Already, fires hitting record highs

With peak months ahead, season is on pace to be worst in 50 years. The firefighting effort is a story of ingenuity

Here among the scrub brush and forested slopes of the northern Rockies, the battle against the worst wildfires in half a century comes down to hundreds of makeshift tents, a little impromptu music, and catered meals with more calories than 4-1/2 Big Macs.

As more than 60 major fires blacken millions of acres from the Canada border to California, dozens of tent cities have sprung up around them. Mobilized in a moment's notice and often springing up in the middle of nowhere, fire camps are marvels of ingenuity and instant melting pots, bringing together Latino crews and native Americans, college students and Army battalions - even a smattering of recently arrived Canadians.

They are the human face of the war to quell this summer's Western conflagration.

*To date, nearly 63,000 wildfires have been documented nationwide, burning 4 million acres and putting the 2000 fire season on pace to break a 50-year-old record.

*Drifting smoke has closed airports and highways in parts of Montana and Idaho.

*Over the weekend, employees at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado were evacuated and the park was closed. In Montana, a few national forests have been closed until further notice.

*Some 300 fires have started in the past few days, mostly because of dry lightning strikes.

*The fires are costing US taxpayers roughly $15 million a day.

Such numbers come with the knowledge that the Western United States is only now moving into what is normally the heart of the fire season.

"Unless we have a miraculous change in the weather,... we can look forward to several tough weeks ahead of us," says US Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck.

On Friday, Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana asked officials in his home state to seek a state-of-emergency declaration from President Clinton. The region is so dry that an hour's worth of torrential downpour buys firefighters only an hour of relief before flames pick up momentum again.

Moreover, a century of fire suppression in Western forests has led to an unnaturally high buildup of woody debris that is susceptible to burning on some 40 million acres of wildlands.

"These fires that we're seeing are getting meaner and ornerier," says Elton Thomas, a federal firefighting planner.

Already, some intense blazes, fueled by the extreme heat and drought, have rendered normal tactics of intervention useless. Firefighting commanders have pulled back their personnel and simply let fires run their course rather than put people in danger.

"No tree, no home is worth losing a life over," says Tom Clifford, supervisor of the Helena National Forest.

On the front lines

As of last weekend, 500 Army troops were added to the 1,000 Army and Marine forces already on the fire lines in Idaho and Montana. They join 20,000 federal, state, and civilian firefighters packed into fire camps perched on the front lines.

Last week, the camp here at Canyon Ferry was hastily created to battle the Bucksnort and Cave Gulch fires, in which 15 homes burned. But the 1,300 firefighters and staff faced more than fires.

In three days of scaling steep mountain slopes in 90-degree-plus temperatures, there were rattlesnakes, near misses with lightning strikes, and the threat of heat exhaustion. Every firefighter, for instance, is told to drink at least a gallon of water a day.

In camps like Canyon Ferry, the only goal is to keep firefighters fresh to confront their 14-hour shifts of smoke and flames.

The crews are certainly roughing it, but they're roughing it in relative comfort. They're fed 2,700-calorie meals by mobile caterers, and they enjoy hot showers brought to the scene on the backs of semi trucks. Starting pay is almost $11 an hour.

"Where else can you go and earn $4,000 a month," asks Jim Brickey of Hill City, S.D., a veteran of fighting fires in Alaska. "There's a real camaraderie among firefighters. You trust each other to do the right thing and, of course, you have to."

There can be problems, though. Fire camps also have personnel directors. They settle every kind of dispute imaginable, from thefts and disturbing the peace to sexual harassment and civil rights abuses.

"Overall, people are well behaved because it all comes down to them being hungry and needing a job," says Dave Turner, a spokesman with the US Forest Service. "By and large, working a fire is a pretty good job if you're willing to work hard."

Who's who

Aside from the elite corps of hotshots, smoke jumpers, and helitac crews, the majority of firefighters in these camps belong to a seasoned fraternity of nomads who assemble each spring and travel from fire to fire five months out of the year.

Some feel called to the sense of adventure, most appreciate the common bond that pulls them together in the face of adversity, and all are lured by the good pay.

Mr. Brickey is one of the oldest members of Canyon Ferry camp, having served with every kind of civilian firefighting team since the late 1960s.

Meanwhile, Chris Koerner, a college-age man from Riverton, Utah, just completed his firefighter training eight days earlier. He's is one of the greenest recruits on the line, but he plans to be part of the firefighting circuit as far as it takes him.

The regimen for firefighters is 14 hours of work a day for a continuous two-week period and then two days of rest and relaxation. Once a fire is mopped up, crew members load up their backpacks and report for assignment at a different blaze that might be burning 1,000 miles away.

Shelly Healy, Charlene Cochran, Cindy Chandler, and Rachel Messerly - four friends from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana - already have traveled to fires in Michigan, New Mexico, Colorado, and now, they're back in Montana.

In general, Indian firefighting crews are revered. They're reliable, always at the ready, and unflappable in the most difficult of terrain, officials say.

On many of Montana's seven reservations, where unemployment is high, fire money is the most steady source of outside income. For the women from Fort Belknap, the paychecks help them buy school clothes for their kids and furnishings for their homes.

Cultural melting pot

The confluence of different cultures gives each camp a unique flavor.

"When you stroll through a fire camp at night, after everyone's come down from the hills, it sometimes feels like you're surrounded by the United Nations," says Mr. Turner.

In one fire camp recently, Mr. Turner said the early-evening hours were alive with the sounds of music. As native Americans drummed, a group of Mexican-Americans played Latin music, and firefighters from the bayou country of Louisiana performed Creole folk tunes.

"Every fire is different," says Ms. Healy, who has spent a long day digging a perimeter fire line in the mountains above Canyon Ferry along the Missouri River. "When you're where the action is, it's tough work, but it's fun, too."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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