A lot of wildfires and political hot air

Posted: Friday, August 18, 2000

The Grisly Saloon is an oasis; it meets all the criteria: Shelter from the weather, whatever it might be, and refreshment for body and soul.

I had started fishing about mid-afternoon. The combination of near 100-degree heat and increasingly dense smoke from distant fires made fishing unpleasant. It was also apparent the fish were no more interested in the game than I was, I sought comfort in the cool, dark confines of the Grisly's log walls. I was one among many.

"First I need a giant glass of ice water," I croaked to MacDougal. "Then I'll have a frosty cold Fosters." If you've been paying attention you know by now that MacDougal says his given name is Rat Face and that he was named for a fishing fly that was popular in the early part of the last century. I'm not sure I believe him, but if he wants people to think his name is Rat Face, who am I?

"I hear and hasten to obey," he said, bowing slightly, "it shall be as you wish master." MacDougal spends a lot of time watching old movies on his satellite system. The week before "Gone With The Wind" had been on and MacDougal had taken to greeting regulars with a soft Georgia drawl and an insistence they try one of his Montana mint juleps. Since he does not regularly stock fresh mint he was using sprigs of fresh sage from a bush out back. I tried one. It made me think of Thanksgiving and turkey stuffing.

"Well, I see some of your former neighbors are here fighting the fires," MacDougal said when he brought the mug of water and bottle of beer. "Must be a slow fire season in Alaska," he added.

The Grisly's owner and primary mixologist was referring to the fact Alaskans are in Montana fighting forest fires. It is not the first time Alaskans have been here to fight fires. At this time there are more than 6,000 firefighters, state and federal and from several states, on the line in Big Sky country. In most cases they are barely holding their own or are simply containing fires that can't be extinguished. Nearly 400,000 acres have burned and 2,500 homes around the state are threatened by widely-scattered fires. More than 50 homes have already burned and at least 100 other building have been lost. The governor has totally closed 8 million acres of state and federal land to public use of any type.

Although we are more than 200 miles away from the largest concentration of fires, our skies have been obscured for the past 10 days and the smell of wood smoke is heavy in the air, especially early mornings. Two small fires near us were quickly extinguished. Those who know say it is easily the worst fire season in the past 50 years and there are weeks to go before the likelihood of any lessening of the extreme fire danger.

"Well, they may not have been my immediate neighbors, but they are certainly Alaskans," I replied, adding "you'll probably find that most of them are native Athabascans and I'm sure there are some Eskimo firefighters too."

We also have firefighters from Mexico, Canada, Australia and New Zealand participating in the battle. Frankly, the fire situation here is much worse than the news networks would have you believe. It has lessened somewhat in the past day or so. It was nice to see newspaper photos of the Alaska fire teams.

"Well, what do you think of your boy's pick for vice president?" MacDougal asked as I sampled my cold Fosters. He knows what I think of Al Gore and delights in calling Gore "my boy," knowing Democrats are stuck with a guy who seems to don a new personality each week and who appear rewrites his resume every time a new poll is released.

"I think the vice president made a marvelous choice," I replied cheerily, "and that the addition of Sen. Lieberman to the ticket probably does more damage to the Bush/Cheney ticket than anyone in that camp will admit. Voters will have a very clear choice this fall."

"The sand part of it is, the two best men are on the bottom side of the tickets," the voice came from one of the patrons seated at the bar. Several other customers signaled their agreement with the comment.

"Sad is right," said MacDougal. "I can live with young Bush and you all know what I think of Gore, but the two real guys in the race are Cheney and Lieberman. As far as I'm concerned either one of them is a better man than the guy they're teamed with. But the reality is neither of them would ever have run for the office on their own and neither of them would have won the nomination if they had."

I am often surprised and impressed by the conversations at the Grisly. MacDougal is clearly more intelligent and well-read than he would have you believe. And although many of the joint's regulars probably don't know which is the salad fork and can't eat chicken without using their fingers, they seem to know more than you think about politics, local and national. I suspect some of this high level of interest is because, like it or not and most of them hate it the fate of today's farmers and ranchers is in the hands of politicians.

"You're both a little bit right," I proclaimed, "but the saddest part of all this is watching Joe Lieberman, whom everyone agrees is a good and decent man, humiliating himself by defending Al Gore's fund raising tactics, among other things, and his subsequent lame and nonsensical excuses. I know it's part of the game, but it must be a painful price to pay."

"Speaking of paying," said MacDougal, "you haven't paid me for the Fosters yet."

Warren W. Wiley, a former Juneau resident, political observer and radio personality, now lives in Montana. He can be reached by e-mail at wwiley@mcn.net.

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