Rocky Barker's Aug. 21 1994 column
The world appears pretty gray to people in McCall these days.
Purple ribbons are everywhere. They remind the community of the loss of smokejumper,
outfitter and wilderness advocate Jim Thrash, who was killed earlier this summer by a forest
fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado.
Now the fires have come to McCall's front door, carrying with them the demons that
Thrash had learned to face regularly on the front lines of past fire fights.
Giant convection columns from the Blackwell and Corral fires, now so big they are
creating their own weather, tower over the landscape. Smoke stings the eyes and fills the
lungs. Ash covers homes and cars.
Only a week ago two forest fires threatened to burn expensive homes and cabins on the
outskirts of this resort community. Tuesday the two fires joined, running and spotting through
the French Creek roadless area on a march north toward the Salmon River. Tens of
thousands of acres have already burned and experts predict they could grow to more than
400,000 acres before the snow flies.
Thrash guided hunters for elk and deer in the French Creek area. He fought hard to
preserve the area as wilderness. Mike Medberry, a McCall writer and conservationist shared
in Thrash's cause. Now he shares in the community's mass mourning for Thrash and the
scenery he loved.
"This fire season I lost one friend in Jim Thrash. Now I'm losing another friend -- French
Creek," Medberry says. "We worked 10 years to protect this area from logging and now it's
going up in smoke. I know it will come back but Jim won't."
It might have been appealing for David Alexander, Payette National Forest supervisor and
his fire bosses to throw everything they had into stopping the two blazes. Perhaps years ago
that is exactly the strategy the Forest Service would have taken. Even today there are some
who would argue for that course.
Alexander chose instead to let it burn. He told firefighters to secure the southern edge of
the fires -- now moving away from McCall and civilization -- to protect human lives and then
to protect isolated structures. But no firefighters will be placed in the direct path of the
conflagration not even to save cabins and second homes.
Fresh in his mind is the memory of Thrash and the other 21 other firefighters who have
died this deadly season. But Alexander's wise decision goes beyond safety. He and his fire
experts now have the collective experience of the 1988 Yellowstone fires with which to
work. The lessons of that distant August and September is that man's control over nature is
"You could dump millions and millions of dollars on this fire and it's still going to do what
it's going to do," says Dee Sessions, of Ashton, who is safety officer on the Blackwelll Fire.
"These are just like the Yellowstone fires. They control their own destiny."
Keith Birch, the Blackwell Fire team commander, is also the fire officer for the Targhee
National Forest. He fought the Yellowstone blazes six years ago and like his entire generation
of firefighters, he was humbled. He compares stopping the Payette fires to stopping a
Alexander also took into account the beneficial effects of the fire on the forest ecosystem
itself. Dead spruce, killed by bark beetles lies across most of the fire's path. The fire, burning
inconsistent mosaics through the terrain, is helping to jump start the next generation of trees,
flowers and grasses.
The ecological effects are not all "good" if you put human value judgments into the natural
process. The eggs and gravel nesting grounds for endangered salmon, which spawn in
French Creek and the Salmon River, may be covered by mud when the forest cover is lost.
The sheer size of the fire -- larger than fire historians have been able to document on the
Payette in the past --may roar unnaturally through stands of Ponderosa pine and other
desirable old growth trees.
Medberry knows the ecological benefits of fire. But he, like anyone who has grown
attached to a special place, can't help but torment over its sudden defacing.
While firefighters were saving McCall, I was touring Yellowstone with its resident fire
ecology expert Don Despain. I wish those who are anguishing over French Creek and other
cherished-but-now-burned places could see what Despain showed me.
In the shadow of dead, blackened 300-year old Douglas firs, a new generation of trees is
rising above the fireweed and aster. Green, deep carpets of lodgepole pine grow from the
ashes of firestorms past. Mixed stands of spruce, lodgepole and whitebark pine -- similar to
those in the Payette -- are reborn.
Similar fate awaits the Payette. When the weather changes the fires will stop. When the
smoke, ash and firefighters are just a memory the forest will persist. The natural rhythm that
outdoorsman Jim Thrash knew will endure.