|In this age of social media, so much time is being spent making people right or wrong. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in education. And I need to learn about forest fires. Fire season is here.It’s early June and we’ve already had smoke in the air in NW, Montana. Fires are raging in Alberta, Canada and smoke has been reported in North Dakota, Minnesota, Chicago, Nebraska, and all the way to Vermont. USA today reported that smoke from these fires is currently covering 2.7 million square miles of North America and has even made its way over to England! The smoke came in, reminded us of the suffering, and then moved out.
More and more, it’s not if it comes back…it’s when. Living in the woods for 27 years, in a wooden house, means that the first tinge of smoke in the air during fire season brings with it a mild case of panic. Shut the windows. Is it close by? Man-caused? Natural? Will it last all summer? Should I pack a bag of essentials? Put together my most special keepsakes somewhere near the door? And just what are those special items, anyway? The kids’ photo albums? The family videos? My 1st edition book collection? My first attempts at writing books, and my journals since 4th grade, all stacked up in my office closet? When I think of it like that, I get so overwhelmed that I decide that I would leave it all behind if need be. Escape with my life and my dogs and whatever clothes I’m wearing on my back, which means likely an old shirt and a holey pair of yoga pants.
But this isn’t dramatic thinking anymore, is it. Our nation watched as firestorms took miles of California to char in the last few years. I’ve driven through Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, and it was like Armageddon. Houses just torched with nothing left but twisted metal, like sinister sculptures. In Montana, we lose structures every year. We lost our beloved Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park a few summers ago. But we sort of know…when we build in the woods, it’s a risk, not that it’s anything less than gutting to lose your beloved home. However, when people are evacuating their homes on the ocean in Malibu…that feels like a different story. Any loss is relative to the person who has suffered it. But when 295,000 people are evacuated (the Woolsley Fire), and 1,643 structures are lost, 96,949 acres are burned, lives are lost, and who knows how many domestic and wild animals are killed…we start to wonder what is “normal” anymore.
AND we start to wonder who the people are who sign up to fight these firestorms. AND what we can do to protect ourselves. I don’t want my daily coming and going conversations to start with the effects of climate change. But here we are. I don’t know the answer. I hear people make significant points on many sides of the issue: to do controlled burns, or not. How to manage the forest. Like I said, I’m not looking at trying to make anyone right or wrong. I’m looking for education.
To that end, I recently was introduced to Linda Strader, who started fighting fires in the 1970s, and I was intrigued by her story, especially as a woman. Her book Summers of Fires is a testament to her knowledge, her strength, her love of the woods. So I asked her if we could do a Question and Answer for my blog. She agreed. And here it is. May it provide helpful information about how to do your best in facing the reality of wildfires, and may it also inspire you to follow your passion, especially if it goes against the norm.
1. Why did you decide to enter the world of firefighting, especially at a time when women were not welcome?
Well, certainly not because I wanted to prove anything to me, or to men! In a way, the job found me.
It was a cross-country move from Syracuse, NY to Prescott, AZ when I was 17 that set it all in motion. I didn’t want to move, especially in my senior year of high school, but I had no choice.
Although I’d hated Prescott at first, it grew on me. I loved living in a ponderosa pine forest where I could go exploring, hiking, and camping. But this was a very small town, and job opportunities were few and far between. After a year of trying to find decent employment, I reluctantly admitted I’d have to look elsewhere. The job search expanded to Tucson, where an acquaintance called me with a lead. She had connections with the U.S. Forest Service, and got me an interview the very next day.
And they hired me! I’d be working at Palisades Ranger Station on the Coronado National Forest. And unlike most office jobs, I’d be living and working among pines, and wouldn’t have to deal with traffic, noise, and congestion.
However, after two summers up there, I decided I hated working indoors. The Forest Service had many outdoor options: fire crew, fire prevention technician, recreation crew, and fire lookout. Way more interesting than sitting at a desk all day.
