Monday, June 14, 2010

30 Mile Fire Memorial, Chewuch River, Washington


Backroads Destinatioin:  The 30 Mile Fire Memorial, Chewuch River, Washington

Summer in the rural west is forest fire season.   It is a part of the ecosystem and a reality for the communities around Forest Service lands.  It has been that way for 100 years.  

As a forestry student working summers for the Forest Service, I looked forward to the wildfires as a break in the routine work of  laying out timber sales and surveying for roads.  The excitement of a forest fire was just what a 20 year old craves.  The overtime and hazard pay made a significant boost in take home pay for college expenses.  The Forest Service has probably paid for more college degrees by employing students through its summer hiring program than any other employer in the United States.

There is a reason why the government pays a premium for work fighting a forest fire.  It is called hazard pay for a reason.  It is dangerous work.  Exciting, and when your twenty you have a different perception of what is truly dangerous. 

In 1910, the Big Burn consumed three million acres and 78 firefighters died.  The Forest Service was under attack and was uncertain if the agency would survive the 1910 fires.  It did survive, and go on to become one of the more successful federal agencies through the 1970's.   This book by Timothy Egan is worth the read, especially if you are traveling in northern Idaho and western Montana.  He gets into the political aspects of the fire, but it is always tempered by what the firefighters and communities did to survive and fight the fires.  These huge fires are a part of history that is still visible in the landscape of Idaho.  Early in my career, I wrote the National Recreation Trail nomination for the Big Creek drainage on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.  The cedar snags give testimony to how dangerous that fire was in 1978.  You can feel the presence of the ghosts of firefighters as you ride the trails.  And a hundred years later the impact of the fire is still visible.

In 1949, 13 firefighters died fighting Mann Gulch Fire in Montana.  The title of the book by Norman Maclean is Young Men and Fire.  Prior to these deaths, injuries and fatalities were accepted as a part of firefighting.  Suddenly, perceptions changed and a new attitude of concern and safety emerged within the agency. After that, the Forest Service focused on investigating why fatalities occurred and what could be done to prevent future fatalities.  Working for the Forest Service in the 1970's, I found an agency obsessed with safety.  The Park Service and BLM were merely concerned.  In 1979, while in my 20's, I visited Mann Gulch and was sure that the things learned from this devastating fire would keep it from happening again.  But, it did happen again.  In 1994, the South Canyon Fire resulted in the loss of 14 firefighters.  But these were fires that occurred elsewhere.  Even though the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests had large, dangerous fires, few fatalities occurred from the 1970's forward.  This all changed on July 10, 2001.

The fire started as a campfire where people were roasting hot dogs and the fire escaped.  They were never found.  It was a small fire.  A large fire was burning in Libby Creek, on the other side of the Methow Valley.  It ceased being a small fire in the late afternoon when it blew up and claimed the lives of four firefighters.  Reading the fire reviews, and later investigations, I learned that it is not one big mistake that takes your life, but a series of small mistakes that snowball until it is too late to reverse course.  We work harder and harder on safety, but the human element and those little mistakes can often result in disaster.  These books are worth reading to see how firefighting has changed over the years.  As you travel around the west this summer and see or smell smoke or hear local newscasts about wildfires in the area, think about and appreciate the risks that our firefighters take every summer.
The songwriter,  James Keelaghan, wrote a song about the Mann Gulch fire.  Here is a You Tube link to the version by Cry, Cry, Cry:  Cold Missouri Waters.  Great pictures  Be sure to read the comments on the video.  It is like sharing lunch or a beer with firefighters when they ask the question.  Why?

As you travel to the 30-Memorial site, the effects of the fire gradually start to appear.  As you travel up road you can see how the fire intensified as the day went on.  This is the view from the burn over site 10 years later.

Firefighters throughout the country have come to the 30-Mile Memorial to reflect on that day in 2001.  They leave items that are important to them and firefighters throughout the country.  It is worth visiting and reflecting on what happened that July day.

Read the books.  These are available at most libraries and used book stores.  The set of three will give you a understanding of fire and the young men and women that fight them today.

The Memorial site is easily visited if you are staying in the Chewuch River area.  
See our previous blog entry:  Chewuch River .  The Memorial site is a short drive from the camping area.

Fire Outlook for 2010.  This is the outlook for this coming year.  It looks like above normal conditions for northern Idaho and western Montana.  

During Fire Season the SIT Report:  Incident Management Situation Report  gives a National overview of current fire situation throughout the United States.  Incident management teams respond to more than just fires.  Notice on the SIT report that teams are starting to be deployed to the spill and the flash flood in Arkansas.  

Update June 19th, 2010.  The Forest Service has set up a web site on the 1910 fires since this year is the 100 year anniversary of the fires.  Here is the link:  Forest Service 1910 Web Site .  Great site with photos and written reports from that time.  If you are going to be in north Idaho or western Montana this summer click on the events listings.


Dugg said...

Another good fire website is Forest fire has been definitely on my mind of late.

I'm currently camped on the edge of Arizona's largest wildfire, the 467,000 acre Rodeo-Chediski, which tore through here eight years ago this week. Snags continue to remain a threat to unsuspecting dispersed campers.

Next week I'm headed to the Flagstaff area, where over a thousand fire fighters are currently battling three separate blazes. Fortunately it looks like my favorite haunts have been spared---so far at least.

Laurie and Odel said...

Vladimir, we were planning to visit the Memorial today, July 10, 2011. While in Winthrop to have breakfast, we noticed groups of firefighters massing at the farmer's market area. Turned out that the firefighters and families were heading to the memorial for a remembrance service.

We're going to go tomorrow, instead. We took a local's advice and hiked to Foggy Dew Falls today - so much water!... and we weren't intruding on anyone's gathering.

Safe travels,
Laurie and Odel

Vladimir Steblina said...

Enjoy your stay in the Methow. It is a great corner of the country.

We really enjoyed dinner with you folks and look forward to running into your again on your travels.

Hopefully, we will be heading east to Montana soon.

Becc.a said...

I couldn't reach the memorial this past weekend. The road is very hard on a sedan lower clearance vehicle. 4 miles to end the road must have washed out and soft sand was in its place so I could not continue further. Such a bummer I really wanted to visit the memorial! I suggest a suv or larger vehicle Beautiful drive out there though!