Firefighting reality comes to McCall

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.