Casper — While still on staff at the Casper Star Tribune, I trained for a week with Bureau of Land Management firefighters in Casper, to earn my Red Card — an interagency certificate signifying that one is minimally qualified to fight wildland fires.
I haven’t renewed my Red Card for some years — mostly because as a middle-aged journalist, I’m really not up for the three-mile hike-in- 45- minutes test, while wearing a vest weighted with 45 pounds. (I know I should train, lose weight, and give it another shot, but while the spirit is willing, the flesh enjoys beer too much.)
Our training involved classroom lectures, background readings, case studies about what can go horribly wrong (remember Storm King or Mann Gulch), as well as field practice at digging a fire line, proper deployment of a fire shelter (fondly known as a ‘shake ‘n bake’ bag) and putting out a giant bonfire, right down to the last ember (found by stirring ashes with a bare hand).
I’ve also learned from both history and science that fire is a natural and necessary occurrence. Native Americans fired forests and brush for thousands of years to clear vegetation for crops (east of the Mississippi) or to improve hunting and forage for wild game (west of the Mississippi).
Biologists have learned that even old-growth forests were shaped by fire — either low-intensity blazes that cleaned out the underbrush periodically (lodgepole forests) or high-intensity fires that replaced entire stands.
I loved Smokey the Bear as a child, but decades of fire suppression didn’t really help our forests — they just allowed fuel loads to build up and up and up. When the inevitable fires did come, they were too big, too hot and too powerful to control.
Most fires are teeny little things that would go out on their own if we left them alone. At the other end of the scale are the giant mega-fires like Yellowstone’s 1988 summer of fire — fires so big that they’re never brought under control by people, but are extinguished by fall rains and winter snows.
In between are the medium-sized fires in which firefighters can and do make a difference. Today over half of the nation’s fire suppression efforts are aimed at saving homes and structures in what is known as the wildland/urban interface.
I’ve never gone out on a fire line (other than in training atop Casper Mountain), but I have tremendous respect for the men and women who put their lives on the line every summer, fighting wildfires from Alaska’s boreal forests to the high grasses of the Florida Everglades.
That being said, the nation should stop throwing good money after bad — an average of a billion dollars a year — fighting wildfire. We’re not winning and we’re not making much of a difference.
Giving vent to my somewhat repressed libertarian leanings, I would submit that saving your cabin in the woods is not the responsibility of your local fire department, fire district or the state and federal agencies whose lands border your cabin in the woods.
It is YOUR responsibility.
If you’re going to build a home or second home wa’aa’ay out there, it behooves you to acknowledge that along with the trees, wild flowers, bird song and solitude you enjoy so much, comes the risk that sooner or later, a wildfire will roar through.
It is not a matter of if, only when.
It is your responsibility to mitigate for that remoteness from aid and for that beautiful environment that can turn deadly.
How? By being both firewise and insurance smart.
“Firewise” is the name of a national program (www.firewise.org) that gives advice on what you can do with construction materials, landscaping, and maintenance to make your home in the woods less vulnerable — even impervious — to wildfire. National research shows that firewise homes can and do survive wildfires. You can have attractive grass, trees, even a log cabin if you want (though there are fireproof concrete logs on the market), as long as you have defensible space.
Here’s a useful hint: make sure your neighbors are firewise, too. Buildings burn much hotter (all that concentrated fuel) than forest or brush. If your property is protected, but your neighbors are not, the super-intense heat from their burning homes may burn you out despite your best efforts to be firewise.
Being “insurance smart” means making sure your homeowner’s insurance policy will cover 100 percent of reconstruction costs, not the 80-90 percent in most policies. Additionally, insurance companies have sustained massive losses from mega-fires and are now teaming up with mortgage companies to demand that homeowners and policy holders make their properties firewise. If inspectors deem your house indefensible, you can’t get insurance and therefore you can’t get a mortgage.
Finally, how can you expect firefighters to put their lives on the line for your property, if you can’t be bothered to make it defensible?
Given the $9.5 trillion debt the nation has racked up, we don’t have an infinite amount of money to fight wildfires. I suspect that smaller, not larger, wildfire budgets are on the horizon. And we might adopt a program from our Aussie friends.
Australia, like the United States, has experienced searing drought and mega-fires. What the Aussies have done is to embrace Firewise principles to an unprecedented extent. They’ve provided extensive training and education to homeowners in the back country, and have essentially told people they’re on their own. No one’s coming to help at the first sign of smoke.
If the Aussies want their property to survive wildfire, they need to preemptively make their properties defensible, then hunker down with backup generators to keep the water pump going and protect their homes from flying sparks and brands with a shovel and a garden hose.
According to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center in Tucson, the Australian program works:
“At an Australian bushfire information media day last year, Professor John Handmer, the Director of the Center for Risk and Community Safety at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) discussed some of the research examining the Stay and Defend or Go Early program.
Most fatalities in bushfires were caused by people leaving their homes at the last minute; a significant portion of those killed or injured were in their vehicles or out in the open attempting to escape on foot. Research following the legendary 1967 Tasmanian Hobart fire showed that 50 percent of those who lost their lives while fleeing actually left houses that never burned down. Known as the Black Tuesday fires, it resulted in 62 people dead, 900 injured and over seven thousand homeless .
The basic concept is that a home, even if unprepared, offers residents greater protection than fleeing on foot or in an automobile.
Scientist Justin Leonard of Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation (CSIRO) argues that greater than 90 percent of homes lost in bushfires were not consumed by the main fire front, but instead by accumulated embers and spot fires. According to Leonard, “active participation by homeowners following the passing of the fire front could save the vast majority of homes lost to bushfires.”
I don’t know if the Aussie idea will get traction in the U.S., but where better than in the independently-minded Cowboy State?