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Preparing Your Retreat For a Forest Fire or Brush Fire, by F.A.

As hundreds of thousands of acres are burning all across Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Wyoming, as I write this article, the smell of smoke wafting through my window has caused me to think about the many thousands of people that have retreated to the Redoubt. While I have no way of knowing how many folks have relocated from parts other than the Rocky Mountain west, I suppose that many are not familiar with the devastation a forest fire can cause; nor how quickly the devastation can occur. I also can only assume that most of the Redoubt folks that have relocated have taken many precautions to make their retreats as inconspicuous as possible. Many, for very good strategic reasons, have probably built on a ridge or high point. I’m certain that retreat cabins have been designed to blend in to their surroundings; many are probably built of logs – if not logs from the property, then logs that have been trucked in. I would bet that many are on deep wells, with a majority of those providing less than 10 GPM [1]. While I’m assuming on the common profile, I would also make an educated guess that many of the retreats are a fair distance from a town, more commonly off of a U.S. Forest Service road or timber company road, both cut through the middle of heavily forested areas.

A little as to background: I have spent nearly two decades in Idaho – over half of that time working as a mule-packer/guide in the River of No Return Wilderness. Many other years were spent working on ranches that backed up against the Beaverhead Mountains in Montana. I have fought fires, not as a trained Forest Service firefighter, but in the course of life in the professions that I had chosen. I have raced my mules through the middle of fires that had sprung up ahead of us without my knowledge; I have ridden back through that same fire nearly three months later to find it smoldering and crouching like a dragon, just waiting for conditions to tempt it out of its sleep. I have not pulled camps in a fire zone after a foot of snow had fallen and extinguished it – only to have to pull it three weeks later with ember and ash falling on us, because the foot of snow was nothing more than a very temporary slow down. The weather warmed up again and the warm earth in late August melted the snow very quickly, as if it never fell. I have trailed horses through areas when a fire was fifteen miles away, only to find out that the very trails we rode on were torched three days later by a fire that was jumping a mile ahead of itself (see Runaway Ridge Fire – Cold Meadows Ranger Station). In a nutshell, I have been on the periphery of a lot of fires. I have packed out a lot of smoke jumpers and hotshots when the Forest Service used to fight fire in the wilderness areas, and listened to their tales of crowning fires that seemed to create their own wind. I have ridden along trails above fires listening to massive yellow pines and Doug firs literally exploding from the heat. I’m not an expert on fires, but I am pretty experienced with them.

To the point of the article, there is real and present danger to retreaters who have built their places in the locations described above. Typically fires will race up ridges; then will get pushed along down the backside with wind direction. The speed of this obviously varies on fuel load, humidity, wind speed, etc. A fire can engulf homes sitting along ridgelines faster than anyone would ever believe. I can’t stress this enough. If there is a fire in the area, and if it is moving towards your retreat, please be very wary. There will not be time to do much of anything. Staying or leaving is up to you, but what will you do? Have you cleared undergrowth and trees back several hundred feet from your home? Do you have a metal roof that might spare you from falling embers? Have you installed a cistern or reservoir of some sort with hoses, hardlines and pumps? I can assure you that a well delivering any flow, much less 10 GPM, through a yard hydrant and garden hose will be like, well, relieving oneself. What about your ability to get out of Dodge (as in going back to Dodge and away from the retreat)? Can you be certain that the fire hasn’t made your Forest Service or timber company road impassable? Do you drive across a timber bridge many miles from your retreat each day? What will you do when that bridge is gone? Do you want to be caught in the middle of an inferno in your “Bug Back Vehicle”?

