As a young Idaho firefighter, enthusiasm and an eagerness to get dropped off on a remote mountain hillside to “slay the dragon” came in no short supply.
As the radio crackled a tone-out, we would scramble toward the helicopter, leaving behind grass clippings to be picked up, paint to be chipped and maybe a few apples to be picked. We dutifully filled our roles and enviously watched the chopper disappear around a bend in the Salmon River Canyon carrying two of our crewmembers to whatever they might find.
Sometimes what we found would be one or more smoke columns drifting up from a distant knoll but located across the boundary of official “wilderness” where chain saws and “full suppression” were not appropriate.
This was hard to take. We had the training to fight the fire. We had the tools. We just wanted to get out there and do something.
Fast-forward 15 years and I still enjoy the work, but what I enjoy most is doing what makes sense. It took awhile for me to realize it, but it doesn’t make sense to put all the fires out.
I’ve been there cutting down the flaming tree when I knew I really shouldn’t be. I’ve precariously carried my pack-out bag full of all my fire gear and camping equipment over jackstrawed trees in a huge fire scar, knowing that the best thing for the land and its wildlife (and my knees!) probably would have been to let the fire naturally burn back slowly through the great entanglement left by another fire a few years earlier.
As a farm kid, I long gravitated toward the chores that made tomorrow better than today. Routine chores are necessary and enjoyable, but work that stands the test of time is what I find most compelling.
Most wildland firefighters who have been doing it for a while can tell stories of how they did great work suppressing a fire, only to have another fire come roaring in from another direction and burn up the area that they had just recently “saved.”
This was work that didn’t stand the test of time. While the possibility of this happening can probably never be completely avoided, it should serve as a reminder for us to spend the bulk of our efforts and finances on those projects with the best chances for success.
As many other writers have noted, nearly 100 years of full suppression left our Western states with a burgeoning supply of fuel in the wildland, vast panoramas of nearly continuous stands of timber and stagnant ecosystems in peril.
Our initial attack program in some places was as high as 98% successful in putting the fires out when they were small. The work that we thought we were doing so successfully couldn’t stand the test of time, however. On the hottest and windiest days, fires were now capable of growing nearly unchecked despite our best efforts and no matter how much money we spent.
While we can successfully fight many of our fires, we can never guarantee success. Even when we are successful initially, will our work stand the test of time? Did our suppression of the fire set up the ecosystem for success and sustainability?
This leads to my current position working in wildland fire prevention and mitigation. One of the things that I appreciate most about the opportunity to work in this field is that I believe the work itself has the potential to offer more guaranteed results that can better stand the test of time.
Fire prevention deals with providing education to minimize the number and severity of human-caused fires. As others have suggested, the old saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is no understatement with respect to the often devastating effects of human-caused fires.
Human-caused wildfires usually happen in closer proximity to homes and roads where nothing good can come of it. This is opposed to lightning-caused fires, which are generally in more remote areas where suppression is expensive and not necessarily desirable in the long term ecologically or from a future fire management perspective.
Helping people know how to enjoy the great outdoors and their campfires without causing an unplanned ignition or leaving a problem behind is worth it. If an ounce of fire prevention is worth 16 ounces of firefighting, then I am pretty much equivalent to a whole fire crew all by myself!
The good news is that while not everyone can physically fight a wildland fire, absolutely everyone can play a role in fire prevention, especially since my local counterparts and I can’t be everywhere!
The mitigation side of my job deals with assisting both the refuge and the community in minimizing the likelihood of a fire transitioning from refuge land to private land or vice versa. If you aren’t familiar with the Firewise USA or Firewise Alaska programs, they are guides for how to safeguard a home or property from the threat of a wildland fire.
As I stressed earlier, work done fighting remote wildfires doesn’t always last the test of time. Work done on your property, however, can yield a much more sure bounty of results, especially when it is maintained over time.
There are dramatic pictures that have been collected after a number of fires, showing a sea of burnt trees surrounding a preserved home that had been properly Firewised. I don’t know what it would have taken to have put some of those fires out, but I do know that getting our arms around the work of safeguarding homes and communities in advance is a lot more effective than trying to stare down a big fire on a bad hair day.
Please reach out to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge (907-262-7021) or Alaska Division of Forestry (907-260-4200) for more information or possibly an in-person assessment of your property. For some helpful wildland fire education information, go to @KPWildfireEd on Facebook.
Will Jenks is the Fire Prevention & Mitigation Technician at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Kenai/community/refuge_notebook.html.
By WILL JENKS
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge