Five feet and just a few seconds: That was the difference between life and death for 23-year-old firefighter Eva Schicke on Sept. 12, when she perished while battling a blaze in California’s Stanislaus National Forest.
Schicke and other members of an elite helicopter forest fire fighting team suddenly found themselves scrambling for their lives when a shift of wind sent a wall of flames speeding their way. Some made it to a nearby road and survived. Schicke’s body was found only a few feet from its edge.
It’s not the first time a forest road made the difference between salvation and disaster for wildland firefighters. And it won’t be the last. A number of those who survived the 10-fatality Thirtymile fire of 2001, in Washington state, did so because they were able to deploy their fire shelters on the level surface of a roadway. Firefighters whose shelters were placed on the uneven terrain off the road didn’t make it. And more would have died in that fire if a road hadn’t allowed their narrow escape in a truck.
Such roads not only serve as firebreaks and ways to hurry firefighters to the scene of a blaze; they also can serve as a means of escape when a forest fire blows out of control.
And that’s why the fixation among greens and some government bureaucrats on eliminating forest roads, at a time when the wildfire threat has never been greater, makes absolutely no sense.
Given the forest fire danger we will continue to face for the foreseeable future, the obsessive push for roadlessness on heavily forested federal lands is insanity, if we care at all about the lives, safety and effectiveness of those on the fire lines.
According to a report released last week by the California Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service, Schicke and the rest of a 30-person crew had been clearing a fire line between a road and the Tuolumne River Canyon when a gust of wind whipped a manageable fire into a frenzy, sending a “sheet of fire” up a slope in their direction. This set off a scramble for two “safety zones,” the road and a nearby river bed. All but Schicke made it. The entire event took 30 seconds.
There are plenty of other good reasons why the Clinton-era roadless plan doesn’t deserve to survive. But if this tragedy doesn’t illustrate the value of forest roads, and the recklessness of the roadless craze, nothing does.