The Sundance Fire Remembered

The Sundance Fire Remembered

Northern Idaho’s 1967 Sundance Fire will be remembered in four solemn ceremonies later this month, including one honoring the two men who lost their lives while huddled beneath a huge bulldozer they hoped would save them from thousand-degree heat.

Sundance was the most frightening and unpredictable wildfire to strike the Idaho Panhandle since 1910, and like the Big Burn it was started by lightning and driven by hurricane-force winds that transformed flames into blow torches. Some of those torches turned a steel bridge that crossed the upper reaches of Pack River into a twisted pretzel.

The September 1 ceremony – the only that is private – will take place near where the two men died. Luther Rodarte, a Forest Service fire control officer from Santa Maria, California, was 36. With him was Lee Collins, a 53-year-old dozer operator from Thompson Falls, Montana. Family members will place a commemorative monument at the site.

The last ceremony will take place where the old bridge once crossed the river. Two earlier ceremonies – August 23 at the Priest Lake Elementary School and August 26 the Boundary County Museum in Bonners Ferry - will commemorate both the Sundance and Trapper Peak fires. For several harrowing days, firefighters feared that Sundance and the more northerly Trapper Peak conflagration might burn together. Blessedly, they didn’t.

Planning for these events began months ago. I attended three meetings hosted by the Forest Service’s Sandpoint District Ranger, Erik Walker, an affable young man who quickly grasped the fact that the Sundance Fire occupies a special place in the hearts of hundreds of Bonner County residents who witnessed the tragedy and remember it well. Two who attended the meetings brought scrapbooks with them.

I was 23 when Collins and Rodarte lost their lives. That night – September 1, 1967 – I stood quietly beside my father on the swimming dock at Hill’s Resort on the west side of Priest Lake and watched the dull red glow of the firestorm crest Sundance Mountain. For all I know, the pair died while we watched in awe.

It was the second time in memory that wildfire had unexpectedly touched our family. My grandmother – Dad’s mother – frequently regaled us with stories about the Great 1910 Fire.  She and several women whose husbands worked at my grandfather’s sawmill near Murray, Idaho, had escaped the fire on railroad flatcars that carried them to safety at the Kingston ferry docks, some 40 miles down the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.

To keep glowing embers from burning their children, the mothers had covered them with bedsheets soaked in Pritchard Creek. At least once, the train’s engineer had stopped so that they could run down to the river and re-soak their sheets. How my then childless 24-year old grandmother kept frightened mothers from losing their minds is its own miracle.

Eighty-seven mostly untrained firefighters, many of them skid row bums recruited from the streets of Spokane, lost their lives in the 1910 Fire. At three million acres, it remains the largest wildfire in U.S. history. Its memory still influences the way the Forest Service approaches big wildfires, and the way the public perceives then. We fear them, we want them extinguished immediately, and we don’t much care how much it costs.

Like the Great 1910 Fire, Sundance spawned lots of soul-searching inside the venerable Forest Service. So, too, did the August 5, 1945 Mann Gulch Fire. Fifteen smokejumpers descended into the Helena National Forest blaze that afternoon. Within an hour, 13 were dead.

It happened again in July of 1994. Fourteen well-trained firefighters lost their lives in the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Thirteen more perished in the lightning-caused 2013 Yarnell Fire near Prescott, Arizona. The freakish blowup did not care that they were all skilled members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Just last week, another two fell in separate incidents in western Montana. The young men and women who face down these fearsome fires are well-trained and well-equipped. Indeed, about half the Forest Service entire annual budget is now consumed by fire. When or where does this carnage end? Who will finally say, “Enough!” I’m betting on a mother.

Our colleague, Paul Hessburg, easily one of the Forest Service’s finest landscape ecologists, is advocating for a different approach to wildfire. He says that when and where it can safely be done, we need to use wildfire’s restorative powers by herding it across vast landscapes. Let fire clear out the dead and dying trees that are fueling our increasingly deadly wildfires.

At first, I found Paul’s approach very unsettling, but after doing my own soul-searching, I have concluded that he is correct. We need to fight fire with fire. But equally, we must immediately increase the pace and scale of our stakeholder collaborative effort to restore natural resiliency in forests that simply hold too many trees for the carrying capacity of the land. Paul thinks we have 25 to 30 years to treat what we can reach before wildfire takes the rest.

How members of Congress can so self-righteously block the exits to this theatre ablaze is beyond my comprehension, but they can and they do. It is like claiming that climate change is not real. It is, and has been for eons. How else to explain redwood roots dug from tundra inside the Arctic Circle? It must have been much warmer there 10,000 or so years ago.

Many – me included - fear that another 1910 Fire looms near. Idaho hasn’t had a big wildfire since 1933. As godawful as it was, Sundance burned a mere 56,000 acres. That’s less than one fiftieth the size of the 1910 Fire. Now thousands more live here, and thousands more homes have been built in sylvan settings – and we have fewer escape routes than we had in 1910,

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