Burning Bushes

In the Fishlake Mountains of Utah, i-624391ab54e91c440740ce043c520eda-blackhawk.jpgseveral fires are steadily burning. As the American West enters yet another dry season, there will almost certainly be more. Folks around these parts have been whispering about the increasing fire danger, dreading another year like 2002. We reffered to that period of time as "the summer of fire", when the Hayman fire, started by a disgruntled forest service worker, burned over 7 million acres of land and destroyed over 100 homes. This year is shaping up to be disturbingly worse. Why? The Bush administration thinks that the bulk of our firefighting helicopter force can be of better use in Iraq:

The Rocky Mountain News reported Monday that 11 of 12 heavy Guard helicopters equipped for firefighting have been transferred to Texas for deployment to the war zone.

The four Chinooks capable of dropping 3,000 gallons each and seven Black Hawks that can carry 660-gallon buckets were used only as backup to leased civilian firefighting aircraft, but they were frequently a critical tool in halting disastrous wildfires. Their departure leaves the state firefighting fleet with just one-third the water-carrying capacity of last year.

And this is after a good portion of the fleet was grounded due to age:

[T]he federal effort is hampered by the fact that only 16 of the country's 46 civilian heavy air tankers are flying this year, following a series of crashes and maintenance problems.

Senator Ken Salazar is asking the Air Force how they plan to deal with the shortage:

"If fires do occur this season, the availability of the Air Force and Air Force Reserve to assist our firefighting efforts will become an issue of urgent, and possibly life-or-death, importance," the Democratic senator said in a letter to Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne.

(Note: the author of the article, Anna Imse, warned us back in the winter of 2005 that this might happen: ""Next fire season will be a challenge for us," Maj. Gen. Mason Whitney, adjutant general of Colorado's Guard, told the legislature's Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday. He said it is possible that the helicopters' 18-month deployment will keep them out of the state for the 2007 fire season as well.")

I skimmed this article last week, when it was released, but I was too busy preparing for my road trip. The road trip, however, made the news eerily real, when we drove by the Annabella fire, located about 7 miles southeast of Richfield, Utah, just south of I-70.

We decided to skip a side trip to a petroglyph panel when we noticed a large thunderhead moving towards panel in the San Rafael Swell. As we approached Richfield, we saw that one of the lightning strikes we witnessed had sparked a fire up on the hill:

i-22e22e24a4224ead4634ea59a15d2108-afire6-8-06.jpg

At the time, the fire had just begun, and we hardly expected any aircraft on the scene. But when we returned on our drive home, four days later, the storm had vanished, but the fire remained:

i-2cf13a18016667444df1be79e9fa9c04-dayslater.jpg

Still no aircraft in sight. Luckily, UtahFireInfo.gov reports that the fire has finally moved to an area where it can be contained by the few (2) helicopters they have available:

The Annabella Fire was being managed in a confined strategy due to rough terrain and concerns for fire fighter safety. The fire has now moved to an area where direct suppression activities can occur and plans are in place to contain and control it. This means the use of people, dozers, aircraft and engines to limit the growth of the fire and protect resources at risk.

This is good news for those near Richfield, but other fires are burning elsewhere in the Fishlakes. A planned fire, near Meadow (one of my favorite spots and the setting for my in-progress novel) is only accessible by aircraft:

The Meadow wildland fire use fire is burning in a mixed White Fir and Aspen fuel type with dead and downed fuel loading. The terrain is steep and rugged with accessibility by air.

(I can vouch for that... we once tried to get lost up in those hills.)

These stories may soon come to Colorado, as well. Today a fire ban was extended in Boulder County. (6/14 Update: additional fire bans went up today in several parks and forests.) Also, as the Summit Daily News reports, wildlife officials are doing the best they can to reduce fire danger in the Rockies, which has increased due to an upsurge in the pine beetle population:

The Dillon Reservoir forest health project would clear dead and beetle infested lodgepole pines across several thousand acres around Keystone, Dillon and Frisco. The proposal includes 20 acres of patch cuts, the removal of older trees from about 305 acres and reduction of hazardous fuels from about 715 acres in the wildland-urban interface.

While I believe it is perfectly natural for the forests to burn (the pine trees actually prefer it, every once in awhile) on occasion, we need to be prepared to protect our homes if necessary. No one in Colorado wants to see another Summer of Fire. It inspired a short story of mine, but I can think of better ways to find ideas.

Someone needs to tell Bush to stop using all of our resources in Iraq, or we won't have any bushes or trees (or much of a country at all) left at home when we're done. (If we're ever done...)

For more forest fire news, try one of the following links:
National
Utah
Colorado

Photo credits: Blackhawk helicopter photo via Dragonfly Global Productions, LTD., Weblog with the following caption: "A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter drops water on the blazing oil pipeline sabotaged 2 times last week. This pipeline is the financial lifeline for Iraq." (Emphasis by the blog's author, Charlie, who appears to have interests in both the economy and fractals.) All fire photos were taken by the author.

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We had severe fires a few years ago here in B.C., hundreds of homes went and one town was wiped out (few casualites). The biggest problem was not lack of equipment but that the prior approach to fires, i.e. putting them out ASAP, had resulted in a huge build up of debries on the forest floor and once this got going there was little that could be done until the rains came. Our governement has chosen to respond by begining a "clean up" in those areas that would put peole and homes t risk and are othewise more willing to let fires burn when feasible.

No question having all the helicopters fighting a stupid war is a dumb thing but a more sensible fire strategy would also help.

By CanuckRob (not verified) on 13 Jun 2006 #permalink

I agree, Rob--and Colorado has come a long way in using supervised fires to reduce the amount of debris. Even so, as the Hayman fire taught us, accidents happen, and can quickly go out of control. It was the same situation: They were slow in calling up the aircraft to fight the fire, and miles of forest were burned as a result. This summer is looking to be even drier--If we're short on equipment all together, how bad will it get?

Well, my weekend trip was east through Rocky Mountain National Park then south on Hwy. 40. The number of dead trees due to pine bark beetle was simply astounding. Just a roadside estimate, but it looked like 70% of the standing trees were dead. This area needs to burn and wants to burn. I don't think the folks in Granby and Winter Park are going to be happy about it, but it's inevitable.
Rob's comment about the helicopters fighting a stupid war is on point, but which stupid war? The fire supression history in this state has created a disaster waiting to happen.

RWW, I sadly think your estimate isn't bad... The pine beetle devastation is just awful to see. We hit the high country around sunset, and the alpine glow made the dead trees near the tops of the hills glow an eerie, ominous red. Say hello to the Summer of Fire, pt II.