Confessions of a Hotshot

Article by George Sibley

Forests – July 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

In July of 1994, fourteen firefighters burned to death while fighting a wildfire in scrub oak, piñon pine, and juniper on U.S. Bureau of Land Management terrain along Interstate 70, seven miles west of Glenwood Springs. Within hours of that terrible event, an “interagency team” with representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service (USFS), and the National Weather Service, had assembled to investigate the event. Their report came out last year with predictable findings.

Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan’s immortal words, mistakes had been made. Mistakes and errors in judgment had been made by almost everyone involved in the fire, at every level, from those who died to those who were directing the firefight.

“The South Canyon Fire tragedy resulted from a series of judgments, decisions, events and actions with serious cumulative impacts,” their report said. The report advised managers in the Forest Service and BLM to review the findings and analysis of causal factors in order to give an extra margin of safety in all that we do and thus prevent a recurrence.

Throughout the report, however, I looked in vain for an answer to what might be the most important question: What were 49 people doing trying to put out a wildfire in a stand of scrub oak and piñon-juniper?

To many Americans, the answer to that question is so obvious that to even ask it amounts to heresy. The forest was on fire (never mind that scrub oak isn’t much of a forest). Fire in the forest is bad because it kills trees and animals. Remember Bambi and Smokey Bear? Clearly, young men (and now young women) must go in and put the fire out.

This outlook can be stated in figurative terms concerning the eternal battle of good vs. evil. But most of the time it is expressed more pragmatically in terms embracing what this culture takes to be an ultimate good — property.

Wildfire threatens property. It threatens private property in the form of houses, farms, mines, and recreational and other industrial developments. It threatens public property in the form of timber resources, campgrounds, and other recreational amenities. And therefore we must fight fire because fire doesn’t respect property, let alone life.

I used to buy into this scenario. I grew up with Bambi. I even saw Smokey Bear in the zoo in Washington. I believed in fighting fires the same way I believed in fighting communism, which I was told was also anti-property. To oppose wildfire was a responsibility of citizenship.

Indeed, they got mixed up at times. Communism was portrayed as a “conflagration” consuming the world. “Only you can prevent forest fires” was the logical extension of “loose lips sink ships.” Fire was the enemy. It all tended to get mixed up in a young man with an untrained but malleable mind.

But then I went beyond just buying into it. I hired into it. During the slow season in Crested Butte–a period that lasted from 1950 to about 1980–I happened to be in the right place at the right time twice when the Forest Service came looking for young men to fight wildfire — for money.

I wasn’t drafted; I volunteered. I went and fought fire and I got paid, for doing good!

It occurred to me that there might be part of a living in that kind of work, and I asked the local Forest Service district about putting together a team that the Forest Service could summon when needed. The result was “the Crested Butte Hotshots,” a somewhat trained team of fire fighters resembling the Interagency Hotshot Crew from Prineville, Oregon, that was consumed in the South Canyon Fire on July 6, 1994.

We Crested Butte Hotshots were luckier than the Prineville Hotshots. We only got a look at the massive natural process on which we were intruding. We were up in Idaho, in Nez Perce National Forest: twentysome hotshots, a bunch of cultural dropouts whose ideas of “emergency rations” included uncontrollable substances, candy bars and trail mix.

I do not know to what extent our crew was similar to the Prineville crew, but I am sure there were some fundamental similarities. Our Hot Shots shared a reluctance to settle into permanent town work. We all loved nature and being out in it. We had a possibly morbid, sometimes foolish fascination with courting danger. And deep at the heart of the soul, beneath all the rationality of safety training, we shared a casual unconcern about our own personal mortality — which is not quite the same as believing oneself to be immortal. (I think this is the basic constitution of cannon-fodder the world over.)

Anyway, there we were, hundreds of miles from home, flown in by the government to do important work. For most of us, it was probably the first time anyone or any entity had ever seriously asked us to do anything that passed for important.

