I’d been a newspaper reporter for more than 30 years before I received an assignment to cover a forest fire.
When I finally did get the assignment, it was a doozy. It was the Jasper Fire, set deliberately in late August of 2000. The fire started not far from a highway near Jewel Cave National Monument in the southern Black Hills. For those familiar with the area – which I really wasn’t before that fire – it’s westerly from Custer. Over west a fair piece is Newcastle, Wyoming.
It’s rugged terrain. Fighting wildland fires out there isn’t a picnic. Late-summer heat made the Jasper Fire even more miserable, and for two or three days the wind literally howled down the canyons and up slopes thick with trees and heavy with dry underbrush. The Jasper Fire burned more than 83,000 acres, the largest fire in the known history of the Black Hills. The monument was closed for several days and some homeowners evacuated.
I don’t dwell on that fire reporting experience, but I think of it from time to time when the news carries stories of huge fires in the West. There are many such stories these days. Sometimes it seems as if half of the West is burning away. The fires that get noticed are big, mean and terribly difficult to control.
With the record temperatures across much of the West so far this spring and summer, that should surprise no one. There are just more and bigger wildfires that there used to be. Maybe it was worse at some point before humans showed up and began to keep records. I couldn’t say. I’m pretty sure the current fires are some of the worst possible. Just the other morning one of the news shows reported something like 2 million acres currently burning. Some relatively sane and sober experts say it could get worse.
At one point during the Jasper Fire, a fire-team public information guy new to the area got a little bit lost and drove a group of reporters into a box canyon. As the guy studied the map, the reporters watched the trees burning along the rim of the canyon and considered whether deploying an emergency fire shelter would make more sense than submerging ourselves in the nearby creek. We made it out safely, although we wound up in Wyoming and doubled back on a closed highway to get to Custer again.
Our little adventure made for some good stories after we’d filed our actual dispatches. It was something none of us reporters on the trip had experienced, and I suppose we felt like pretty hot stuff when we told the tale (modestly, of course) to our friends later.
The thing is, we were in an unusual spot in that canyon, but we were never actually in imminent danger. It wasn’t as if we were homeowners being told we had to grab what we could carry and get out. There were such people in the path of the Jasper Fire and they were in immediate danger at times. And it sure wasn’t as if we were firefighters heading into the heat of the flames, shift after shift. They often were in immediate, major danger. They knew it, and they headed toward the flames, anyway, every day until the fire was contained.
I hung around the fire camp west of Custer when I could. It was the best way to learn what was going on. I sometimes got to talk with crew members coming in from shift. They’re a pretty tight-lipped bunch, so I didn’t get much for stories. I understood better what it was like, though, and I developed incredible respect for the firefighters.
They climbed the roughest hills, ate standing up in a blazing sun and slept in 95-degree heat on the ground in the shade of a parked truck. They were uniformly sweat-stained, their yellow shirts blackened with soot. They had tired, red-rimmed eyes, and when they talked, their eyes moved constantly, a little wild and understandably so. Talking in the fire camp, they were somehow still out on the line, too.
Man, they’re a fierce bunch. We are lucky to have them.