SOUTH HILLS — A few dozen men and women stand in a big, quiet circle in the dark. The sun hasn’t risen above the hills, but stray light from the command post trailers illuminates a few of their faces. They’re dirty, smudged with cartoonish levels of soot, most of them expressionless with exhaustion.
Oct. 9’s morning briefing begins and a string of leaders on the edge of Diamondfield Jack campground give short speeches and updates. The fire is 99% contained, one says. He hands off the mic. The next man reads off the day’s weather. Watch out for extreme fatigue, says another. Be safe, try to save lodgepole pine, thank you. You’re going home soon.
A few minutes after the briefing wraps, Scott Soletti hops in his white U.S. Forest Service pickup. The district wildlife biologist apologizes for the mess in the cab. I’ve been basically living out of here, he explains. After tossing some trash into a dumpster, he leaves Diamondfield Jack and starts driving higher into the South Hills.
It’s dawn now and Soletti points out parts of the burn as the truck wobbles and rattles up the rugged road. A leafless stand of scrawny aspens covers the ground on the left, the trees’ typical silver bark turned a ghostly half-black by the flames. Thousands of thoroughly charred subalpine fir cover a hillside on the right. That patch burned hot, Soletti says. He keeps pausing mid-sentence because bursts of radio chatter interrupt his train of thought.
When the truck makes it to Monument Peak, a high-point in this part of the South Hills, he pulls over. The sky’s pink-gray and hazy — hazy from California, not the Badger Fire, Soletti says. The hills visible through the haze are almost colorless.
Normally in early October this part of the South Hills would be covered in the rich greens of pine and fir, set off by golden yellow aspens. Now it’s a dark mosaic of black and green.
It’s important to understand fire isn’t inherently bad, Soletti says. The South Hills ecosystem evolved with fire, needs fire.
Up here in the high elevation areas, the fire burned patchily. Mosaic burns are generally ideal because they boost habitat diversity on the landscape, ensuring the forest has a mix of young and old trees and shrubs. In some spots, the blaze took out old, diseased stands of trees, clearing the way for new, healthy growth.
But not all of the fire’s impacts will be positive. The loss of timber could hurt some species. And at the northern, lower end of the South Hills, the fire wiped out vast tracts of healthy sagebrush that may never return to what they once were.
There will be long-lasting repercussions, both good and bad, from this 90,000-acre burn. These South Hills’ 300,000 acres are biologically unique and valuable, providing critical habitat for many species. The loss of that habitat will create winners and losers.
Soletti talks about the fire from a biologist’s perspective. Overall he’s more concerned about the low elevation sagebrush steppe than the timber up top. But he understands that many will feel mixed emotions when they return to the South Hills and see the ash, bare black hillsides and scorched tree trunks. For some, the forest and sagebrush will look better than they feared. For others, it’ll look worse.
“One of the things I’ve been hearing from people is, ‘It’ll never be the same,’” Soletti said. “And they’re right. But vegetation changes through time, it’s just not drastic enough that people see it and observe it.
“This is just another change.”
A 300,000-acre tinderbox
Say you want to design a massive wildfire.
You’ll want a hot burn, one that will incinerate huge chunks of forest and sagebrush with blazing speed. You want to create a firefighter’s nightmare.
It’ll need fuel. Thousands of acres of old, dry conifers, desiccated grasses and shrubs should do the trick. You’ll want the conditions to be just right. Let’s say the forest hasn’t gotten any significant rain in three months and humidity stays persistently low.
Strong winds would be good. They’ll help the fire spread faster, carry it through the air ahead of itself, outrunning firefighters. And the topography — it’d be nice to burn in seemingly endless hills and country covered in drainages that firefighters can’t work in safely. Miles of canyons will help funnel the winds and give your fire a clean path north.
The South Hills this September is your dream. All you need is a spark.
The Badger Fire started in the afternoon of Sept. 12 near Phantom Falls in mixed brush, grass and timber. The cause is officially still under investigation, but there wasn’t any lightning that day.