So that afternoon, when they — “they” being the guys in hardhats who issued us our hardhats–pointed to the boiling smoke “over there” and told us to run a line down the ridge, we did. Nobody thought to ask if there was another crew working up the ridge toward us, or where the zone of safety was, or anything else on the page about “Downhill/Indirect Line Construction Guidelines” in the Fireline Handbook. Actually, most of us had never seen, let alone read the handbook. We just started chinking a line.

From investigating wildland fires, experts have learned that time and time again fatalities can be attributed to one or more violations of the 10 Standard Fire Orders, which were developed in 1957 by a task force studying ways to prevent fatalities. In the South Canyon Fire that was definitely the case.

Fire Order 3 says, “Recognize current weather conditions and obtain forecasts.” Fire Order 5 says, “Obtain current information on fire status.” But the South Canyon Fire Investigation concluded, “The Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew (an out-of-state crew) was not briefed on local conditions, fuels, or fire weather forecasts before being sent to the South Canyon fire.”

As for the Crested Butte Hotshots, we were proud to be of service, especially if we didn’t have to shave, and be nice, and abjure other habits considered asocial. Cool!

In Idaho, we built a great fireline down that ridge; but as it turned out, we were building a line between two fires, one on each side of the ridge. Caught in the middle, we had to abandon the line and hotfoot it, almost literally, back up the line and into an open field at the top of the ridge.

What saved us, in that quickstep retreat, was air support. Big cargo planes boomed down over the fire, impossibly, dangerously low, dropping big splats of slurry (a pink mix of water with fertilizer added to make the water stick) on our ridge, and pretty much on us. Air support made about a dozen drops, at around $1,000 a drop.

So we lost our0line, but that was all. The Prineville crew wasn’t so lucky. Although air support had been requested, there weren’t any planes full of slurry to drop on their ridge,

In Idaho the next day, while tending a line on one sector of the fire, the Crested Butte Hotshots got to watch the fire run on a ridge across the valley. We saw it gallop several hundred feet up a wooded slope in a matter of minutes, with great roaring gouts of flame leaping through treetops. Then we had to stop watching because that run of fire sucked in so much air from all over the valley that it generated a sudden wind in our sector that roused the fire behind our line and kept us busy the rest of the afternoon.

That night, we had the surreal experience of bedding down in a ten- or fifteen-acre opening, an abandoned farmstead actually, that was surrounded by the red glow of fire, with trees torching up periodically with a great whoosh.

It was a “project fire” at that point. Several hundred firefighters were on the fire, supported by a unit of the Oregon National Guard with field kitchens, field showers, and sleeping tents. And the fire had us all surrounded.

But strangely enough, I didn’t feel in the least threatened. The fire’s business was out there with the trees; a thousand firefighters in a field were incidental to whatever that fire was up to.

From that day and night on, firefighting was different for me. I realized that we were playing a cultural game that was more for our benefit than the forests’. We called the game a variation on good versus evil, and fought hard and well for the good — which was, primarily, the protection of property and resource investments.

But when the fire was really “there” and running, we just got out of its way, because there was nothing else we could do, And we stayed out of its way until fire had done what it had come to do.

When the fire finally waned, we moved in to declare the victory that gave our losses meaning.

My growing suspicion that fighting forest fires was more of a cultural ritual than something that did any good was fed by my experience. The big bad fires, we basically retreated from (or puttered around the sides) until they had done what the fuel and weather conditions allowed them to do — because what else can you do about something speeding through treetops ninety feet overhead, and throwing sparks over Interstate-width breaks?

But the little fires, the half-acre fires from lightning strikes — the ones that we could get a line around and tromp out — they seemed to be doing more good than bad. Those little fires cleaned up a lot of dead stuff on the ground.

Sometimes, it was hard to resist the temptation to push a little fire into a mess of forest litter — partly for the additional payroll time, sure, but partly because intuition seemed to say that little pile needed burned. Such sneaking thoughts led to a little research on my part that confirmed my experiential observation; whatever was going on between the forests and the forest fires, it was not like Americans versus communists.

One of the biggest challenges for all successful life forms (as humans are learning during this epoch) is dealing with the consequences of success. More specifically, life forms must balance the life and death sides of the life cycle so that waste products do not overwhelm them. Plants are especially vulnerable to life-death balances since they are unable (unlike humans) to retreat ahead of their own consequences, including the consequences of success.