That winter I applied to the Forest Service. And what do you know? The Coronado National Forest called me in April of 1976 to offer a position on a fire suppression crew. And there you have it: I was now officially a firefighter.
2. Obviously firefighting is challenging work. What kind of challenges did you face from the men on your crew? Were they supportive, or dismissive?
I wasn’t stupid. I knew the job would be hard work. But I was up to it. I’d be fine. And I was, as far as the physical labor went. However, everything was not ‘fine’ with the guys on my crew. Some said to my face that I didn’t belong there, and one said that I should quit and go home. While these comments hurt, some were absurd, like the guy who said the dreaded, “Women belong barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen” line. To be fair, not all of the men treated me that way. Some were supportive, at least to the extent that they could be, considering the agency itself didn’t want to employ women.
Despite these hassles, I loved this job to the point that no matter how hard men made it for me, I refused to give up.
3. Some prescribed burns get horribly out of hand. Were you ever involved in these? And how do you feel about prescribed burning?
Prescribed burning is a technique used to reduce the risk of massive, uncontrollable fires, by thinning dense trees and undergrowth—something naturally-caused fire used to do before we started putting them all out. It can work. But the reality is that it’s very difficult to control fire. The success, or failure, of prescribed burning depends 100% on Mother Nature. Try as experts might, predicting the weather is almost impossible. Winds can kick-up unexpectedly, leading to those fire disasters that make news headlines.
Prescribed burning was part of my job. After thinning trees, we stacked them into piles. We burned these at night, when winds are calmer and humidity is higher, making it easier to keep them contained. It’s hard, dirty work.
Is prescribed burning successful? Without getting into the lengthy history of fire suppression and the difficulty of reversing what has been done, I believe thinning and prescribed burns are a critical component to help reduce the risk of a major fire.
4. In your book, you tell about building firelines to get a fire under control. Can this technique be used by homeowners as a way to protect their homes?
The purpose of a fireline is to prevent a fire from spreading by removing all flammables (leaves, pine needles and the duff underneath) down to bare mineral soil, and cutting back any overhanging limbs. Homeowners can protect their houses by doing much the same thing. It is recommended that you remove all dead plants, grass and weeds from around the structure, and remove dry leaves and pine needles from the yard, roof, and rain gutters. You should also trim trees so they don’t overhang your roof, or touch other trees in the yard. And don’t store firewood against the house.
5. You fought fires in semi-desert grasslands, and pine forests. And you even put out a tundra fire in Alaska. Which is your most memorable fire?
While it wasn’t the biggest or scariest fire I’d ever fought, I would have to say my first one. Training did not prepare me for the real thing: The sense of urgency, my scrambling through dense forest and over steep terrain, the thick smoke, the intense heat, the roar of flames…me, in the middle of a wildfire, trying to save the trees. Something about the ‘wildness’ of it all is unforgettable.
6. Fires are much bigger now than they were in the past, and threaten more than just timber. What are your thoughts as to why? What are your thoughts about how to prevent fires from becoming megafires?
It’s complicated. Over one hundred years of fire suppression have left our forests too thick for their own good. When a fire does start, dense undergrowth makes for a hotter and more dangerous fire. It is impossible to control a wind-driven crown fire. Then there is the Western drought. Drought-stressed trees attract the pine bark beetle, die, and leave acres of dry, dead trees. Add to that the increasingly problematic Wildland Urban Interface, where homes are built either on the edges of forests, or in them. Those factors all contribute to a more dire fire situation than in prior years.
As for actually preventing megafires, I’ve always thought that backing-off from one hundred years of fire suppression would not be easy, and may not even be possible. I heard one fire expert say that megafires are here to stay…at least for a while. He suggested better forest management, including more thinning and more prescribed burns, are important steps. While this is not what people want to hear, I agree with his assessment. There just isn’t a simple solution to a very complex problem.
Thank you, Linda for your words, and thank you, readers for following along as we educate ourselves and make powerful, informed decisions, wherever we are in our lives.