A few fire fighters in the hills around North Rye Creek lean on their Pulaskis, impassive eyes following the crawl of fire engines, water tankers and loaded-down pick-up trucks making their way to the front lines.
The passengers in this fleet get slow, grim nods of greeting, as battalions of fire fighters-white, black, Hispanic, Native American, from around Montana and across the country-pick their way through the ruins. In the flames' wake, these hard working public servants wear weary looks, hardhats and ashy smears of soot. They look like soldiers out of history, like Civil War troops caked in grime and exhausted by a day's march.
Such was the scene last Saturday, September 5, in the woods outside Darby in the Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula. The fire fighters stood in the midst of a burn suggesting the wrath of a hot-blooded God.
The ground, seared to a black, spongy pulp, still radiated heat from a fire on its way to consuming more than 4,000 acres. Along Forest Service Road 715, the North Rye fire's Main Street, the corpses of trees leaned precariously. Fat-bellied planes lumbered overhead, barely visible through a low veil of smoke, hitting the fire with chemical bombs. Meanwhile, the fire raged on as freshly torched trees growled like overheating machines.
The wind kicked up around the Inland Northwest at the end of August, igniting a long-awaited fire season.
Lightning and vacationers finally had let loose enough sparks near dried grasses and parched trees to spark forest fires throughout the state. By the end of Labor Day weekend, some 55,000 acres were burned or burning in Western Montana from Glacier National Park to Darby. Nearly 5,000 people had been thrown into battle against the blazes. In the air, five smokejumping planes, nine retardant-dropping airtankers, three other planes and 43 helicopters had seen action.
With plenty of costs yet to be figured, the price tag for fires in Montana and Idaho passed $8.3 million Tuesday morning.
Even though this year's effort doesn't match that thrown at the epochal fires in Yellowstone National Park and throughout the region 10 years back-with 25,000 fighters trying to contain more than 700,000 over-the-edge acres in the park alone-it's been enough to dominate front pages around the state.
War, after all, always makes good copy-and, in the case of our seasonal tilts with forest fires, there's no shortage of controversy.
At a basic level, the fight against fire-discussed, inevitably, in military terms-runs counter to the biology of the mountains in which the battle is largely waged. The preservationist crowd, looking to lessons from deep history, say that the forests evolved with flame, and that it's a necessary ecological element.
Still, for nearly a century, fire was considered Public Enemy #1 by the U.S. Forest Service, and this mindset didn't begin to change until the early '70s. "There's been a really big change in how fire is perceived over the last 20 years," says William Pidanick, a Forest Service information officer flown in from California to work the Rye Creek fire.
"Earlier, the whole intention was to eliminate fire, and now we know that was not an appropriate thing to pursue."
Though today's forest managers give lip service to the ecological necessity of fire, more often than not they come armed to control and eliminate the flames. Forest Service officials maintain that political and social realities dictate different approaches in different areas-and these days, they say, all the strategies are informed by a healthy respect for fire, a fact which was hard to escape in the Bitterroot last weekend.
"We have large accumulations of fuel in some places, and we're really trying to reintroduce fire to its natural role, and let it play its part," Pidanick says.
In wilderness areas, specific plans guide how far officials will let fires go before sending in troops. In Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness last week, the flames were mostly left to do their work over thousands of acres, offering a chance for forest regeneration across the landscape. In the Rattlesnake Wilderness, though, a fire exceeded boundaries set by planners, and a Hotshot crew of elite smokejumpers set out for the woods near Missoula.
Environmentalists argue this action shows that fire policy continues to be determined by economic and political concerns. The greens suggest that when these concerns get combined with the nation's quasi-military approach to fire fighting, forests get hurt, tax dollars get wasted and the "groundpounders" on the front lines get thrown into danger.
Those charged with doing the work say the public must understand they have a variety of missions they're trying to fulfill. But with public lands outside of designated wilderness split between public and private, timber resources at a premium and a long history of aggressive intervention to work around everybody agrees a truly hands-off policy is hard to come by.
"We have plans for all the areas," says Vance Persing, an information officer at the West Fork Ranger District, where a complex of wilderness fires remains under observation.
