These are days of high anxiety. Our elected leaders zip along at breakneck speed in opposite directions, giving each other the metaphorical finger instead of behaving like adults.  As Covid-19 spreads across the country like wildfire, you have to wonder where our country is headed. 

Speaking of wildfire, the Williams Fork blaze consuming the Arapaho National Forest seven miles west of Fraser gives reason for hope. Maybe all is not lost quite yet.

Absent this Grand County conflagration that turns beetle-killed lodgepoles into ashes at our doorstep, hundreds of super-fit young firefighters would be digging line and drip-torching elsewhere. Everywhere you look, the American West burns.

Drive by the arena on County Road 73 and you’ll see small dome tents pitched everywhere. If you didn’t know better, you might think you wandered into a bunch of homeless campers in Denver.

Far from it.  Right here, during the good times prior to a pandemic, is the home of our High Country Stampede Rodeo. Not this summer, of course. Instead, hot shot crews from other parts of Colorado and several other states risk their lives to protect Grand County residents.

Consider this report, courtesy of the National Institute for Safety and Health:

  • More than 400 on-duty wildland firefighters died between 2000 and 2019, according to the Wildland Firefighter On-Duty Death Surveillance System.
  • Common hazards faced on the fire line can include burnovers or entrapments, heat-related illnesses and injuries, smoke inhalation, vehicle-related injuries (including aircraft), slips, trips, and falls, and others.
  • Due to prolonged intense physical exertion, wildland firefighters are at risk for sudden cardiac deaths and a life-threatening syndrome of muscle injuries causing kidney failure.

In short, firefighters are soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect Americans, their homes, animals and possessions. They eat smoke so that the rest of us can go about our daily routines without much thought.

Firefighting, like war, is part of U.S. history. Indeed, the strategies and tactics used to fight wildland fires resemble the Army’s. Firefighters attack along fronts and try to predict the enemy’s next move. Of course, there are casualties to consider.

In June 1988, fires broke out in Yellowstone. One of the hottest, driest summers on record turned the nation’s most famous national park into a hell hole of flames and smoke. Lightning ignited the fires, which were allowed to burn because park managers and fire behavior experts expected the fires to burn themselves out by July, a month historically full of rainy days.

But 1988’s fire behavior was different. When July rains never came, fires spread throughout Yellowstone. For the first time in history, the park closed to all non-emergency personnel. More than 9,000 firefighters, joined by 4,000 military troops, executed a suppression strategy to protect valuable structures, including the Old Faithful Inn.

But the crown fires burned for months. Flames shot hundreds of feet up. Storms of hot embers blew for miles in all directions. 

Meanwhile young men and women labored furiously for 16 hours or more every day and night. They ate their meals under big tents, slept on the ground with bandannas over their faces to keep out smoke. Every morning, they awoke to hear incident commanders give pep talks as though the firefighters were high school athletes preparing for a big game.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Firefighters’ young lives were at risk here for many months. The evidence appeared on their ash-streaked faces, and in their determined eyes. If they feared fire, and many certainly must have, they didn’t allow it to stop them. They had a job to do.

It’s the definition of courage. I remember seeing it on display at Yellowstone that year.

I was among several journalists covering the historic fires. We ate with firefighters, slept next to them on the ground, breathed the smoke and felt the heat. 

For a long week, I filed newspaper stories from inside Yellowstone. It was important national news, but small potatoes compared to the actual firefighting, of course.

I sat on a tree stump everyday typing up notes on what now is considered a digital dinosaur as choppers dropped orange retardant from smoky skies. 

Often, I was scared out of my wits. No human lives were lost. But I saw the bodies of dead squirrels, birds and even elk in those ashes. Yellowstone’s fires burned nearly 800,000 acres before late autumn snowfall extinguished them. 

Today, wildfires have become almost routine. They’re burning across our state and nation this minute. More than 200 brave souls battle the Williams Fork fire. They deserve our profound thanks. When you see them in their yellow Nomex shirts, let them know it.