Idaho Gov. Butch Otter told reporters Tuesday after touring the Trinity Ridge and Halstead fires by helicopter, that he backed federal firefighting commanders’ plans for protecting his state.
His support for the plans to put resources in front of communities while allowing the fires to burn into wilderness and where past fires reduced fuel, shows that the West is evolving to accept the new realities of fire.
Like hundreds of other second home owners in the forest communities along the South Fork of the Boise River, Otter had been up at his cabin in Pine the week before getting it ready for the fire at his door.
“It seems like it takes an incident like this to get people to do what they should have done before,” Otter said.
He and his wife Lori raked up pine needles and carried the wood stacked on the porch away from the house. They made it ready for the day they hope never comes when firefighters have to decide what they can protect and what they must sacrifice.
The firefighting community is still recovering from the ultimate sacrifice made by 20-year-old Moscow firefighter Anne Veseth. She died Aug. 12 when a tree fell on her while fighting a 43-acre fire in north Idaho.
Otter talked about her loss and what it means to her family. And he expressed confidence that federal and state firefighting commanders were putting the health and safety of the thousands of men and women like Veseth on the fire lines first.
“We just don’t want to see that happen again,” Otter said.
Fire is not new Otter. He was a wildland firefighter in his youth.
When he came into office in 2007, the toughest season in Idaho since 1910 gave Otter his own trial by fire. It began when he joined Republican Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo in a press conference in July condemning federal fire officials for allowing the Murphy Complex fire to burn out of control.
Otter had been told by ranchers in the area that the fire, which grew to 652,000 acres before it died out, could have been stopped. Ranchers had lost hundreds of cattle and access to grazing and they were convinced that had they been allowed to use their own bulldozers to cut line in the initial hours of the fire they could have stopped it.
Otter called the rules regulating firefighting “the don't book,” during the press conference. He said relaxed rules could have allowed crews to stop the fire.
“I think we need to have more flexibility,” he said.
His and Craig’s remarks alienated the firefighting community who were facing fire behavior, they said, like they had never seen before. Conditions went beyond their ability to monitor and was dangerous.
Some recalled when a Salmon area rancher was burned over on his bulldozer when he tried cut a fire line in 2000.
Otter was expressing more than his opinion that day. He was influenced by a set of values that placed putting out fires as author Stephen Pyne described as “the moral equivalent of war.”
The early Forest Service integrated those values into its own creation myth in the wake of Idaho huge 1910 fires, to push for a policy of putting out all fires. In war there are acceptable casualties.
When the role of fire in the ecosystem became widely understood in the early 1990s, and 14 firefighters were killed in a fire near Glenwood Springs Colo. in 1994, that policy officially ended.
But some still cling to those beliefs as demonstrated in the safety report filed by a Montana Hotshot crew leader the day before Veseth died. He and his team saw numerous snags rolling down the steep hills and injuring inmate firefighters. People were fighting the fire without fireproof clothing just like the rancher bulldozer operator in 2000, desparately trying to put out the fire before it got out of control.
“We told him we had a list of safety concerns and mitigations if he would like to hear them,” the Hotshot wrote. “We read him our list and he said they have a different set of values and do things differently.”
Otter’s tone had already changed in 2007 after he toured a series of fires that burned across central Idaho, culminating in the Castle Creek Fire. That raging blaze was halted on the edge of Ketchum saving millions if not billions of dollars of homes and businesses.
But his support for the commanders’ nuanced plans to save his neighbors along the South Fork as well as Idaho City, Stanley, Sunbeam and other communities was unusually strong Tuesday.
“They’ve got a good plan and they’re working that plan,” Otter said. “They know what they’re doing,” he said.