It is no wonder that the smell had become so pervasive.  There are three fires within 150 miles of Lewiston.  These three fires have already burned over 110,000 acres and will probably burn much more before the season is over.   I have read in our local paper that think this fire season will probably surpass 1996 as one of the worst fire years ever.  Forest Fires in Idaho is something we live with.  Just like others deal with earthquakes along the Andreas Fault, hurricanes in Miami or New Orleans, extreme snow amounts in Buffalo or tornados in the Midwest.  In 1960, my parents were in the middle of one of these fire seasons.
Up on Highway 12 towards the Lolo Pass - two weeks ago.

Taken this morning near Warner Ave in Lewiston, ID.  Normally, you can see hills  and the
downtown from this point.  Visibility is so bad and it looks like a blanket of smoke is hovering everywhere.

During the first year of my parent’s marriage, they lived in Elk City, Idaho.  At the time, there was no electricity in town or phone service.  My parents had electricity because they got from the lumber mill across the road from where they lived.  My grandfather owned the mill and my father worked there unloading logs with the wagoner.  My Dad told me that it was a late summer day in 1960, when he arrived home after working a full shift and was called in to relieve the fire line on the Whiskey Creek fire.  Dad might have been young…but he had already worked a full shift in his job when he was called in to help relieve the fire line.  So, he road in the back of a truck for a few hours and then proceeded to put numerous hours in on the fire line. It wasn’t too much longer when my grandfather stopped by the trailer and told my mother that she better get into the car and evacuate from Elk City.  At the time, Mom was 18 and several months pregnant with my sister.  So Mom got the car gassed up and started to head towards Lewiston. 

Meanwhile, Dad was still working on the fire line with some short breaks for rest and some food.  As Dad said, the food wasn’t so great…but it did fill a gap.  It was hard work trying to clear the snags and create back burns to try and stop the fire.  Dad didn’t know at this point that Elk City was being evacuated and Mom was heading to Lewiston.

Mom often told me that that drive was one of the scariest trips she ever took.  The fire, by that point, had stretched to a lot of acreage.  She was traveling down Highway 12 between Kamiah and Orofino, ID and could see the fire across the Clearwater River.  The Clearwater River is a main tributary to the Snake River, here in Idaho and is not a small creek…it is probably about 80 feet across.  As Mom was traveling down the road in the car, the fire leapt the river to the other side right in front of her.  I’m sure the wind had blown the flames over.  I don’t think it started a fire on the other side of the river…and she didn’t stay to find out.  She made it to Lewiston, ID with no further problems…but was very shaky from the experience.

Dad worked several weeks off and on through that summer and fall during the fire season working the fire lines.  It is dangerous work where the men work long hours under harsh conditions.  Most of the land they are trying to protect has steep terrain and plenty of fuel to keep the fires burning.  So, here we are today – over 50 years later and experiencing yet another bad fire season.  We had a wet spring and dry summer which creates perfect conditions for fires to erupt with lots of dry grasses and low humidity.  Most of these fires are created during lightning storms.  Sixty percent of Idaho’s territory is federal land and much of this acreage is considered wilderness and so there are a lot of constraints on how to fight the fires.  In addition, much of these forests have been decimated by the Pine Tree Beetle and therefore the timber is dead.  So…these fires may not be out and will continue to burn until the snow flies.  We have already lost at least two firefighters that I know of this season.  I pray that those that are fighting these fires and trying to protect homes can remain safe as possible.  Because they are someone’s brothers, sons, grandsons, husbands or friends and their loved one’s are waiting for them to come home!