In the tropics, the warmth, moisture, fungi, and tremendous infestations of termites and other animal decomposers keep up pretty well with plant production there, and natural fires are neither common nor necessary.

But where any of those three elements — warmth, moisture, or decomposers — are in short supply, the processes of decomposition and rot are slow, and a lot of death builds up on the ground in the form of a deepening layer of litter.

The only way to bring the system back into balance is through the process of “rapid oxidation” otherwise known as fire. Stephen Pyne, America’s leading wildfire “cultural historian” and fire management specialist, concludes that “an excess of biomass litter not only makes fire possible but biologically necessary…. In many areas the only practical mode of decomposition is fire.”

In the Temperate Zones, especially in the inland regions of the continents, coolness and dryness become major factors in forest life — factors that the trees have not yet quite adapted to in terms of evolution. Maybe, as a general law, we could say a species’ ability to live well in a place is only as good as its ability to die well in that place. And the temperate-zone trees haven’t figured out how to do that yet. They have to rely on the often cataclysmic intervention of fire. And North America’s coolest, driest, most inland temperate forests are the forests in the Rocky Mountains.

Since the outcome of excess fuel (dried leaves, needles and deadfall) is often fire, fire often becomes an instrument of natural selection. In short, trees and plants have adapted to fire. Most fire adaptations, however, have traditionally been interpreted as defensive measures that serve as a means to assure survival during and after a fire.

R. W. Mutch’s hypothesis, on the other hand, goes even further to argue that some plants actually encourage fire. In such cases, fire works to the selective advantage of the plant, and thus for those plants high flammability and an ability to quickly reoccupy a site constitute a form of adaptation to the reality of fire. Fire becomes a means of regeneration, a form of competitive struggle, and a process that favors some species over others.

Enter Jerry Chonka.

Jerry Chonka may be Smokey Bear’s worst nightmare realized. He is deliberately burning off 14,000 acres of Gunnison National Forest. And he’s doing it from within Smokey’s outfit, the U.S. Forest Service, for the health of the forest ecosystem.

Chonka, a forester on the Gunnison National Forest since 1976, is in the middle of a 25-year project to improve Bighorn Sheep habitat and migration routes in Taylor Canyon, between Spring Creek and the Taylor River below Taylor Park. Because the main forestry “management tool” on the project is “prescription burning,” the project has attracted attention throughout the Rocky Mountain region.

“All the forest ecosystems in the West are adapted to fire,” Chonka said as he drove me out to an overlook of a fire he’d set. “Many of our tree species here, like lodgepole pine and aspen, actually depend on fire for regeneration.”

Others like the ponderosa and douglas fir thrive where ground fires burn pretty regularly. Chonka pointed out the pickup window at the green savannah-like landscape of sage and grasses liberally studded with large, open-grown ponderosa and douglas fir we were driving through, “This we burned in 1983.” Pointing to a tall ponderosa downslope, Chonka said, “You can still see the char on the trunk there.”

Chonka acknowledges that his work is not universally appreciated in the agency that invented Smokey Bear. “Lots of people in and out of the Forest Service really have to struggle with this,” he said. “We all grew up thinking that fire in the forests was a terrible thing–and it can be. But we’re coming around to the realization that these forests are going to burn sooner or later.” And later — as in Yellowstone Park, after a century of fire suppression — is usually more devastating than sooner.

“The big debate now,” he said, “is over fire suppression versus fire management.” Do we try to “prevent” forest fires and put them out when they happen, or do we treat them as natural and even necessary occurrences in the lives of some forests, and try to manage them only to the extent necessary to protect property and resource investments?”

Chonka stopped the pickup in a high meadow above Taylor Canyon, and pointed across the canyon. White smoke was drifting up out of the forest on a bench above the canyon cliffs. “That’s what we set yesterday,” he said. He was going to spend part of the day watching it to make sure the fire “lay down” as it was supposed to without flaring out of the burn area. “It’s a chance to catch up on my paperwork, too.” Chonka’s truck is a kind of rolling office which is in radio contact with the Gunnison district headquarters.

