If you think fires have gotten big in the past few years, hold on.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said Friday that the blazes will only get bigger and that the cost of fighting them could nearly double. But the agency that manages 193 million acres of national forest — including 20 million in Idaho — plans to increase timber sales by 20 percent in the next two years as part of a restoration effort to make communities safer and watersheds more resilient.
Wildfires have burned in excess of 8 million acres six times since 2004, a dramatic increase over the yearly totals seen in the past five decades. But Tidwell told the City Club of Boise that as many as 12 million to 15 million acres will burn annually now because of warming temperatures and drier years.
This comes even as state, tribal and federal agencies put out 98 percent of all the fires that start, Tidwell said. Firefighters jump on those blazes as aggressively as they can, he said.
“It’s that 2 percent that become very large very quickly,” Tidwell said.
Today’s fires are often so ferocious that managers won’t risk putting crews in their path. The thousands of homes that have been built in and on the edges of the national forests have forced managers to shift resources and prompted firefighters to protect communities and lives.
“It has drastically changed the way we fight those fires,” said Tidwell, a forester who grew up in Boise.
More than 30,000 homes have burned in the past decade, Tidwell said, including 3,000 just this year — homes in a Pocatello subdivision among them. Experts expect fires to keep claiming houses, but fuel-reduction steps can make communities safer and easier to protect, Tidwell said.
Federal budget cuts will make money more scarce, but communities are increasingly taking responsibility, he said. Flagstaff, Ariz., passed a $10 million bond to do forest restoration on private and federal land there.
Experiences in Idaho this year show that fuel-reduction works. On the 340,000-acre Mustang Complex Fire north of Salmon, a logging project in Hughes Creek helped firefighters turn the blaze away from U.S. 93, a critical economic corridor.
“There is no question our restoration work can make a difference,” Tidwell said.
Questions from the audience suggested that many believe the agency is still hindered by lawsuits aimed at stopping timber and salvage sales. But Tidwell said lawsuits are less of a problem today because of collaborative efforts such as the Clearwater Basin Collaborative in north-central Idaho.
There and in forests statewide, environmentalists, timber industry executives and local officials are working together to increase forest and watershed restoration efforts. Nationally, he predicted, timber harvests will rise 20 percent and could go even higher if the market improves. That would increase the money that the agency gets from cutting trees, which it could put back into restoration.
“I often use Idaho as an example of how it can be done, how it is being done,” Tidwell said.
And he said he’s been quoted accurately saying it another way: “If we can do it in Idaho, we can do it anywhere.”
Rocky Barker: 377-6484