Note: An earlier version of this article was published in the Nov. 2014 version of the Boise Urban Magazine app.
An essay by Idaho contracted wildland firefighter, Alexis Pickering
No Idaho summer is without smoke hanging above our summer backyard bonfires, night strolls, hikes in the foothills and river floats. Living in the Treasure Valley, we breathe in smoke from all over the northwest, including our timbered land in Idaho.
Idaho is 63 percent federal land and 12 percent state land, which makes us tenants and keepers of America’s forests, rivers and valleys, and subsequent inhalers of a large swath of smoke. And since many of our residents live within walking distance from a full-fledged forest, we are lucky to have an armada of wildland fire protectors in all different forms.
Idaho is 63 percent federal land and 12 percent state land, which makes us tenants and keepers of America’s forests, rivers and valleys, and subsequent inhalers of a large swath of smoke.
Our hearts are in these ancient mountains and trees, and when summer comes, firefighters are tasked with keeping the heart and body of the forest beating. My father is a wildland firefighter and for four summers, I have fought fires with him.
Together we have gone after fires in three states including Idaho. And while we’ve seen struggles and challenges presented in each state, Idaho has stood out in its ability to fight fire right.
A connection to the land: Idaho fights for its forests
In my experience, firefighting outside of Idaho is rarely as challenging and rewarding or successful as it is in Idaho. As a united whole, Idaho deeply cares about its forests, placing a large investment and value in them. The Forest Service and other local groups spend their lives planting, regulating and maintaining our forests not only for the forests’ health, but also for Idahoans and visitors.
Hunters, fishermen/women, backpackers, campers, ranchers, photographers and all other forms of people explore Idaho’s forests. Idaho’s topography is some of the most challenging, and yet, as firefighters, we do the best out of the northwest. (Forest Service; cost effectiveness).
Like many Idaho families, my yard was not restricted to our 20 acres. My sense of home extended into the unpicked wildflowers and the dark green mountain behind our cedar trees where ravens cawed and woke up our dogs every morning. Growing up alongside a living forest and habitat is a great gift and an even greater responsibility.
Idaho’s topography is some of the most challenging, and yet, as firefighters, we do the best out of the northwest.
Many other states and citizens don’t get to experience the seasons and sounds of forests like we do. And when fire season comes knocking on our hunting grounds, pasturelands and riverbeds, we have to protect and assemble quickly and effectively in order to protect what we love.
A diverse challenge: Idaho lands split between two fire regions
Fighting wildfires requires a diverse set of skills, tools and people. The success of wildland firefighting has to include quick assembly of diverse resources as well as proactive and current fire suppression strategies, while carrying out those tasks with fast and consistent containment.
The Department of the Interior measures a fire season performance by four key points, the first being preparedness, the second suppression, third post fire rehabilitation, and lastly fuel reduction. The USDA has clustered states together to help combine and unify resources according to topography and closeness between states.
The USDA has clustered states together to help combine and unify resources according to topography and closeness between states.
Subsequently, our country is made up of ten different fire regions. Western states are smaller regions because they have the most forest fires and contain the most forested land. California, for instance, is the entirety of Region 5, while Oregon and Washington share Region 6.
Idaho is split between two different regions. Northern Idaho is located in Region 1 with Montana and North Dakota. The southern part of Idaho is in Region 4, sharing this region with Nevada and Arizona. Within these regions, firefighting resources can be diverse with varying forest types, topography, climates, strategies and people.
During fire season, the Forest Service deploys most of our firefighting resources and leadership with a small percentage of state and structural firefighters. But when forest fires get too big and there aren’t any Forest Service workers to be had, management teams call in contractors.
Contracted wildfire fighters: The pros and cons
Idaho relies heavily on private contractors – regular citizens who go through accredited educational courses, become certified and pass fire-specific physical requirements.Contractors provide many forms of equipment and personnel, ranging from the typical water truck, to my father’s custom-built Skidgine.
Most hired contractors are property owners who are often surrounded by timber and fire activity and quickly assemble, know the terrain, and their equipment, are well tested. Many of these workers have other seasonal jobs that employ them outside of fire season. Their water trucks can be used for watering down logging roads just as easily as supplying water to engines on a fire line.
While states see a benefit from contractors, inexperience and underpayment of these hired helpers is sometimes cause for concern.
