Firefighters Battle Human Factor

Thursday, August 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAMILTON, Mont. – After a steep hike to the top of a hill overlooking Dixon Creek, Bobby Kitchens pointed to a mound of rubble surrounded by blackened trees, smoking stumps, and everywhere, a 2-inch layer of gray soot.

"This was one beautiful home, someone's dream home, with one beautiful view," he said, sweeping an arm across the gloomy panorama left behind by forest fires that swept through this area on Sunday. A thick fog of smoke still lingered in the air, and, stretching into the misty horizon, all that could be seen on the rolling hills below were blackened tree stalks, many still smoking.

The house that Mr. Kitchens, a Forest Service information officer, was pointing out had been reduced to the ashen remnants of someone's lost mountain lifestyle: twisted tin; stones from a toppled chimney; a half-melted refrigerator; some charred mattress springs; and a scorched television set overturned when the table it was resting upon burned away.

"These people did a lot of things right in protecting their house. They just didn't do enough," Mr. Kitchens said.

Amid what officials are calling the nation's worst fire season in more than 50 years – with 70 major fires consuming over a million acres of forests in a dozen Western states – Forest Service officials are having to answer a lot of questions about this summer's unprecedented crop of forest fires, Mr. Kitchens said.

"A lot of people say, 'Why don't you just put out those fires?' Frankly, it's just not that simple," he said.

In addition to the sheer magnitude of this year's fires, trends in population migration and some Forest Service policies exacerbate the difficulty of combating them, he said.

One problem, he said, is what the Forest Service calls "human interface."

"We've got too many people moving into heavily wooded areas like this. There's no way we can save a home like this, positioned at the top of hill, surrounded by all these trees. It's just not going to happen," he said. "When humans interface with the natural environment in a remote setting, you're going to have problems.

"I've been fighting fires for 37 years, and I see a definite trend. It used to be we'd never see a house or structure when we were on a fire, but these days, it's rare that you have a fire where you are not trying to save buildings and people," Mr. Kitchens said.

The Forest Service's official policy, he said, is to protect people and structures first, then to worry about putting out the fire.

"Saving houses and buildings diverts resources away from containing the fires, so you ultimately get bigger fires with more destruction," he said.

And no place is that problem more apparent than in the Bitterroot River Valley of Montana.

In terms of property damage, the valley may be the part of the state that is most vulnerable to forest fires. Ravalli County, where Hamilton rests, is the fastest-growing county in Montana, having grown 40 percent in the last eight years. There are 35,000 people living in the dry Ponderosa pine forests in the valley bottom.

And that is where the fires burn the hottest, said Bill Armold, a planner for the county.

"People have come here because it's the last best place," Mr. Armold said. "It's an unspoiled picturesque mountain valley with views, a river and wilderness."

One of those people is Lisa Wissenbach, who was canning tomatoes Sunday when a city official told her it was time to evacuate the home she and her husband had built in the community of Pinesdale.

On Wednesday, she was still staying at a junior high school in Hamilton with her five children, waiting to hear if her home would survive the fires moving near Pinesdale.

Beyond the growing population, another factor in the fire problem is the response to low-intensity fires, Forest Service officials say.

Western ecosystems have adapted to periodic, low-intensity fires that clean out debris and thin the number of trees. But for decades, the policy has been to suppress all fires, and people have built their homes amid a dangerous accumulation of fuels.

"People think the more trees you have, the healthier the forest, but actually, it's just the opposite," said Jerry Williams, director of Fire and Aviation Management for the Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula, Mont.

"A healthy forest has 60 to 70 trees per acre. Instead, we have 600 to 700 trees per acre here, and it's the driest period ever recorded in some places. These places are very vulnerable to high-intensity fire," he said.

Statewide and across the West, the task of fighting the fires was daunting. Montana Gov. Marc Racicot closed more than 6 million acres of southwestern Montana to public use Wednesday. Montana's 19 largest fires had scorched 300,000 acres Wednesday.

Officials were scrambling to find firefighters and resources to combat the blazes. More than 20,000 firefighters are on the lines in the West, and the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho is recruiting up to 80 people from New Zealand and Australia.