KAMIAH “Where do we go from here?” questioned Eric Yarbrough, succinctly summing up the sentiment for those speaking their piece at a public listening session attended by more than 113 people in Kamiah last week about recent devastating wildfires.
“We literally have nothing at this point,” Yarbrough said, a Beaverslide Road resident who lost his home on five acres in the Aug. 14 wildfire at Kamiah and was speaking his frustrations about long-term recovery at the nearly three-hour meeting last Friday, hosted by Dist. 7 legislators Sheryl Nuxoll and representatives Paul Shepherd and Shannon McMillan. His issues hit multiple concerns from that evening, including a perception by some that fire response was too little and too late, and inflexible government regulations and victim assistance processes fail to address his impoverished situation.
Pardee resident Bruce Gibbs reported losing his shop building, his sawmill and related tools, and he has been asking for help but he hasn’t seen anything yet: “Something has to happen,” he said.
Heather Berg reported losing her home off the Tommy Taha Road and raised issue with communication problems: between the fire command and Idaho County Sheriff’s Office (ICSO) personnel, and insufficient evacuation notification by ICSO due to staffing levels and their dependence on social media.
Some property owners were lucky, such as Sue Jacobsen, whose house and shop on Beaverslide survived the fire, but burnt trees now form a safety hazard and she has had a hard time trying to find someone to salvage them.
“I want to thank the firefighters. They did an excellent job; it’s why I still have a home,” said Clay Baker of Woodland. He said residents knew the areas in the canyons for potential wildfire threat and were prepared to harvest this for prevention efforts, but they weren’t allowed due to government regulations preventing heavy equipment in the stream bed; as a result, 8,000 acres was burnt. Besides asking for a waiver to salvage logs, he continued, “All we need is for you folks to get out of the way and we can get done what needs to be done.”
Several speakers addressed concerns on the perceived lack of firefighting preparation and response with predictions for the Aug. 14 high wind event. An unidentified Hillside Drive resident said, “We would have never known it was coming,” except from a call from a neighbor to evacuate; and he stated the need to better inform residents.
“Not one yellow shirt was on the other side of the river,” said Sandi Davis, who said they were lied to about being told structure protection was a priority. Her family saved their home, fighting the fire to within 20 feet of their back door.
“The Nez Perce Tribe sold us out. The tribe is responsible for a lot of this,” said Judy Oatman of Kamiah. “They took in a lot of money for fire suppression and they wasted it.” Besides noting the efforts of residents in fighting and saving property, Oatman also questioned the relief effort and wanted to know where donated resources were going and how they were being distributed.
“I’m really angry about this,” said Shane Bytheway of Woodland, whose home was saved but had six others around his destroyed. He criticized the lack of fire response early in the event – engines sitting around, firefighters playing football, a helicopter watching the blaze but not assigned to dumping water. Bytheway said the $1.6 billion toward firefighting would be better used in redistributing this to local fire departments in supplying type 1 and two fire engines.
On the legislative end, representative Shepherd said he saw the need for exceptions in the Idaho Forests Practices Act for natural disasters on such issues as reforestation and salvage logging. “We want to make sure safety rules are balanced,” he said, not overkill that prevents easily put-out fire starts from turning into wildfires. “But these need to be improved and be practical.”
“This is one that stretched us all,” said David Groeschl, state forester for Idaho Department of Lands (IDL), noting the region saw more than 180 fire starts between IDL and Forest Service lands, with crews working seven days a week, 16-hour days, “and we caught what we could but some escaped.”
Additional resources were called in with the first team arriving Aug. 12. As several officials discussed that evening, not every yellow shirt was a firefighter; some included overhead and aviation staff; crews were staging teams, gathering intelligence prior to engaging fires; and some supposed idle crews – federal, state and local departments -- were on relief after working 12-to 14-hour shifts or in transition to another fire. With resources stretched thin on fires across the West, Groeschl said both IDL and USFS made tough choices on deployed what they had on the blazes they could catch.
“Our helicopters were down here where the houses were, where life was a priority. But we just didn’t have homes in danger in Kamiah Aug. 14,” said Cheryl Probert, supervisor for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, but firefighters were spread across the region on an estimated 20 prioritized fires.
IDL and USFS officials were exceptionally complimentary on cooperative efforts with local fire departments and law enforcement in providing critical assistance, direct attack and support roles; that initial local response can be critical in stopping fires when they are small. Groeschl appreciated individual efforts -- “We’re willing to work with locals but we also don’t want to put people in harm’s way,” – noting the need for certified fire training to ensure safety for everyone on the fire line. Speaking on a successful neighborhood effort, Tom Gehring, organizer of the 20-plus person Keuterville Cowboys Wildfire Team, which grew out of the 2000 fire season, talked on their development and the need to stay current with training to be safe on its events and also eligible to be included in responses with IDL teams.
As to where fire-affected communities go from here, officials provided contacts to direct individuals on needs from cost-shares on timber salvage to household needs and long-term recovery. Groeschl said an after-action report on the Kamiah fire event, including all the agencies involved, would be conducted to assess the response and learn how to do better next time.
“What is coming out of this is we need to help ourselves,” said Nuxoll, “and first we need to help ourselves locally.”
“I’m looking ahead to the next time,” said Chief Mark Anderson, Kooskia Volunteer Fire Department, on programs to promote homeowner prevention efforts – creating defensible space around homes – that improves their chances at survivability and allows firefighters to concentrate on areas at risk.
“This is a huge event, and we all get that,” Probert said, speaking for all the agencies involved from federal to local, “and we all want to be part of that recovery effort…. We want to be able to rebuild our watersheds. That is our commitment as a group.”