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Wildfires Strike the American West

This summer wildfires broke out throughout the western lands of America. East of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Missouri River the land was arid and unusually dry this spring and summer from a lack of normal rainfall. Fires, some begun naturally from strikes of lightning, and some begun through human carelessness, started to burn across thousands of square miles.

The land is rough and rolling in the west with fingers of mountain ranges extending into it. The land, once the domain of the great Horse Culture of many Native American tribes, is now used mostly for grazing cattle and growing wheat. Trees do not grow easily on this landscape. The trees that do grow in clusters are huddled near a water source, or a dry creek that only fills with water when it rains. The mountains, though, are covered in pine forests until the elevation gets too high for the trees to survive. Pine trees are natural tinder.

The current statistics are appalling. As of September 22, 2000; 79,444 fires had been reported, and 6,838,748 acres destroyed. That is over 5,000 more fires reported than last year, and over 1 million more acres destroyed according to the National Interagency Fire Center.When a wildland fire is reported it is first managed by a local fire protection agency. Personnel and equipment required to fight a fire include, engines, ground crews, smokejumpers, helicopters with water buckets, and airtankers. If a wildland fire grows to the point where local personnel and equipment are not enough, the responsible agency contacts the Geographic Area Coordination Center (GACC) for help. The GACC will locate and dispatch additional firefighters and support personnel throughout the geographic area.

When GACCs can no longer meet the requests because they are supporting multiple incidents, or when GACCs are competing for resources, the request for equipment and supplies are referred to the National Interagency Coordination Center, at Boise, Idaho.

The National Interagency Coordination Center is staffed jointly by Bureau of Land Management and USDA Forest Service. The NICC will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week during extreme fire emergencies. NICC also provides support in response to other emergencies such as floods, hurricanes and earthquakes.

As stated by the Geographical Interagency Coordination Center, the first on the scene of an outbreak of fire are the smokejumpers. These heroic individuals will jump out of an airplane and parachute to the ground, prepared to battle the awaiting blaze. Their job is to attack small wildland fires in remote areas before they grow too large. Smokejumpers also assist large firefighting efforts when firefighters are needed quickly. When the call comes in, a predetermined number of jumpers "suit up" and board the plane within 10 minutes. Once they reach the blaze, the plane circles while the jumpers decide the safest way to attack. A smokejumper "spotter" drops weighted paper streamers from the aircraft to determine the speed and direction of the wind. The airplane climbs to 3,000 feet and two jumpers exit the plane on each pass over the jump spot. From airplane and the ground, smokejumpers maintain contact with fire dispatchers at all times in case they need additional firefighters, supplies, or run into difficulties. Smokejumpers wear a padded kevlar jump suit to protect them from brushes with trees, rocks, and from the fire itself. A helmet with a metal face grate protects them from tree branches or rocks. The combined weight of their suit and gear totals about 80 pounds when they exit the plane. A "fire box" containing tools, food and water to support two people for up to 48 hours is dropped by parachute for each pair of jumpers on the scene.

Once the fire is out, all gear and equipment must be carried out on packs to the nearest road or helicopter landing. Pack out bags can weigh up to 110 pounds and be carried up to 10 miles or more. The safety record is remarkable with only three parachute-related fatalities in 58 years of smokejumper operations and more than 130,000 jumps.

If a fire grows and cannot be easily contained, then groundcrews of firefighters along with air support helicopters and airplanes are called in to battle the blaze with various firefighting techniques.

Fire has a natural role in maintaining the health of ecosystems. Unfortunately, this balance has been prevented from occurring for the last 100 years. Mistaken land-use practices in excluding fire has resulted in landscape changes such as a heavy build-up of dead vegetation, dense stands of trees, an increase of species that have not evolved and adapted to fire, and an occasional increase in non-native fire prone plants. Today the fires that break out are deadlier, hotter, and faster than they were in the past. New polices have now set goals to restore the natural balance. Fire is now recognized as an essential natural process. Called prescribed fire, small blazes are intentionally set to meet land management objectives. This is only done under the most ideal conditions and through the strictest requirements to prevent the fire from spreading beyond the intended area.

Helena is the capitol city of the State of Montana. Wildfire came within 10 miles of the outskirts of the city this summer. John, owner operator of Mountain Meadow Inn which is located 4 miles out of Helena, stated that windows and doors had to be kept tightly shut to keep the thick, acrid smoke out.

'We had a group of regional (and some national) National Forest Service people stay with us overnight last night, and conduct a de-briefing session in our living room today for all the Montana fires. Pretty neat to see those people that have been away from their families since early July. Almost like seeing a military serviceman/woman.'

said John.


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