The call came in at 5:30 p.m. A dispatcher sent the report to a U.S. Forest Service engine on patrol around Deadline Ridge — because of high visitor use this year, the Forest Service has had engines constantly on patrol in the South Hills. The engine arrived on the scene 48 minutes later. The firefighters called for reinforcements en route when they saw the cloud of smoke rising from the forest. They requested two more engines, a plane and two single engineer tankers. The firefighters worked until about 1:30 a.m., establishing an anchor point — a sort of safe zone for firefighters. Before bed, they reported the fire was 10 acres and running.
Andrew Addey, the district’s assistant fire management officer, took command over the fire on day two. His alarm woke him around 3:45 a.m. He donned his standard firefighter green pants and yellow shirt and drove in from the east, the Trapper Creek side.
Addey, who started fighting fires right after graduating from Jerome High School, fought some of the West’s biggest fires for a decade with the Sawtooth Interagency Hotshot crew. He said his first look at the fire from roughly 4 miles away, glowing in the dark before sunrise, worried him.
“I could see 50-feet flames at 5 in the morning,” he said. “I’m wearing a sweater at this point; it’s burning that actively that early? That’s when I knew we were in for a firefight.”
From a firefighter perspective, the conditions at the Badger Fire almost couldn’t have been worse.
There are two main metrics that fuels specialists use to measure overall fire conditions. The burning index takes the day’s weather conditions into account, and then there’s the energy release component (ERC) that essentially takes a look at how ready an area is to burn based on how long it’s been since the last rain. The South Hills hadn’t gotten any significant rain since June, and the ERC index was at a record high. That effectively means the trees were as ready to burn as they’d ever been.
“There’s basically 10% of days out of a whole year that line up to create conditions that we’re going to see large fires that basically, no matter what we do, we’re probably not going to be successful with suppression,” Forest Service Fuels Specialist Stacy Tyler said.
“With this fire, we were not only within that threshold, we set records. … All of that just aligned, it wouldn’t have mattered what we had done, that was going to burn.”
Tyler noted that on the days the Badger Fire doubled in size, relative humidity levels were in the single digits. Relative humidity never got into the 30% range. It was unusually warm too — cooler temperatures can moderate a fire.
And then there was the wind.
“When I got the weather report in my inbox it made the hair on my neck stand up,” Addey said.
The weather report showed 30 mph winds blowing north, right along the South Hills’ natural corridors. When he read the weather report, Addey couldn’t help but remember the Cave Canyon Fire that took out nearly 90,000 acres in the South Hills eight years ago (the Badger Fire re-burned some of the Cave Canyon burn area). He’d been on the ground fighting that blaze and knew how strong north-blowing winds had allowed it to make long, rapid runs.
Another problem with the South Hills winds: Unlike in some areas, they don’t ease up at night as much. In many cases, firefighters get a bit of a reprieve during the night because there’s higher humidity, lower temperatures and less wind. That didn’t happen on the Badger Fire.
“I slept up on top of — well I didn’t really sleep — but I was up on top of Monument Peak,” Addey said. “But the whole time I was up there I just slept in the back of my truck with my shoes on, yellow on, and my truck was just shaking.”
Strong winds make a fire quicker and more unpredictable, basically supercharging it. For one, 30 mph gales simply speed up a fire’s growth, because they’re literally pushing it forward. On top of that, powerful wind will snatch up sparks and embers, carrying them away from the main fire and starting a whole new fire elsewhere, up to three-quarters of a mile ahead in this case. Firefighters call that spotting, and it’s incredibly difficult to combat.
Addey remembers getting up in a helicopter at one point to survey the fire and develop a plan. An incident commander is constantly crafting and implementing a plan, just like a general does on a battlefield. Addey says it’s like playing chess — the fire moves, he makes a countermove.
He put the plan together in the air. An hour after he landed, the plan was useless. The fire was moving too fast, jumping too much, spotting ahead of them.
The Badger Fire came at a bad time from a weather and fuel conditions perspective. It also happened when just about every firefighter throughout the West was busy.