Our location gave a panorama of most of the 14,000 acres of the sheep habitat improvement project. “The valley where the bighorns traditionally migrated is too busy now,” he said, “and they have to move along higher routes. But they are nervous in the dense over-mature timber up there where they can’t sense their predators, nervous animals get more disease-prone.”

Most of the slope above the bench where the smoke drifts is tinged reddish-brown with dead trees, where Chonka’s project unit (himself and two assistants) has already burned.

“We burn according to a prescription,” Chonka said. “It factors in a lot of things — predicted temperatures, wind directions and wind speeds, the nature of the fuels in the area to be burned, what’s going to happen to the smoke, the shading on the slope, what lies within a 2,000-foot spotting distance’ where bits of burning matter might be carried. When all that is plugged in, and we’re within 70 percent or less of the prescription limits, we burn.”

A prescription burn plan, as he describes it, usually starts at the top of the area to be burned and works downslope in patches and strips, since the nature of a fire is to “chimney” upslope.

“We herd it around,” Chonka said of the way his crew manages the prescription burn. “We try to make minimum impact on the land itself with the containment effort, which often means just scraping a little line with our feet or a rock along the edge of what’s burning, rather than scraping with a shovel or pulaski. We herd little fires up to the edge of natural fire barriers — rock outcrops or wet areas.”

Chonka “uses” two kinds of fire in his prescription burn plans. Surface fires primarily burn under trees. They reduce ground-level fuels, regenerate grasses and sage, and burn the lower branches off of thick-barked fire-resistant trees like ponderosa and douglas fir (which can keep fire from “laddering” up into the trees).

Stand-replacement fires, however, let the light into the forest by burning or at least killing most of the trees in a mature stand that is succumbing to witches-broom, mistletoe, insects, or other predators of stressed trees.

Is there any risk involved? Chonka laughs, and points up the canyon to an old burn scar. “That one got away when the wind changed on us; it burned up over the top and down onto the other side. We had to call in crews, and it ended up costing us $90,000. That was the worst day of my career, and it happened on my birthday. That’s what we call it: `Chonka’s birthday fire.’

“But you develop a kind of sixth sense about it, after a while. I remember not feeling good about lighting that one, despite the fact that it was within the prescription. Now, I just don’t light them if I feel that way.

“You have to begin with the fact that, eventually, these forests are going to burn. To just leave it up to nature, as we now do most of the time in wilderness areas, is difficult in non-wilderness places because of the interface with humans.”

There are now houses in areas that used to burn every eight to twelve years, recreational and other industrial developments, investments in harvestable timber, et cetera. “So we can either intervene mechanically [logging or firebreaks], or we can do prescription burning in ways that minimize costs and maximize safety for those managing it.”

Both the cost and safety differences are significant. Wildfires tend to burn at the driest and most dangerous times — the military equivalent to fighting wildfires would be giving your enemy the choice of field positions and letting him build up to his maximum strength before challenging him.

The cost difference is even more impressive. Fighting a wildfire costs around $1,000 per acre on average. The cost of a prescription burn in unloggable terrain, as Chonka is doing up Taylor Canyon, is more like $35 an acre.

“I’ve had good support in my work,” Chonka said, “both in the local office and at the regional office in Denver.”

But in the agency’s shrinking budget, it is still basically pennies for prescription burn management versus millions for fighting wildfires. The budget cutting means that Chonka is usually assigned temporary summer help, which he has to train anew every year for highly technical and potentially dangerous work.

“If we put a tenth of what we spend on wildfires toward helping the forest do what has to be done…” But such difficulties notwithstanding, Chonka likes his work. “I’ve got one of the best jobs in the Service,” he said.

He is fascinated by evidence he sees, in old burn scars on trees, that he is bringing the Forest Service toward management practices that are more “natural” for healthy western forests than the suppression strategies of the past century.

