Saturday, July 29, 2006


The forecast for today was a high of 95, but we haven’t reached it because there is a scrim of smoke across the sky. The closest forest fire I know of is in Glacier National Park, near St. Mary and showing up on the webcam pointed at Red Eagle Mountain, not that there’s much to see except that diffused smoke. The forecast now calls for a sudden drop in temp -- maybe ten degrees -- which means wind. That’s not good for firefighters.

Glacier Park has a long and vivid history with fire, going back to the days when there were no roads, few trails, and fewer fire fighters. 1910 was a terrible year all over the West. Glacier, which was so new it had no earlier history, lost 100,000 acres. Of course, now we know that it’s more realistic to say that the acres were “renewed,” but there’s always that bad patch when it’s all black char and worry about erosion. Sometimes the fire burns over onto the reservation, taking income timber. Grazing is only injured for that year. (I grew up picking huckleberries in the Tillamook Burn between Portland and the coast. It was a legendary fire -- and the hucks made legendary pies. There were plenty of blackened snags to use for landmarks when it was time to carry your bucket back to the car.)

In 1926 the Glacier fires began in May and continued until the fall snows snuffed them. In 1935 fire ripped through the boundary between Glacier Park and the contiguous Waterton Park on the Canadian side, reaching for the town of Waterton, which had to be evacuated in a hurry. The elegant Prince of Wales hotel was left with a dedicated staff that counted on watering the roof and other fire-fighting devices. They succeeded in defeating the fire, but when they called the head of the owner corporation to say they had saved the building, his first response was, “What for?” The ultimate device was a very nice insurance policy!

Some fires get named, like the Halfmoon Fire of 1929. The one that older people around here used to mention was the Heavens Peak fire of August, 1936. Against all expectations, it leapt up cliffs on the west side and over the Continental Divide; then when the wind rose it flared through Granite Park, Swiftcurrent Pass and Many Glacier Valley. Incredulous accounts of a bright line first appearing at the top of the Valley are recorded in memoirs. Though the holocaust spared the Many Glacier Hotel, it took the Swiftcurrent cabins, the ranger station, a museum, and other buildings. Then the wind reversed and the fire was contained by desperately fighting people.

In 1940 and 1945 there were bad fires -- the worst years seem to be spaced about five years apart, but then the next bad year was 1958. The little book I’m using for a reference (Through the Years in Glacier National Park, an Administrative History”) was published in 1960 -- so old it sold for $1.50 -- and I can’t put my hand on a more recent time-line, but since 1961 I’ve witnessed more than a few fires.

I was interested to read that the Apgar area on the west side, where Charlie and Mamie Russell built their cabin, was climax red cedar and hemlock forest with little understory, so that it was like a majestic park where one could walk through the ferns in shade while the east side prairies simmered and shimmered with heat. When the fire came, people took their Navajo rugs down to the lake and submerged them, holding them down with rocks. When the forest rather quickly grew back, it was thick lodgepole pine -- not the same at all -- but the rugs survived.

Nowadays historic buildings and the feet of power pylons are sprayed with foam and wrapped in foil to save them -- which seems to be effective. But fire and the attendant smoke has roughly the same impact on the tourist crop as hail has on the wheat crop. Even here in Valier, which is at least an hour’s drive away, people are complaining about their asthma, which was already aggravated by heat and dust.

On the other side of the “coin” is the prospect of feeding and housing firefighters. These teams are highly organized now, semi-military and coordinated with air “bombings” of fire retardant or water. The science of fire has gotten much sharper. I remember a woman in Missoula who spent one whole summer figuring out fuel loads by staking out ten foot square plots, collecting every stick and leaves within that plot, classifying each single leaf or twig, and then weighing them all.

Conrad Burns, who is entirely too much at home in airports, got himself in trouble again by walking up to a group of exhausted firefighters waiting for a flight and emptying over their heads a lot of resentful remarks made by angry and scared second-guessing ranchers at a complaint meeting Burns [sic] had attended earlier. The local firefighting boss was soon there and dampened Burns considerably. The senator apologized. He’d thought he’d play the “bring-it-on” hero and (don’t these people pay attention to each other?) instead made himself a fool. Net loss of votes. Bring on that guy with the flat-top haircut! (Jon Tester)

Before the highly trained Hotshot crews like the one Burns attacked, the rangers would just come into Browning and grab anyone they could find on the streets. Bill Haw, a high school counselor who had once run a forest camp for a church, was stopped on the street and asked if he could cook over a campfire. “Sure,” he said. “If you’ll let my wife know where I went.” The stove was an improvised barbecue pit of chicken wire over a steel frame. It was ten days before he got home.

I wonder how Burns is at camp cooking. His prospects (to say nothing of his perspective) might be much improved by a ten day absence.
Translates to:
(National Park Service, Glacier, webcams, St. Mary’s camera -- htm is computer spinach I can’t translate.)


Chas S. Clifton said...

"Htm" is Microsoft's abbreviation of HTML, back from when Win-dooze could not handle file-name extensions of more than threee characters.

HTML in turn stands for "Hypertext Markup Language," which is what makes a document viewable on the Web.

prairie mary said...

I say it's still spinach, which is like broccoli. Necessary but...

Prairie Mary