In a Thursday status report, the Steep Corner fire near Orofino, Idaho, was “creeping and smoldering,” a mere 310 acres, and 80 percent contained.
Yet Steep Corner was a killer, having taken the life on Aug. 12 of 20-year-old Moscow resident Anne Veseth, the victim of a falling tree.
Fighting fires in the woods is by its nature a dangerous proposition, but Veseth’s death is troubling because she died one day after an experienced U.S. Forest Service “hotshot” crew had declined to attack the fire because of serious concerns about the terrain and fuels, particularly overhead snags.
Leaders of the Flathead Interagency Hotshot Crew were also troubled by what they characterized as poor communication, lack of leadership, and safety equipment – especially clothing – that did not meet their standards. A Safenet report available online suggests they made a diligent study of the fire and the containment effort, reported their observations to the officials in charge, and concluded they would not risk their firefighters given the circumstances.
They were told the local team was doing the best it could with what it had, and that those officials understood the hotshots held themselves to a higher standard.
Comments from members of the Idaho state Land Board, who met Tuesday, indicated they did not consider that response satisfactory. Appropriately so.
There should be only one standard for crew safety, even if the roster includes prison inmates. Studies of the Steep Corner fire that are already under way will determine whether more should or could have been done to protect Veseth and the other firefighters, but what is good for the hotshots should be good for everyone else on the line.
The frequency and intensity of fires in Western forests will likely increase as drought and insect infestation create a more fire-friendly environment. The season has many weeks to run, and the air tanker base in Boise has already reported retardant dumps in excess of 1 million gallons in Idaho alone, most on the 100,000-acre Trinity Ridge fire near Featherville, east of Boise.
Gov. Butch Otter, a Land Board member and former wildland firefighter, owns a cabin threatened by that fire. Last week he visited the site to fireproof it as best he could, and to remove mementos if those measures and fire crew efforts do not save it.
This is an excellent opportunity for the governor to recommend similar efforts by other landowners, not just in news conferences, but in public service announcements that could be aired across the West. His background – any old pictures? – would lend his advice exceptional credibility, especially if that cabin could be the backdrop.
That aside, as a Land Board member and governor, Otter should also take the lead in assuring Idaho firefighters have the tools and training to maximize their safety on the fire lines. It’s only going to get hotter.