"When a fire starts by natural means, they're allowed to burn to try to get the forest back to the state it was in before we started going in and putting every single fire out. If rain puts them out in a day, that's fine.
"If they burn for weeks, that's fine too." In cases like North Rye Creek, where 735 fire fighters and support personel were still in action the Tuesday after Labor Day, there's another factor at play, one that becomes more prominent as civilization pushes into Montana's hills.
People have decided that the forest makes a nice place to live.
As a result, 32 homes in the North Rye Creek area were evacuated as the fire, apparently set by human hands (the investigation continues), claimed 500 acres in the first days of September.
Though the blaze quickly grew, none of the houses were destroyed-it was close, though. Just beyond the tent city that sprung up last week to house the growing legion of firefighters from as far away as North Carolina, the charring reach of the fire extended into backyards.
Saturday, a rattling journey up toward the action began with views of ranchettes strung along the road. The fire apparently started behind one of the dwellings, and menaced several of them. Behind one house, a swingset sits just a few yards from the line separating blackened earth from ground saved by fire crews.
Saving structures like these is one of the top priorities, according to brass back at the Aerial Fire Depot in Missoula. Out at Rye Creek, Forest Service and rural fire department crews attained that goal in the nick of time.
With the battle joined and the fire spreading up into the hills, reinforcements poured in.
In a truck borrowed from the Initial Attack team, Pidanick and Mary Laws, another fire information officer, drive to the fire line. On the lower roads, only a few straggling firefighters in their sunflower yellow Nomex safety gear wander through a narrow corridor of outbuildings, houses and makeshift campsites.
As the elevation increases and the smoke thickens, both the size and mood of fire units shift. In steaming territory just below the current fire line, crews mop up in the fire's wake. In one spot, firefighters halted the advance of the blaze by tearing a path through the underbrush, from one hillside to the next.
For a chance to travel on Uncle Sam's tab, not to mention wages that start around $9 per hour for low-rated employees, there are obviously plenty of people willing to drop everything and fight fires far from home. But even with support from the air and radio links to the camp below, the bottom line is that they have to hack and chop their way through the burnzone. There's no question it's a dirty grind.
Pidanick had just a couple days off at his home in California after spending three weeks on fires in East Texas when the offer to come to Montana came. A whirlwind day later, his watch is still set for Pacific time.
"We were getting ready to do the Labor Day thing, my wife and I," he says. "We were going to barbecue. When the call came in, she said to me, 'You're not really going to take this assignment, are you?' And I said, 'You're darned right I am.'"
So now Pidanick finds himself in a barbecue of a different sort. "Every time I come to one of these things, I see people I haven't seen in years," he says. "Every fire is like a big reunion. Name tags are essential, as is the art of looking at them discretely."
As if on cue, we run into Ken Jordan, coming the other way on 715 hard by the fire line. Jordan and Pidanick once worked together on the Cleveland National Forest in California. Pidanick says he hasn't seen Jordan in 10 years. Today, Jordan wears full combat regalia while Pidanick leads notebook-toters through the burning woods.
"You takin' people out to find spotted owls?" asks Jordan. Told that, in fact, we're on a so-far unsuccessful quest for wildfire photos, he snorts and promises to take us to some torching trees. Down a side road, we do indeed find fire, at the bottom of a steep, blasted hillside. An evil-looking column of smoke, a black-and-orange roil below, advertises the blaze.
A 25-year veteran of forest fires, Jordan walks point, leaving the road and heading into an alien landscape. The head of the fire bellows, smoke streaming up at a surreal, driven speed. In the burned-through area, small fires still flare. Heat seeps out of the soil, through the thick soles of our boots.
Jordan bulldogs down the hill, stopping every so often to make sure the interlopers are with him. Information officer Laws seems to regard my pants-not made of Nomex, definitely potential fuel-with skepticism, but doesn't say anything. We go down a couple hundred yards through a scoured landscape.
The command-center, military metaphors bandied in briefing rooms in Missoula and at the base camp down the road, which sound so tired in those settings, are immediate truths out here. The only sound is the cacophony of bursting, burning trees below. To the left and right, row on row of scorched trees fade into a black jumble. A whispy snow of ash washes along the ground.
