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CNN Today

Western Wildfires: Incident Commander Hutchison Discusses Challenges for Firefighters

Aired August 18, 2000 - 1:03 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: National fire officials say 19 new large wildfires have been reported in the past 24 hours in the Western U.S. Several fires have been put out, but 92 fires are burning now in 12 states. In Idaho the weather is working against firefighters. Strong winds threaten to spread a fire that has already burned close to 230 square miles of land.

CNN's Mike Boettcher joins us from Salmon, Idaho.

And Mike, I guess you would have to be there just to appreciate the devastation out West?

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, absolutely, and everyday you wake up and the smoke hangs heavy in the air. The Clear Creek fire, which is the nation's largest fire, is just about 11 miles west of Salmon. And the firefighters here, their main task is to try to keep that fire out of the watershed for Salmon, Idaho, that would be disastrous for this community.

The man in charge of trying to accomplish that feat, and it's a difficult one, is Tom Hutchison who is the incident commander on the Clear Creek fire.

What's going on up their right now?

TOM HUTCHISON, INCIDENT COMMANDER: Well right now, today we're trying to secure our lines along the east side of the Clear Creek fire to keep the fire from spreading into the community of Salmon and down into the city watershed. If this gets in the city watershed it will endanger the drinking water for the community of Salmon as well as threaten the out residences in the community, as it backs down into the city itself.

Some other concerns we have right now are the sedimentation into the streams coming out of the area, that it will affect fisheries, the fish habitats in the future when the rains come later on this year. It will put a bunch of mud and smoke down into the -- or mud and debris down into the rivers and affect the fisheries. We're concerned about that right now, and we are trying to strengthen our lines on the eastern side, expecting a wind event later on this afternoon through this weekend.

BOETTCHER: Now Tom, it's almost impossible to fight a fire like this, you have to try to manage it, now what does that mean, and how do you manage a fire like this?

HUTCHISON: Well, when we talk about managing a fire like this it's one of those things, that Mother Nature is going to burn where Mother Nature wants to go. So what we try and do is get out ahead of it and provide a little burnout area, some back firing, burning out to create some black line and actually turn the fire, if we can, away from communities into areas that are going to be less sensitive and less threatened. And that's one of the tactics we're trying to do on this fire, simply because it is so large.

BOETTCHER: Tom, quickly tell me about your summer. I mean, it's been busy, huh?

HUTCHISON: Yes, actually, our summer, up until about a month ago was relatively quiet, at least for my fire team. In the last month we've been to Winnemucca in Nevada, Richfield, Utah, and here with a couple of days home in between each trip, enough time to wash our clothes and pack our bags and be on the road again.

BOETTCHER: Why do you suppose, besides the weather, these fires are burning all over the West, and talking to firefighters on the line, they say there is a lot of fuel up there?

HUTCHISON: Yes, there is a lot of fuel, we have -- I've talked to some folks, climatology-wise there's been some changes. We've had a lot of precip in some previous years. We have a lot of dead fuel on the ground, logs, tree branches, those kinds of things have come down. We have a large accumulation of fuels from fires that have not burned in the area over the years. You go back and look, a lot of these areas are burning, haven't burned for 50, 100 years. And so we have a huge accumulation of dead and down material on the ground, that's what's causing the problem.

BOETTCHER: Tom, good luck to you.

HUTCHISON: Thank you.

BOETTCHER: And as Mr. Hutchison said, the forecast is not good. We are expecting heavy winds around 30 miles an hour on the ridges from the southwest, it's going to be very difficult to manage this fire.

Mike Boettcher, CNN, live from Salmon, Idaho.

ALLEN: Thank you, Mike.

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