Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Horrendous Fires, Part Three: Early Summer 2012

This past summer has been the worst in our experience, here in central eastern Idaho, for hot dry weather and fires. The devastation caused by fires has exceeded the total acreage burned in 2000, when our Clear Creek fire was the largest in the United States that summer. Acreage burned by the end of this summer will probably surpass all the fires in recorded history, including the big burn of 1910 that decimated several major Idaho and Montana forests.

After a moderately normal spring in our mountain valley, we had very little rain and abnormally hot weather. The range grass dried out in late June. Forests became tinder dry. These factors, along with the many acres of beetle-killed trees (dead trees are much more vulnerable to fire than live green ones) and decades of fuel buildup due to restrictions on logging and grazing in many areas, set the stage for catastrophic fires.

We had a moderately normal spring, with enough moisture
for the grass to grow, as shown in this photo of my youngest
and oldest granddaughters riding on the range in early June.

By late June the grass had dried out, as shown in this photo of
granddaughter Heather and her mom Carolyn taking a couple 
green horses on a training ride, riding one and ponying the other one.

Our county is 93 percent federal land (Forest Service and BLM), and some of our surrounding counties are also predominately owned by the federal government. The major industries here, starting 140 years ago when our county was settled, have been mining, logging, and grazing — all of which have been severely curtailed in the past 50 years.

Our county had at least six sawmills when I was a kid, and the timber industry employed a lot of people. Logging on our forests was being shut down during the 1960s when environmental efforts locked up a lot of our region as wilderness and put increasingly strict use restrictions on the rest. Our local economy and schools (that had been getting funds from local timber sales, since our privately owned tax base is so tiny) suffered greatly. The schools now get a federal subsidy instead, but that doesn’t help our local economy and is just one more bill for America’s taxpayers.

Many forests have dead and dying trees and a lot of
old down timber that serve as instant fuel for fires.

During the past several decades, our forests have overgrown in density and become more susceptible to disease, with many trees dead and dying. Historic forest roads that gave access for hunting, logging, or fighting fires have been closed, because of environmental efforts to keep the forests wild and pristine.

The stage was set for billions of dollars’ worth of timber and grass to go up in smoke, putting more carbon into the atmosphere and adversely affecting our air quality many times more than any human-caused pollution could ever do. Instead of beneficial inputs into our economy from these renewable resources, they have burned up, at a huge cost to taxpayers.

Smoke obscures the mountains and the sun — these show
how smoky it's been at our place for the past 6 weeks.

The government has spent millions to fight fires this summer — more than $70 million by mid-September in Wyoming alone and even more in some of the other western states — and many of those fires are still raging. The firefighting efforts have been concentrated predominantly on trying to save people’s homes and private property on the edges of these big fires. There’s no way they could even attempt to control the main thrust of fires that were exploding into major forests and wilderness areas. These are still burning and won’t be halted until snowfall.

Helicopter scooping water. Millions of dollars are spent every year fighting fires, such as by dumping water by helicopter, dropping fire retardant from planes, and using on-the-ground fire crews.

The tragedy is that many of these big fires could have been stopped when they were ignited by lightning strikes (and some possibly by arson). Instead, the government agencies chose to wait and watch — to see if control efforts might be necessary. By the time control methods were begun on some of these fires, the heat, drought, and wind conditions made them impossible to control.

The “let it burn” policy espoused by many environmental interest groups (presumably because fire is “natural” and they’d rather have it burn than be logged or grazed) and by many government officials with that same philosophy has weakened our western economy and endangered our rural way of life. Many of us feel that this illogical government policy and mismanagement of our federal lands (resulting in a horrible waste of our resources) is immoral and that endangering our property and human life is criminal. Not only have people been injured and killed in some of these fires, but the health repercussions from breathing the thick smoke for weeks and weeks has taken a toll as well. Some of us who have to work outdoors have suffered serious health consequences.

Once again our community and our family have been impacted by fire. Even before the fires began in our own valley, devastating fires in Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, and other nearby states were raging out of control, burning ranch property and rangeland, and in some situations burning up their cattle. In many instances ranchers had to bring their cattle home early and put them in their hayfields and pastures, eating up the feed that they always save for winter. Some ranchers have suffered such great losses that they will be bankrupt.

Our own experience began in early July when several friends and neighbors went to Big Piney, Wyoming, to be part of the crews working to try to control that major fire. Our daughter Andrea helped on that fire for a while. While she was gone, my husband Lynn and I helped take care of her four children. At that point in time we didn’t have any large fires close by, and our air was still clear. The grandkids enjoyed helping us here on the ranch and went on several rides with me to check on the cattle. They were having fun and some good experiences in their ongoing horsemanship lessons.

Sammy and Dani enjoyed helping Grandma check the cows.

We didn’t know that things were going to get a lot worse and that the rest of the summer would become an ordeal of enduring heavy smoke and worrying about friends on the other side of town. Many of them had to be evacuated from their homes along highway 93 (toward Montana) when a new fire, dubbed the Mustang fire, roared out of control.

[to be continued]

Read Part One: A Personal Journey
Read Part Two: The 2003 Fire

More about the book, and our lives since, can be found at www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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