In case some of you are thinking, “This won’t happen here”, let’s take a quick look at some brief history. Nearly everyone has heard of the fires of 1910. Most of western Montana was burning. Many homes and ranches were engulfed. That was before the Forest Service had trained firefighters. In fact, that fire was the impetus to develop the Forest Service. Never again they said will we be short of manpower and supplies to fight this natural, regularly occurring event. Everyone remembers the Yellowstone fires of 1988. Hundreds of thousands of acres tore through Yellowstone. The Forest Service with support from the military threw everything they had at this fire with no gains in containment – at least not enough to change much. Not until the cooler fall temperatures and precipitation came along, did this fire get extinguished. How about the year 2000? Do you remember the famous photo [by John McColgan] of the two cow elk standing in the middle of the Bitterroot River [2] while the landscape around them was fully engulfed and glowing an eerie, smoky orange? In that year 7.4 million acres burned in just two states, Idaho and Montana! It was absolutely apocalyptic in nature. All summer and fall, tens of thousands of Forest Service personnel, along with help from various tribal ranger districts across the west lived in massive tent camps in numerous locations across Idaho and Montana. Even the USMC [3] sent troops in to help. In that year, even if your retreat was unaffected by fire, if it was along the route to a section of the fire, a sharp young Marine at a roadblock would have determined if you were allowed to pass or not. Notice the big gap in history between 1910 and 1988? Some of the gap is due to this history coming off the top of my head! In reality though, the gap exists because the Forest Service policy was to fight every fire. I’m not meaning to offend anyone, but I believe they got caught up in the same “spend it or lose it” budget planning that has helped bury this country in debt. Their policy was to extinguish any reported fire by 10:00 AM the following morning. Imagine the resources necessary to accomplish this goal. Even in the primitive areas, then designated wilderness areas after the passage of the Wilderness Act in the 1970s, every fire was fought. Fire lookouts were built on every prominent point throughout the wilderness and surrounding forest areas. These lookouts ranged from glorified tree houses to extensive steel structures anchored in concrete footings. I’ve been in several of these fire lookouts, and became friends with several of the lookouts themselves. These loner type individuals would stay in their lookout from June until October, everyday, 24/7. If a fire was spotted, triangulations were called in and within hours, tankers, smoke jumpers or Hotshots were called in to extinguish. The amount of fuel that continued to build up due to this “10:00 AM” policy was astronomical. During the Clinton years, for budgetary reasons, this policy was changed for the wilderness. No longer would fires be fought in wilderness areas. The “let-burn” policy was put into effect and since then we have seen nature burning through the fuel load.

Is your retreat on the border of a Wilderness Area? At this same time, the Clinton “Roadless Initiative” was passed. Well-meaning folks across the political spectrum in some cases, or hardcore environmentalists in other cases, considered this law a great savior for the nation’s forest. In reality however, the logging industry was destroyed. Again, fuel began to build up from lack of logging. Coniferous stands became diseased with scab and mistletoe and finally the dreaded “Pine Bark Beetle” that has destroyed 90% of the trees in many counties in the forests of Colorado. So again, there is an unusually high amount of fuel. Another by-product of the Roadless ban was that many of the forest service roads built to allow for the transport of logs to the mills, were reclaimed. Contractors were paid by the USDA to “un-build” roads. Dirt was pulled down from cuts above the roadway and graded to look they way it did before the road was built. Culverts and bridges were removed, topsoil and duff spread on top and seeding occurred. The unforeseen result in this reclamation effort was that many firebreaks were lost. Combine all these policies and we will be seeing big fires across the west for decades to come. Some years, conditions will be right for fires to burn in the southwest mountains; some years they’ll burn in the central or northern Rockies. But they will burn and burn hot, for many months in the summer.

I guess the real point of this article is to make some folks think about a very real danger to them in their new and unfamiliar settings. By no means am I trying to discourage folks from having an out of the way retreat. To me, there is nothing better than being self sufficient, away from the crowds and cities all the time – heck, I used to live six to seven months out of a year in a wall tent in the middle of the biggest wilderness in the lower 48! I just want to stress that forest fires are deceiving and untrustworthy. They cover more ground than we expect them to. They come back to life when we think they are surely dead as a doornail. They change directions, slow down, speed up, jump rivers, jump roads, jump scree patches, lay dormant in roots only to spring up again like a rattlesnake.

To those of you wonderful people that have taken the enormous leap to move yourself and your families out of the cities for whatever reason, just walk around your place and look at your retreat through the prism of a fire being in the area. Take a look at the topography in a ten or twenty mile radius around your retreat. Pay attention to your drive, not just for ambush points or defensible positions, but wonder how you will get in or out during a fire. As always, in everything, pay attention. Do the things that make your retreat more defensible from forest fire. The rest is up to you and the will of our Lord.
Be safe while being prepared in your forested retreat.