The InciWeb site (inciweb.nwcg.gov) lists wildfires around the country, and as of late this week it showed 27 of them - or, to be more precise, 27 groups, in Idaho. Depending on how you count the number of Idaho fires probably could be listed well into three digits.
A number of them are listed as being fires in a “complex”, the Lawyer, Clearwater, Motorway, Middle Fork and others being among those. Several national forests, maybe lacking time for listing all the bits and pieces for Inciweb, just list “miscellaneous fires,” of formally zero but almost certainly undetermined acreage.
The biggest of them, the Soda fire in southwest Idaho, was more than 30 miles from Boise but so vast that skillfully shot pictures taken from the Boise foothills showed the fire and the city in one image, as if the city was about to burn. Much of the area burned by the Soda was lightly inhabited desert country, but it did serious damage enough to farm and ranch land and livestock. Fires to the north did cause a series of residential evacuations.
So much fire is going on out there it’s evidently become hard to manage even statistically. Looking down the numbers at a glance, you could see last week wildfires in Idaho covering as much as a half-million acres. And that’s not all that has or will go up in smoke this year.
Is this Idaho’s biggest fire year?
No. Not close.
Only three years ago, 1.75 million acres burned in the state, a level we may not reach this year.
But the biggest was more than a century ago, the great fire of 1910. It was the biggest recorded burn in American history, covering several states and more than three million acres (about three times the size of fires in the comparable region this year), killing at least 86 people, and hitting notably hard in northern Idaho. At least two entire Idaho communities, Falcon and Grand Forks, were wiped from the earth by the blaze. The New York Times writer Timothy Egan devoted an excellent book in 2009 to its causes and after-effects: The Big Burn, Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.
There were big aftereffects, not least at the U.S. Forest Service, whose lands were especially hard hit. Wikipedia summarizes what Egan and others have pointed out: “The Fire of 1910 cemented and shaped the U.S. Forest Service, which at the time was a newly established department on the verge of cancellation. Before the epic event, there were many debates on how to handle forest fires; whether to let them burn because they were a part of nature and were expensive to fight, or to fight them in order to protect the forests. After the devastation of the Big Blowup, it was decided that the U.S. Forest Service was to prevent and battle against every wildfire.”
Since then, debate has risen and grown about how to deal with wildfires - and if the history of recent years is a decent measure, we’re not on the declining side of them. Should they be fought with prescribed burns, a preferred approach for many professionals? Should forests be thinned through logging? Should some fires just be allowed to burn? Are there other approaches that might forestall more years like this one, or keep a future year from turning into another 1910?
After all, it could get even worse.
And will there be more emphasis in addressing these questions in the coming winter than there usually is after snow begins to fall?
If the snow begins to fall.