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As inhabitants of the heavily forested mountains of North Idaho and Western Montana, we are surrounded by astronomical amounts of fuel.

Fire, fire, fire  -  if fire isn’t on your mind, it should be. Radio reports of July fires in eastern Washington are like hearing from Paul Revere. The fires are coming, the fires are coming. As inhabitants of the heavily forested mountains of North Idaho and Western Montana, we are surrounded by astronomical amounts of fuel. All it will take is a careless match, a spark from a chainsaw, a lightening strike.

Most people now understand past human activities and fire intervention have resulted in a vast deposit of fuel to feed a monstrous fire. The Forest Service policy of putting out every forest fire before noon seemed so right. Building roads up every drainage seemed so practical. Harvesting the big trees and ignoring the thick, small trees seemed so economical.

In the past, some fires should have been allowed to burn. Roads, built to haul timber, now allow people to be in the woods using their 4-wheelers, chainsaws and cigarettes. Forest management should have been driven by fuel reduction, not harvest quotas.

Controlling a huge conflagration would be impossible. National Guard troops are depleted and USFS experienced personnel have been cut back. Resources, fire fighters, and equipment are stretched so thin in California my brother writes that there are a hundred unmanned fires in his vicinity. There are no borate bombers, no yellow-shirted crews, and no helicopters carrying water. He has a generator and a thousand-gallon tank of stored winter water, but unless he is willing to drop the magnificent redwood by the front door, his house would be toast.

 Check with your local Forest Service headquarters, they have information about creating a defensible space around your home, thinning your forested lands and using controlled burns in the spring to lessen fuel loads. The telephone number for the Cabinet Ranger District is 406-827-3533. The Panhandle Ranger District’s number if 208-263-5111. But don’t wait until you see the flames - by then everyone will be too busy to answer the phone.

Many lessons should have been learned after the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000. Employees of the Bandelier National Monument Park Service lighted a prescribed burn on May 4. High winds blew it out of control and by May 10, 180,000 acres had burned. It could be that those acres needed a good cleansing fire, but 400 hundred homes were destroyed. Since 200 of these were in the town of Los Alamos - America’s nuclear city - the fire got national attention.

The Cerro Grande fire investigation contained interesting information for homeowners. Pictures prove that many of the Los Alamos homes were lost to low intensity ground fires that merely scorched pines and rail fences. Creeping under the rails, the fires crawled across lawns until reaching oily fuels such as ornamental juniper foundation plantings. Whoosh.

Every couple of months, there seems to be another McMansion built on the slopes above the Clark Fork River. A steep and narrow driveway through the forest leads to a clearing with a view. The mansion will have an overhanging deck sheltering the fireplace woodpile. Whoosh.

It has become apparent throughout the last eight years that we have been saddled with, not less government, as promised, but less effective government. We cannot expect much from a government where lobbyists write legislation and inexperienced cronies operate the agencies. (“You are doing a heckuva’ job, Brownie.”) It therefore behooves us to learn as much as we can about protecting ourselves. Understanding how to create defensible space around your home and how to make your buildings safer is the first step. Acknowledging the potential hazards of your site and taking steps to minimize a bad situation would help.

A few facts about fire would be good to know. Fire is unusual in that it travels faster uphill than down. Ground fires can remain on the ground if ladder fuels and small trees are removed. Conifers have flammable, oily needles and torch easily.

Have an evacuation plan in mind. Make a list of the most important documents to save. Collect the photo albums. Pets, livestock, equipment - you have to know how and where they are going. During the last fiery summer, I packed all the tools and toys such as skis and kayaks in the pick-up and parked it in the middle of a shorn hayfield. The tractor, rototiller, lawnmower, and haying equipment were likewise in the hayfield. The passenger car held all the documents, mementos, photo albums, and floppy discs. The camper was filled with sleeping bags, stove, cooking gear, lantern, food, water, some clothing, and a cat cage.  

Another necessary component to your own safety is learning how to read a map. I have been amazed at the presumably intelligent people who have no idea where they are. At a Forest Service fire information meeting several years ago, one successful businesswoman asked an embarrassing question that demonstrated she didn’t know north from south. Another was unsure where Noxon, location of his home, was in relation to the Cabinet/Coeur d’Alene Divide.

Without geographical knowledge, a person is at the mercy of rumors, misinformation, and bad ideas. One of our neighbors, during the last fire scare, thought her best route of escape was drive up a USFS road to reach Idaho… from the frying pan into the fiery furnace.

Arm yourself with as much information as you can. Your life may depend upon it.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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