It was midsummer in 2015, and the aircraft-dispatch board behind me was covered in scrawled phone numbers. Twenty-five aircraft managers were working the record-breaking fire season on the Idaho Panhandle, my first season as an aircraft dispatcher. Phones rang constantly, radios added their chatter, and every computer screen displayed maps of fires, weather or the location of airplanes.
For the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, 2015 ranked as the biggest fire year since 1926. Decades ago, a large fire was anything over 500 acres. These days, 500 acres would be considered small, and it’s not unusual anymore to see a fire torch 4,000 acres in just a few hours. Recent history tells us there’s a new trajectory for wildfire — toward fires that no one can understand, predict or “control.”