Jordan stops us just beyond the violent plume of smoke. The billows of charred wood and ash obscure the fire, but every now and then a scarlet-orange tendril rears up. After a few minutes, he decides that he's not heading any further this way and starts back up to the road.
Just around a bend from where our truck's parked, the fire has crept to the road's edge. A tree 30 yards downhill torches, reaching the moment of critical mass when it seems the fire is trapped inside the tree and tearing its way out.
Even up here on the road, it's hot.
While Jordan seems to be the sort of guy who attacks his job with roughnecked glee, there are those who wonder if assaulting fires, even under biologically-enlightened policies, is worth the danger.
They wonder, in short, why the taxpayers should send people like Jordan out to nearly be cooked. Fatalities during the fires of 1994, when a small group of Montana firefighters perished in Colorado, underscore such concerns.
Mike Bader, a longtime environmental activist and executive director of the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, fought the fires in Yellowstone in 1988, an apocalyptic milestone in the history of fire politics. At that time, he and others note, park managers were blasted by politicians for maintaining a so-called "let-burn" policy-a policy that essentially respected fire's ecological role.
To hear Bader tell it, that political bloodletting, along with an emphasis on protecting the assets of timber companies, drives much fire fighting. It's a point he tried to drive home with a recent anniversary tour in the nation's first national park. And ultimately, Bader says, on top of the scientific questions raised by fire policy, people regularly get put in harm's way.
"Politicians start making noise, and all of a sudden you have significant resources going into fighting these fires that are in dangerous, remote areas," he says.
"That's just risky. In the case of some fires, the question is, why are you fighting it? If they say, to protect timber values, that means we're spending a whole bunch of taxpayer money to help out these private corporations. The government is supposed to stay out of the free market."
Forest Service officials make mention of a couple potential logging projects in explaining this summer's decisions, but in daily briefings in Missoula, grizzly and cutthroat habitat as well as Native American cultural sites get just as much play.
Out on North Rye Creek, the philosophy of fire fighting isn't much discussed, at least not that I hear. The firefighters on the ground take their orders from Missoula, containment plans themselves which are based on policy decisions made in many cases elsewhere. The rest of the work is done with expensive retardant bombers and old-fashioned muscle.
For his part, Pidanick admits that fire policy has been too slow to change. He seems to see that failure as the result of problems that arise when people try to apply politics to the natural world. "You run into the mindset that you can solve longterm problems in the short term," he says.
"It's the way we think as a society. If you look at it politically, you have to remember the short period of time those people have to accomplish things. If they don't get it done in a year, they don't get it done. Well, the forest doesn't work that way."
Beyond fire's role in the West's perpetual resource wars, Bader also says that the idea that fire can be controlled is wrong. While efforts might work on a relatively small conflagration like North Rye Creek, ultimately the possibility of a truly catastrophic fire, like Yellowstone, must be faced.
"There's an unreality to fire fighting," he says. "It builds this unrealistic idea that all fires can be fought. That can't be true. If you get a certain kind of burning, the best advice is to just get the hell away from it. Instead, you have retardant bombers going in, crews going in, and I think a lot of that is the result of political pressure."
America's fight against fire, although nuanced by a better understanding of biology, continues amidst the controversy it inspires.
Even as this summer's fire season gets ink all over the state, it pays to remember Pidanick's words and resist the temptation to impose human ideas of time and scale on the forest. Ultimately, if you consider the history of forest fires, 55,000 acres is nothing. But as September rolls along and rain falls, dampening the blazes that so consume the nation's time, money and muscle, the certainties we're left with are that these fires will die out-and that, come next year, there will be more.
Over 55,000 acres of Western Montana burned in fires from Glacier to Darby last week. Photo by Lise Thompson
Veteran firefighter Ken Jordan leads the way into the heart of the North Rye Creek fire. Photo by Lise Thompson
Jordan once had to count on a Forest Service fire shelter to survive. "I should be dead," he says. Photo by Lise Thompson
Individual fire shelters, like this one demonstrated at the North Rye Creek base camp, form a firefighter's last line of defense. Photo by Lise Thompson