A typical downside to working with contractors is the lack of experience. Another downside is the lack of quality control with their equipment, tools and personal conduct.
Being private contractors, these business owners have to provide their own equipment, make repairs, and arrive fully loaded with all the necessary equipment from fire shelters to the required amount of Pulaski’s, shovels, combi-tools, and rakes.
Idaho taxpayers pay for the Forest Service’s equipment, personnel, tools and supplies. Personnel can potentially get overtime and hazard pay, which the taxpayer also pays for.
Contractors get paid a daily rate regardless if they worked a 12-hour day or a 16-hour day. If a repair must be made to a contractor’s equipment, the contractor has to pay for it out of pocket within 24 hours or be removed from the fire. But if an engine blows on a Forest Service truck, it goes into the shop.
Contractors get paid a daily rate regardless if they worked a 12-hour day or a 16-hour day.
Despite these challenges, Idaho contractors tend have more knowledge and experience in fire suppression because they are surrounded by the forest, they have a great interest and investment in protecting it, and fire season is nearly unavoidable.
Idaho balances contractors and professionals
On other fires in other states, we see contractors reluctant or unable to do tasks assigned to them. These contractors aren’t used to hiking up mountains packing pumps, hoses, food and water or working in 100-degree heat fully clothed for 16-hour days. But in Idaho, I’ve rarely seen a contractor unprepared or unwilling to do the work necessary to protect the forest.
Idaho has some of the most effective firefighting personnel because we not only employ a mix of Forest Service and state workers, but also a filtered, well-educated group of contractors. This mix of personnel allows Idaho to be more aggressive in its firefighting than other states. Some management teams like to sit back and watch the fire behavior and see where the fire goes. For many reasons, Idaho does the exact opposite.
Because the cost of an out of control fire is so great, they respond quickly to any and all fires, regardless of size. We do not hesitate to call in the more expensive equipment such as bulldozers or other heavy equipment to put in aggressive lines to contain the fire because it will ultimately keep people safer and be suppressed faster.
Because the cost of an out of control fire is so great, they respond quickly to any and all fires, regardless of size.
This balance doesn’t only help put out fires faster with less damage to resources and land, but keeps funding low and retains funds for forest maintenance and infrastructure projects, as well as keeping money in taxpayers’ pockets.
The cost of fighting fire: Idaho’s use of resources
Even though Idaho is split between two regions and combined with four other states when it comes wildland fire suppression expenditures, our two regions combined spend less per acre than California’s Region 5 and Washington/Oregon’s Region 6 individually.
California only has 14 percent of forested land in the west and yet, according to climatecentral.org, almost half of the yearly wildfire bill goes to pay for California fires. Fighting fire cost-effectively is paramount to our success and economy in Idaho. Because of this, we are able to focus on maintaining our trails, campgrounds, bridges and reforestation.
However, there is always room for improvement. In Idaho alone, there were 22 projects in 2012 and 2013 deferred, delayed or canceled due to the lack of funds from the fire season.
California only has 14 percent of forested land in the west and yet, according to climatecentral.org, almost half of the yearly wildfire bill goes to pay for California fires.
Most of these projects are crucial in forest management and infrastructure. Every fire season has long-term impacts on our economy, forests and residents.
According to the USDA, Idaho’s “wildfire season is 60-80 days longer and burning twice as many acres compared to three decades ago.” As we see an influx in fires, we also see more Idaho communities coming together and learning about wildfires.
Many rural towns hold free or discounted classes on fire protection, safety and practices on prepping a home, teaching non-firefighters basics about fire behavior. Here, community members ask questions, get updates on what this fire season may bring, and network resources.
To the heart of the matter
At the heart of every great Idaho firefighter is their love of the forest. It is something that cannot be easily taught. And when you’re out there holding a line on a steep mountainside seeing smoke come closer and the grumble of the fire becomes louder, you think about what your options are as helicopters drop water and retardant between you and the fire.
If you accomplished what you set out for, the fire doesn’t cross the line; it holds and essentially dies, keeping homes, precious tributaries, and timber alive. And once the day starts to get dark and command tells us we did our job, we climb down the mountain with packs and empty water bottles strapped to our backs, hiking underneath the canopies of living trees as they breathe the smoke in for us. And we continue on to the next fire.
All photos courtesy Alexis Pickering.