BOISE, Idaho -- The war against 1.4 million acres of wildland fires starts here at the National Interagency Fire Center, where the United States' top fire commanders sit in air-conditioned briefing rooms and a bustling dispatch center, where the nearest fire is 60 miles away on the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness, deep inside the Boise National Forest.
Here, it's easy to forget, to pretend it's happening somewhere else. But then they step outside. They get a blast of that dry, 90-degree air in their face, smell the smoke hanging like a bass note under the still air.
It's easy to get distracted, thinking about shipping chain saws to Montana and getting relief fire crews in Utah, and there it is -- in the time it takes to draw a breath -- the smell that inspires the same primordial notion of fear and flight in anything that walks.
Back inside, back at their desks, the phones ring. They forget the rolling death nearby. An e-mail from a fire management team in Wyoming begs for a "hotshot crew," the federal government's top firefighting team. But there aren't any more hotshot crews. They're all out in other mountains, hacking away at fire lines. They're tired. They've been working with sun and fire in their faces since May, some of them. Another e-mail pops up: Another crew is needed, this one in Darby, Mont.
"I wouldn't say we're at the wall, but we're kind of dancing around pretty close to where the wall is," Jim Stires, the command center's director, said last week.
With approximately 80 major wildfires burning in an arc that stretches from 10 Western states across Texas and into Florida, the national center that deploys people, aircraft and equipment is operating 24 hours a day from a 57-acre compound in central Idaho.
This fire season has been unprecedented in its furious intensity: heavy brush in the Western forests has combined with an early summer drought and waves of dry lightning to ignite fires earlier, hotter and faster than any time in the last two decades.
A day in the life of a fire begins with a weather forecast.
Last week, on Wednesday, the forecast for the weekend was unsettling: unstable air likely to spark thunderstorms across Northern California and the Pacific Northwest before moving into Idaho and Montana, where the worst fires already were burning. Then, the trailing edge of a cold front was expected to bring wind gusts of 30 to 40 mph in the Great Basin and the northern Rockies. It would be a firefighter's nightmare.
At Trail Creek fire camp in the Boise National Forest, the morning weather briefing this day is particularly ominous. Every engine, bulldozer, helicopter, plane and crew that could be scratched up already is out battling a blaze that has spread from a single lightning strike on Aug. 15 to more than 26,000 acres.
Incident commander Jim Shell at Trail Creek can only imagine what 40 mph gusts will do to the swift-moving dragon that almost consumed the small town of Atlanta, Idaho, and now is threatening a major ridgeline to the west -- with more towns on the other side of it. He's got to get a bulldozer line in, and get it in fast, before that front moves through.
"If we don't contain this thing now, it's going to go over that ridge into James Creek and we'll probably be chasing it until the snow flies -- and that could be October," Shell says.
By 9 a.m., the morning briefing in Boise is over, and the top commanders of the seven federal firefighting agencies -- the Multi-Agency Coordinating, or MAC, group -- are meeting behind closed doors. At the top of their agenda: how to find a way around the federal policy that requires firefighters to have two or three days of rest after 14 days in the field.
Most years, the crews drawn from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and other agencies work about 600 hours a year on fire duty. This year, the fire season began so early and burned so hot that many crews already are at more than 1,000 hours -- and there's still a month or more to go.
At peak demand are Type-1 Interagency Management Teams -- the crack, 30-member supervisory units with the most highly trained and experienced managers on the federal firefighting force. These teams are the ones with the know-how to manage a fire that has grown into what is known as a "complex": a fire burning over a huge area in multiple locations, threatening several fronts at once, perhaps with lives and entire towns at risk.
A Type-1 firefighting line crew brings similar qualifications and experience; Type-2 and Type-3 crews bring slightly lower levels of capability. Crews of all types have all been fully deployed since late spring, with reinforcements called in from the military, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Some teams are on their fifth major fire -- and at the brink of exhaustion.
