In the Salmon River Breaks of central Idaho, fire is a frequent visitor. The area has a somewhat legendary status in the pantheon of wildland fire, known for the steep slopes that rise seemingly without end from the Salmon River to the timbered ridges high above, where bighorn sheep mingle with rattlesnakes, and firefighters know to take extra care at every step. The Breaks play a role in the stories of many fire managers, some amusing, some somber, all taking into account that this is a place where firefighters must take care, or risk being broken by the land.
In late July 2003 I was a young and ignorant seasonal firefighter on the Swan Lake RD of the Flathead NF in northwestern Montana. On the hot afternoon of July 22nd, in a fire cache a few hundred yards from the cool shores of Flathead Lake, I heard about the two firefighters who had perished in the Cramer fire. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was the first time I’d really thought about firefighter fatalities in my young professional career. At that point in my life, fire didn’t seem all that hazardous compared to what I’d grown up around in a rural logging community. To be honest, it seemed more safety-oriented than anything I’d done previously, so I hadn’t given it much thought. Up until then I’d mainly worked small fires in the relatively wet and heavily timbered Flathead country, where fires mostly stayed small, and IA involved long hours of exceedingly slow work cutting through thick dead and down trees, dense brush, and digging line through feet of duff and the nemesis of many a high-country line digger, beargrass. It seemed like the standard escape route briefing was “down and out to the rigs,” regardless of where I was. More often than not, there wasn’t enough burned area to make the black a valid safety zone, and the openings in the timber were few and far between. It didn’t seem to matter much though, since the fires I’d experienced to that point had mostly moved slowly. Fast-moving fires in light, flashy fuels on steep slopes hadn’t been entered into my mental slideshow of experiences just yet, although they would eventually.
Given my lack of fire experience, as well as my general lack of life experience, the Salmon River Breaks might as well have been on the dark side of the moon that sweltering afternoon in the fire cache. I’d never been farther south than Lost Trail Pass in the Bitterroot, and had certainly never thought about fighting fire in the hot and dry Breaks country south of there, where flames could move faster than I could. At that point in my career, assignments to neighboring Districts, or to Glacier NP for the occasional lightning fire in the Park, were rare and sought after on the crew. Assignments off-Forest to the west side of the Lolo NF a few hours to the south seemed like a grand adventure. Firefighting in a place like the Salmon-Challis NF, then, was beyond my ken, and would be for some time to come. Still, it gave me pause for a few moments to think about those two nameless, faceless firefighters who’d died on a lonely hillside far away.
A few summers later I found myself as a rookie helitack crewmember for the BLM in southeast Montana, increasingly worried that my experience with slow-moving fires in Western MT hadn’t prepared me at all for working on fast-moving grass fires in the rough and tough badlands of the Tongue and Powder River Breaks. I’d read John Maclean’s Fire on the Mountain the winter before, and during the early weeks of settling into the singlewide trailer that was our barracks, the thought of those BLM helitackers who had died on Storm King was forefront in my mind. As I got to know my fellow crewmembers, I discovered that two of them had just come from the Indianola Rappel Crew, and had been among the new hires after Cramer. I didn’t really dwell on it at the time, but I do remember a few conversations about how strange it was for them to have started on that crew so soon after tragedy had rocked that organization.
As I’ve forged ahead in my career, I’ve worked with a few others who were part of that crew, or sister crews on the Salmon-Challis. I’ve fought fire on neighboring forests, and have gained an appreciation for fire in that kind of country. Each time I think about what those folks went through, and what was lost, it becomes more powerful, and it becomes more evident that we can’t let those memories and lessons be forgotten.
I was sitting in a fire refresher this spring, on the wet west side of the Oregon Cascades, when the instructors presented the Cramer video and case study to a class of mainly young and inexperienced militia, most of whom were ignorant of the ferocity of fire in places like the Salmon River Breaks. Much like me 15 years before, the idea that someone could get caught in a situation like that was a good bit removed from what they knew of working in fire. Lacking much in the way of guidance from the instructors, who through no fault of their own had no personal connection to Cramer, the students reviewed the events and focused on details and lessons. While what they discussed was important, it probably wasn’t what they really needed to take away from the exercise. I shared my thoughts as best I could, based on my experience in similar places and with similar people, and hoped that somehow I’d said something that would stick in their minds as they went into what was looking like a busy fire season.
That experience, of seeing the generational knowledge gained in the aftermath of the event drift away, made me feel sad. A large slice of a generation of fire and aviation managers was influenced by Cramer, and it changed how a lot of us thought about fire in many ways. To see those lessons fade, however slightly, from our cultural memory, is a melancholy thing, because if we fail to remember our past we are doomed to repeat it, on some other lonely hillside, on some other fire that would otherwise go unremembered.
Never forget Shane Heath, Jeff Allen and the Cramer fire. Be students of fire, in all the ways that you can.