Holy smokes. And flames. And evacuations. Three weeks ago I drove out of the county to go work at fire camps in Idaho. I was almost embarrassed looking at the Wallowa River while it’s so low and showing more skin than seems proper. Reminded me of glancing at the floor, trying to hold a conversation with someone wearing a hospital gown. But I had to peek, since the river was revealing the anatomy under a few fishing runs of particular interest. Some were about what I figured, but there were a few formations I wouldn’t have guessed so I got a good long gander at why I’ve been losing flies by the handful in some stretches. Be warned, fish. I’ve seen the blueprints now.
It’s so dry and crispy the big fire season projections have sure enough come true. I’m mailing this dispatch to Chieftain headquarters from a wildfire Incident Command Post over in Smiths Ferry, Idaho. A lovely wide spot in the road. My job is setting up and wiring yurts, then fixing things when breakers pop. Calculating the capacity for an electrical circuit is easy enough. You’ve got your volts, watts, amps and if you times or divide those or something, legend says it reveals how many map plotters, laptops, modems, printers, space heaters, air conditioners and coffee makers you can operate. Or ... just don’t plug a whole bunch of stuff into one outlet thingy. That’s my method, which is much, much easier to remember.
I usually send these columns in a few seconds before the last minute, but this time I got ahead of the game and wrote a fun little story about a fire out here they named The Not Creative Fire Fire. I thought that was awfully cute. That column had some jokes and stuff. I was pretty happy with it for having typed it in a tent next to a parking lot with a generator running in my ear. Then I saw the Chieftain headlines from back home and got updates from friends about Troy being evacuated, Hurricane Creek residents being on standby to vamoose, thirteen wildland firefighters killed this year in the West, fire budgets going dry, National Guard called up, Australians firefighters called over ... it’s just really not all that amusing.
I did see in the news some talk of shifting funds toward preventative fire management to reduce the threat, rather than waiting to pour money on fires once they blow up into a crisis. That seems like something worth pursuing. Having spent time driving out to spike camps recently on forest roads, where crews are staged to get back deeper in the hills to attack fires — it appears to me that having road access can sure be a handy thing. I know the drive to close forest roads in the Wallowa-Whitman is a great big complicated issue not for little ol’ me to understand — and that’s good, cause I don’t understand it. And I suppose it’s a drop in the bucket to remove dead wood one pickup load at a time, but I don’t believe I’ll ever understand how there’s not enough budget to reduce fuels and meanwhile you’ve got woodcutters actually paying to go remove dead trees from the forest, but that will be even more restricted if the road closures go through. Also, will somebody explain to me why we can’t go cut wood all winter if the roads aren’t snowed out? I don’t get that.
But I guess we can worry about snow-related matters if we ever get any of it. Thanks to all you fighters of fire out there digging line, hosing down and snuffing out the trouble spots. And will somebody go check on Smokey? Make sure he’s staying hydrated? All that fur combined with the summer he’s having is just a recipe for heat exhaustion.
Jon Rombach is a local columnist for the Chieftain.