In California alone, thousands of fires have burned more than 5 million acres this year. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the Great Basin Region (mainly Idaho, Utah and Nevada) has had 163 fires in 2020, burning 893,000 acres. Suppressing those fires has cost $238.6 million. The Badger Fire has been the second largest and third most expensive fire in the Great Basin, with a $15.8 million suppression price tag.
When Addey first laid eyes on the fire he knew he was going to need more resources. He immediately ordered eight hotshot crews (160 people), six engines, three dozers and miscellaneous air support. He knew he had a desperate need for hand crews — groups that use shovels and chainsaws to clear fuel-free lines that slow down or stop fires.
But reinforcements weren’t going to be available right away.
“As resources go we were super scarce as far as what was available out there,” Addey said. “In the back of my head I know they’re probably not going to be available, (but) I still order them as if they’re available.”
Nationwide, firefighting resources were at preparedness level five. That meant there were so many major fires throughout the country that all fire resources were tied up simultaneously.
So Addey made do with what he had, which on day two of the fire was mainly 20 or so people digging hand lines and a few engines spraying water. The Forest Service’s Minidoka Ranger District office emptied. Most of those people aren’t firefighters, Addey explained, but they have enough training to be out there and they formed a “militia-type” hand crew. More people and equipment kept gradually trickling in. At one point Addey got 17 smokejumpers, an elite group of firefighters who helped fill leadership roles and formed another hand crew.
Even though a few more people and resources flowed in, the Badger Fire called for a much bigger team with more experience and resources, Addey said.
Pleading the case for resources was a challenge. National teams were fighting fires threatening homes. The Badger Fire threatened a huge portion of the South Hills and its valuable wildlife habitat, but wasn’t going to take out many homes even in the worst-case-scenario.
After three full days and about 28,000 acres burned, a type three incident command team arrived. Addey handed the fire off to them. The type three team fought the fire briefly before a more elite, type two incident command team, Great Basin Team 5, took over. There were about 560 people fighting the Badger Fire at its height.
Great Basin Team 5 Incident Commander Sam Hicks said even his more elite, larger team didn’t have all the resources it needed — the 15 or so local engines that helped on the fire were essential for saving the Rock Creek homes, he said.
Like Addey, Hicks noted the strong winds were virtually impossible to combat. His team had to simply focus on protecting structures until the winds died down.
“There’s no way to catch a fire like that when it’s blowing 30 mph,” Hicks said. “It was blowing so hard that we couldn’t fight the fire per se.”
By acreage, the worst day of the fire was Sept. 18. On that day, Hicks said the fire had a “phenomenal” run down Rock Creek canyon, covering 44,320 acres. Other than burning out some areas to protect structures, Hicks said there wasn’t much firefighters could do because the canyon was funneling the strong winds like air through a chimney. The fire burned so hot during that run that it completely wiped out the lush, wet vegetation along Rock Creek, something that surprised both Addey and Soletti.
Rains finally came Sept. 19. They weren’t especially heavy rains, and they didn’t last long, but they were enough to give firefighters an upper hand. Just 2,315 acres burned that day, and the bulk of the firefight was over.
On Oct. 9, when the BAER (Burn Area Emergency Response) team firefighters had their morning briefing in the Diamondfield Jack campground, there were still some fog-like clouds of smoke hovering over smoldering patches of timber. The forest smelled like a dead campfire. The fire won’t officially be snuffed out “until it’s covered in four feet of snow,” Addey said, but by the time the BAER team got there, the focus was on developing a rehabilitation plan and cutting down potentially dangerous snags.
Nobody died in the Badger Fire. There was one injury: A mildly sprained knee. No one lost their home or cabin. Magic Mountain Ski Resort survived. The fire killed several dozen sheep and cattle, damaged some grazing allotments, destroyed two historical outhouses, a historical barn and some Forest Service infrastructure. But the greatest impacts will be biological and ecological. Addey, born and raised in the Magic Valley, said he doesn’t know if the place will ever be the same.
But looking back on the Badger Fire, he says there isn’t much that could have been done differently.
“I don’t know if our involvement, other than doing the point protection around structures ... changed much,” Addey said. “I honestly think if I had a genie in a bottle and wished for everything that I wanted, it still would have done what it did.”
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