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smoky Butte

Thick smoke hangs over Butte, blotting out what would have been a bright, sunny day if not for wildfires that continue to rage to the west in Montana. Most of the smoke was from the Meyers Fire 25 miles southwest of Philipsburg, according to the National Weather Service.

In the late '90s there was a large buildup of fire personnel in the U.S. Forest Service. This was caused by or led to what I call the fire-industrial-complex, or what I will refer to as the “beast.” The beast needs fire and money to survive and needs some portion of the West to burn every year.

Now, a lot of people noticed when the first of these fires started, in mid July, that little if anything was done to suppress them. When these fires were listed on InciWeb, most of these fires had containment dates of Oct. 21. These fires were only a few acres in size and these fire managers were saying that they could not contain them until October.

I and others noticed that when the helicopters started working the Meyers and Whetstone fires, they were flying to Philipsburg to fill their buckets, which was about 23 miles away. Whetstone Lake and Moose Lake were about 2 miles from these fires. Who made the decision to not have a ground crew on the Little Hogback Fire in mid July? According to the news it was too hazardous to fight the Lolo Peak fire when it was small. They want us to believe that it is safer for firefighters to fight a 40,000-acre fire. This is unbelievable!

They use safety as an excuse to do little productive work. That is a good plan for them, as what politician is going to challenge them on safety? Why do they get hazard pay? What about the safety of the forest users? We will now have thousands of acres of snags. What law gives any fire manager the right to decide to let a fire burn and pollute the air all summer? What is this doing to the kids' lungs, not to mention those with heart and lung disease? I would breathe less smoke, in my smoke-chasing days, as I didn’t stand in the smoke and we put the fires out. If these people are too afraid to fight the fires, then move on and we can get others who are not afraid. How much money is wasted on the almost worthless indirect and contingency fire lines as fires jump these lines? There were many days this summer when the fires cooled down that direct lines could have been built.

The beast has evolved the firefighter into the “fireherder.” Now that the fires are huge, the herders will whine to Congress that they need more money and they will get it. Not all Forest Service employees are herders but those who are can retire and immediately contract to the beast. They get paid very well and also get paid to attend 80 hours of training every year. What is the incentive to keep fires small with an aggressive initial attack?

Life is short and we have only so many summers. Unless you would like a majority of your remaining summers to be like this, I would urge you to contact your congressman and senators and urge them not to feed the beast. I would urge Congress to increase the funding for “initial attack”; this would include more funding for smokejumpers and smokechasers. Maybe we need an elite firefighting group like the Navy SEALs. This would be cheaper in the long run and we would not hear “we can’t and it’s too dangerous.” The “let it burn” policy is not working and is being abused at the cost of our health and the welfare of our nation.

Chuck Hinkle of Philipsburg worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 38 years, including three summers starting in 1967, and has fought fires in Washington, California, New Mexico, Alaska and Montana. In addition to his job in timber, he was a smoke chaser on the Pintler Ranger District during the '80s and '90s.

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