But such natural methods may not be new. “We’ve hardly begun to understand the magnitude and importance of Native American ignitions in the forests, prior to the coming of the whites,” Chonka said. Based on his own studies of forests in the Gunnison Basin, he thinks as much as 60,000 acres might have been burned, mostly in surface fires, every year, which is far more than lightning could account for.

Research seems to join with anecdotal history from early settlers, to suggest that the Utes and other Indians in the region may have fired everything behind them on leaving the high country in the fall, to keep the sage and oakbrush passable and tender for the herds on which they depended.

“We think of Bambi when we think of forest fires,” Chonka said. “But I’ve seen the sheep and deer gnaw on the charred wood, and roll around in the ashes until they are coated, to help get rid of ticks and other insects.”

And what will his burn look like in 25 years? “Lots of aspen, lots of grass, probably some new lodgepole pine, some snags — and woodpeckers. Lots of woodpeckers.”

In spite of recent evidence that forests fires may serve a purpose, the romance of fighting fires is alive and well. This romance is so deeply embedded in our culture that, when presented with evidence that the Noble Red Men, another cultural romance, regularly and even purposefully fired the land, we say, “Naw! They’d never do that!”

But they did. To what extent, we don’t know for sure. Nor do we know whether the forests benefited as much as the herds the Indians depended on. But it is clear that our Colorado forests have gotten used to fairly regular fires, to the extent that some of our favorite tree species, like the aspen and lodgepole, have come to depend on fire to give them their day in the sun.

This brings me to my point.

If we are going to have “scientific management” in our forests, then let’s manage them according to what science tells us about them. In our region, that means, in the most literal sense, fighting fire with fire. By using prescribed fire intelligently, we can reduce fuels, renew the pyrophytic species, and preclude the inevitable wildfire. Such a policy would also mean that we’d have to have the gumption to just “herd” some wildfires rather than leaping in to “control” them.

Federal land managers are coming around to this viewpoint. Rather than employing the pipe dream of “fire suppression” (a practice equivalent to tying down the safety valve on a steam engine), they now consider prescription burning. The presence of a few “risk-takers” like Jerry Chonka in the ranks would have been undreamed of a couple decades ago.

Wilderness fires, fires in National Parks, and other remote fires that don’t threaten property or investments are often “confined” (to a drainage, with surveillance) or “contained” (to an area within a drainage by a minimal fire crew doing some “herding”) rather than “controlled” with the old all-out “crush every smoke” attitude.

But there is still a long way to go. In 1994, fourteen fire fighters fed the old romance while fighting to save old scrub oak.

No one should die to keep scrub oak from the fire’s renewal, but there are obstacles to change. Some ideas are as deeply embedded in our culture as the Constitution. The most obvious involves property. With a totally straight face, we ask ourselves to believe that, just because a person builds a house on a piece of land, we are committed to sending young men and women in to defend that house from the processes of nature.

Ed Quillen, publisher of this magazine, has already come up with what strikes me as a good counter to that. He suggests that we continue to let people build their houses in any damfool place they want, but that we should also declare some places “Stupid Zones.” There, society will take no responsibility for “natural” catastrophes, like a flood in a floodplain or a fire in a pyrophytic forest. They were just stupid, that’s all.

A more deeply seated obstacle is the romance of science and technology. On the one hand, we believe that through technology we can remake the world in accord with our desires. On the other hand, we preserve the precious romance of Bambi and Smokey. Thus we believe that if we can’t save all the cute animals from the evil fire now, then maybe we need to build a bigger fire suppression apparatus.

But anyone who has watched a crown fire climb a hill in less time than it takes to read this paragraph knows that science is actually on the wildfire’s side.

These forests — which are a lot like us, in not yet having worked out their balance of life and death, and growth and return — may or may not benefit from the efforts of “risk-takers” like Jerry Chonka, who are trying to help restore that balance. But it’s increasingly clear that neither the forests, nor our property, nor our young men and women, benefit in the long run from efforts to suppress and conquer wildfire.

George Sibley teaches and organizes at Western State College in Gunnison. His sylvan experience, aside from fighting fires, includes a stint operating a sawmill and a few years of running processed trees through a printing press at a small-town newspaper.