The Big Gung-Ho Thing

by Chuck Pezeshki

When I heard about the death of Anne Veseth, I could only mourn for her parents. I don’t know the Veseth family, but having two teenage children of my own, I cannot imagine the pain of losing a young adult. All that work, and love that is embodied, gone in a flash of one moment of inattentiveness.

Then I looked where it happened – the Steep Corner fire, which the news alleged was ‘close to Orofino.’ I rushed to my map – about 15 years ago, I had led a small investigative effort with a couple other environmentalists on the issue of timber theft and mis-scaling of logs on a timber sale there. Steep Creek, and the Steep Corner fire is only close to Orofino if you consider 60 miles close. It is a steep piece of country in the middle of what my friends and I refer to as ‘the Nuclear Zone’ – cutover, mega-clearcut country on Potlatch and state land that run up to the edge of the North Fork of the Clearwater river and the Mallard-Larkins roadless country. It’s about as far from anywhere in the Lower 48 that you can get. It is not close to Orofino.

Fighting fire out in the middle of beat-up country that is a threat to no person, especially in an area where there are hollow cedar snags on a wickedly steep hillside – I can still remember huffing up the debris-laden slopes – is one of the most insane things, besides wage war in far-away places, that we do. Wildland fire will always be a part of the West, and the idea that we should take the risk of sacrifice of young lives in such a misbegotten place is criminal. Kathy Hedberg’s recent piece in the Lewiston Tribune regarding safety concerns and potential violations in the actual firefighting itself indicates, even within the wildland firefighting cult, that this instance was egregious. But it is part of the larger culture of what a friend of mine called ‘The Big Gung-ho Thing’ that must change. As a former fire scientist myself, I had beat into my head by none other than Professor Leon Neuenschwander, fire scientist and professor at the University of Idaho the basic statistic – 300 acres of fire, you’ve got a 10% chance of putting it out. 3000 acres -- less than 1%. Wait for the snow.

Wildland firefighting as it exists is a bizarre form of financial aid for college students, and a jobs program for Native Americans and white heavy equipment operators and truckers. It pours tons of money into isolated communities that have none, suffocating dissent like borate from a tanker aircraft. And when it occasionally takes a life – a helicopter goes down, or young people on a remote hilltop are incinerated, the culture gathers around and lionizes the fallen. Firefighters line up in their yellow Nomex, everyone curses the gods, and then they go back to the same madness that caused the death in the first place. There are so many similarities to our war fetish that it boggles the mind. Trying to stop wildland fire, especially in remote landscapes at the end of a hot,dry summer is like trying to stop the wind.

And the fact that we have inextricably linked it to funding the students in our Rocky Mountain universities shows the same lack of foresight that forces more students into loans, and into the military. As a nation, we should have more avenues for upward mobility without debt than fighting unnecessary wars, or wildland fire. It is an unconscionable crisis of vision.

What is required is a redefinition of national humility. We are not all-powerful in the world, and we have a nation that must be run on reason – not fear. We can start by accepting fire’s role in Western forests, and re-funding our universities. Then Ms. Veseth’s and her family’s sacrifice would truly not have been in vain.