Rocky Barker: Fire story is different in forests and on range

May 13, 2013 

Elmore County Sheriff's deputies issued mandatory evacuation orders to residents of Featherville as the Trinity Ridge fire raged on Aug. 18, 2012.

KATHERINE JONES — Idaho Statesman

Brand-new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will make her first trip to the National Interagency Fire Center, joining Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on a visit to the Boise agency Monday.

The two landlords for most of the public lands in the U.S. will meet with reporters to talk about the upcoming fire season. I expect them to tell us to expect another long, hot fire season in the American West.

It's already started in California, and Idaho has had several fires start from lightning in the Boise National Forest, along with a few range fires. Last year, 9.3 million acres of private, state and federal land, and more than 4,400 structures, burned in wildfires in the U.S.

That was the third-highest number of acres burned since at least 1960.

In 2012, 1.7 million acres of Idaho burned, costing the state and federal governments $214 million. The biggest loss in the state, though, came in the death of 20-year-old Forest Service firefighter Anne Veseth.

If you would believe some critics, all of those burned acres represented a failure by the (mostly) federal land mangers who oversee them. Remember, the interagency firefighting teams that are coordinated from Boise put out 98 percent of all fires that start.

A centurylong policy of suppression contributed to a buildup of forest fuels that gave us more than two decades of large fires in Idaho forests.

Shifting the balance back to even more suppression may lead to less safety and more deaths.

Add to the forest fuels the hotter, drier and longer fire seasons we have today because of the changing climate, and we have conditions across the West ripe for disaster. The Boise National Forest offers a model for the rest of the region in how to get through this.

When Lowman burned in 1989 and the huge Foothills fire burned in 1992, foresters feared for the health of the Boise National Forest and other southern Idaho forests. In 1995, the Forest Service put in place a policy where national forests developed fire plans to help managers decide which areas they could let burn safely.

Boise National Forest staff aggressively thinned and logged forests around communities like Idaho City and Garden Valley. These mechanical measures were followed with controlled burns on thousands of acres.

Between wildfire and intentional burns, more than 1 million acres of the 2.6 million-acre Boise Forest have burned at least once since 1989. Last year, the 148,000-acre Trinity Ridge Fire burned from August through October. It threatened Featherville and burned a few cabins. But it was largely controlled, because it burned in forests where previous fires had consumed built-up fuels.

The Trinity Ridge Fire filled in the gap left by earlier fires over the past 20 years. Like fires across the West in the past two decades, the Trinity Ridge Fire did not destroy the forest. More than 50 percent of the forest within the perimeter was either unburned or burned with low severity. Another 34 percent was only moderately burned.

Essentially, the Boise National Forest and most of the forests of southern Idaho are more resilient today than in 1985. Unfortunately, the story is very different in southern Idaho's sagebrush steppe desert lands.

"Megafires" like the 630,000-acre Murphy Hot Springs Fire have been destroying native bunchgrass and shrub habitat over the same two decades.

Last year alone, 7.5 percent of the state's sage grouse habitat burned. Far more of it burned in Oregon and Nevada.

Meanwhile, invasive plants like cheatgrass have moved in and changed the fire cycle. Instead of fires burning every 20 years, fires fueled by the hot-burning cheatgrass now come back to the same land every seven to 10 years, experts say.

It takes 20 to 30 years for the sagebrush landscape to mature to a point where it has the kind of resilience the Boise National Forest's forests has reached.

There are no easy answers to this fire challenge.

As agriculture secretary since 2009, Vilsack has been tested by several of the toughest fire seasons any Cabinet member has faced. You can bet Jewell will get her own test soon. I expect she'll soon be back to Boise to talk about fires again, too.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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