A single Type-1 management team, the 30-member Great Basin group headed by BLM fire manager Paul Hefner out of Boise, is coming on line at midnight, a few days after rotating off the 177,984-acre Clear Creek fire in central Idaho.
Already, there are three requests for Hefner's team: the Clear Creek fire they just left, the Blind Trail complex near Jackson Hole, Wyo. -- which at one point shut down the southern entrance to Yellowstone National Park -- and the fledgling Beaver Creek fire near Big Sky, Mont. Beaver Creek is burning only 10,000 acres now, but it's closing in on ranches in an area where property owners have included media mogul Ted Turner and the late newscaster Chet Huntley.
Famous ranch owners are people who might let coordination chief Neal Hitchcock know about it if the fire doesn't get put down fast.
"We get this political (pressure) stuff, but to me it's just one of the nuisance things: It's like bugs you have to brush away," Hitchcock says.
At Trail Creek, where Shell heads a Type-2 management team, there are fears that the fire could grow fast enough and dangerous enough to join the queue of fires bringing requests to Boise for a Type-1 team.
Already, Trail Creek has acted like no fire anybody here has seen before, and many of them have been in the business for two decades or more.
It started, like almost all of them did, with a lightning strike in the middle of nowhere. Lookouts posted on watchtowers at Jackson Peak and Sunset Peak called in the first puff of smoke at the same time on Aug. 15, and U.S. Forest Service firefighters from the Boise National Forest's ranger district in Idaho City responded, dispatching a helicopter crew.
By the time they got to the scene, the fire already was 15 acres -- big enough that they started dropping full loads of fire retardant from air tankers. A second helicopter attack crew was called in, and things were looking relatively good, even though the fire was just six miles from the old mining town of Atlanta, a community of historic houses and lavish summer homes tucked in a nook of the Middle Fork of the Boise River.
By nightfall, the fire had jumped to the other side of the canyon, way too deep and dangerous for firefighters. The next day, the fire had grown to 800 acres. A Type-3 management team was culled out of local firefighters, and a Type-1 ground crew dug in a firebreak line near Sawmill Creek.
On Day Three, everything went to hell. It started in the morning, when the wind shifted 180 degrees and started blowing southwest, down the canyon. Shortly after noon, fire manager Terry Leatherman pulled all the crews out. All they could do was watch something they'd never seen before: a fire roaring down into a canyon. Fires normally travel uphill, preheating the brush and tinder above them as they go. This fire made a nine-mile run down two creeks in a matter of hours -- straight toward Atlanta.
The crews raced into town, setting up a desperate line of defense. They managed to keep the fire about a mile away up on the hill all that day. Incredibly, by nightfall, the wind switched again, carrying the fire parallel to the town and toward a wilderness area.
By Day Four, the fire had expanded to 13,000 acres, and a day after that, was again at Atlanta's door. By this time, Boise had sent in Shell's Type-2 management team, and the entire force had grown to 562 firefighters and support staff. The crew launched a second heroic house-by-house effort to save Atlanta, with fire in some cases burning within 20 feet of back doors. Finally, the flames retreated back up to a ridgeline over town, where they still burn fitfully.
As the MAC meeting was concluding in Boise, Dave Rittenhouse, the Boise National Forest supervisor, pulled in to the Trail Creek fire camp at late morning and was accosted almost immediately. Shell told him he must put in a bulldozer line on the ridge above James Creek or risk having the fire move outside any reasonable containment bounds by this weekend.
But the forest management plan -- the plan Rittenhouse and his staff spent years putting together, negotiating precariously with conservation groups and the timber industry -- says that ridge is in an area without roads. The plan specifically forbids the use of heavy equipment that could send suffocating sediment plunging into creeks that are key habitat for the threatened bull trout.
Rittenhouse consults his fisheries biologist and his archeologist. "You've got to give me an idea of what I'm buying here," he says.
Biologist Mike McGee advises him to plow the fire line. The fire could do worse damage to bull trout on the other side of the ridge if it gets across, McGee reasons. OK, Rittenhouse says finally, but only a 10-foot line, and keep it away from the pristine lakes.
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