Massive forest fires, like California’s Rim Fire that blanketed the Eastern Sierra in a stinging haze for weeks, generate different reactions.
East of the Rockies, it’s hard to imagine the intensity of fire fed by years of underbrush racing to the top of 12,000-foot peaks. West of the Rockies, the reactions are more personal: “It could, or has, been us.” For those who know the Yosemite Valley, threatened by Rim, the reaction is deeply personal.
But for Bishop’s James Denver, major forest fires are a whole different ball game; they’re a job.
Denver, who graduated from Bishop Union High School in 1987, is part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Mi-Wok Ranger District Wildland Fire Unit stationed in Mi-Wok Village, near Sonora, off State Route 108. His crew was sent to the Rim Fire in its second week to build check lines and redirect the fire. Rim started Saturday afternoon, Aug. 17; at 84 percent containment as of Sept. 18, the fire was estimated to be fully contained by yesterday after destroying 256,895 acres of wildland.
Before that, the crew had been on the lightning-caused Aspen Fire that burned through 22,800 acres in the Sierra National Forest north of Big Creek in late July. Thanks to a combination of a dry winter, hot temperatures and a volatile monsoon season with its dry thunderstorms, this has been a busy summer for crews like Denver’s.
Both fires were further complicated by the inclusion of Wilderness Areas within their perimeters. Denver and other firefighting crews have to hike in with their gear as the areas are closed to vehicles.
For Denver, laymen questions about the intensity of the fire and the fear that seems second nature are just that, laymen’s questions. He looks at the structure, the personality of the fire, its behavior, the topography, the fuel, the weather. He’s a scientist in a laboratory working to control the lab rat. While laymen look at an oncoming wildland fire with a mix of awe and horror, to Denver, “it’s pretty interesting. All fires are different. The Rim was an aggressive, wind-driven fire” in an area where no prescribed burns had taken place in more than 20 years.
Denver and his crew’s job is to re-direct wildland fires, creating check lines and buffer zones “in the hopes the fire will run into a natural barrier.” After 20 years on the fire lines, the job is almost intuitive. “You develop the knowledge,” Denver said. “You look at the land, the drainage, the wind patterns.”
Residents in urban/wildland interface areas know some basics, at least in theory: fires burn faster uphill and accelerate in gullies where the flow of air creates a chimney effect. Professional firefighters have to look at each situation and make decisions that will affect the outcome of the fire.
“Everything was aligned in the Rim Fire,” said Denver, “the fuels, the weather, the terrain. The area was just let go” with no effort to manage it. “You could look at an old fire map and predicted this was going to happen. The Rim was very similar to the fire that came through the area 20 years ago.”
There was frustration in his voice when he talked about his primary job, prescribed burns, pre-treating forest land so when, not if, a fire starts, the intensity and the direction can be managed. The Rim Fire, for Denver, wasn’t so much the perfect storm, but an inevitability that could have been prevented, or at least the damage could have been minimized.
Over Denver’s 20-year career, he has worked all over Southern and Central California for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service in the Inyo National Forest. The training he went through at the age of 24 has allowed him to pick his spots and stay close to family in Bishop. “I love doing this,” he said. “You have to love it, the training is so intense.”
In a fire season that started with the death of 19 firefighters in Arizona, the 44-year-old Denver isn’t cavalier about the dangers.
“You have to keep your awareness up,” he said. “And look out for yourself and your crew. We all signed up for this; it’s the risk we take.”