The Unforgettable 2017 Fire Season

By Henry Bowers

As the hot, dry months pass and the weather begins to cool down, the end of the 2017 wildfire season is finally knocking at the door. Most of these fires, except the recent Santa Anna-driven fires near Santa Rosa and Napa, California, now are hardly a blaze. However, it can not be forgotten just how massive and devastating some of the fires were. Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and California have all suffered through harsh fire seasons, but rarely has it ever reached the magnitude of destruction that we have witnessed this past summer. 

For a very educated take on this subject, we interviewed former firefighter David Bowers on the matter. Bowers worked on a hotshot crew from 1980 to 1987 out of La Grande, Oregon. For those who don’t know, a hotshot crew is often part of the U.S. Forest Service, as was the case with Bowers.

Working for a hotshot crew is a grueling job. Bowers’ crew would work sixteen-hour overlapping shifts. Their day would begin at four in the morning, with two hours to get dressed, eat breakfast, and pack everything they needed for the day. From there, they would fly in by helicopter to the work area and go from six in the morning until six in the evening.

There were no breaks for lunch; they ate whenever they got the opportunity. Once their shift was done, they had to hike out to the nearest heli-spot, and from there would be flown back to camp. Once they were back, it was dinner and then bed. That was the routine for every day on a fire.

Bowers worked with the hotshots for eight years and stated that there were two fires in particular that were unforgettable. The first came in 1980 when the air traffic control went on strike. No air traffic control meant no flyovers by planes or helicopters, which meant all the work was done on the ground. Bowers was on duty on a fire just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, and as a result of the strike, he and his crew worked for sixty-three straight days. The next fire came in 1981 at Emerald Lake in Colorado. Bowers described the flames as the biggest he has ever seen, stretching above the trees and into the sky.

Bowers, now a resident of Montana, stated that “this year was tougher than average in Montana, but not the worst I’ve ever seen since moving to Montana. Some of the fires in California right now are exhibiting fire behavior I’ve not experienced before; affects and devastation in an urban area.”

For the State of Montana, this year’s fire season has been their most expensive since 1999, costing both state and federal governments a combined $378 million. It was also the third largest wildfire season in Montana’s history. A whopping 1.26 million acres have burned, and only the summer of 2012 and the Great Burn of 1910 were bigger.

Photo: Flathead Hotshots, 2013 Eureka fire. Courtesy flatheadbeacon.com

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