It was no surprise to hear Grant County residents venting their frustration at last week’s meetings on the wildfires near Dayville and Prairie City. People have strong feelings for these rugged forests and canyons that have been scorched the last two weeks, and the damage hits hard. Perhaps that also explains why it wasn’t much more than a nanosecond before some folks began second-guessing the decisions made by fire officials.
We’d caution that second-guessing is easy to do if your opinions have no lives hanging in the balance. But this is no video game where snuffed-out lives can be refreshed in the next round. The professional fire managers don’t have the luxury of acting without putting firefighter safety and survival at the top of their priority lists.
In recent years, wildland firefighter deaths have been on the rise across the nation, with tragedies like Storm King Mountain drawing stark attention to the dangers of this kind of work and the devastating impact these complex decisions can have. It would be naive to think that such deaths haven’t colored the current approach to wildfires. In recent weeks, the emphasis on firefighter and public safety has echoed like the mantra across the local landscape.
Today, hundreds of firefighters are working the South Fork Complex and Bald Sisters Fire, literally risking their lives. Some are local people, our neighbors, who have a better than average understanding of the territory. Many others come from far, and while they bring firefighting training and expertise, they lack prior knowledge of the terrain and conditions. The fire managers’ primary duty must be to keep them all safe. Saving a stand of trees or ridgetop at the expense of the life of a firefighter or a pilot is no win for any of us.
That’s not to say there’s no room for review in these situation – just that there’s a time and a place for everything. Once the smoke has settled, you can bet the decisions made on these fires will be reviewed and analyzed thoroughly. The agencies themselves rely on such self-examination as a way to inform decision-making on the fires that are sure to come in the future.
Right now, it’s time now to let the fire managers do their jobs. It’s also time to thank the firefighters, who are doing a dangerous, hot, dirty and sometimes thankless job for us. — SC