Stanley officials work to protect town from wildfires

Community leaders look to Canadian experts for guidance about how to keep the Sawtooths' unburned forest from going up in smoke.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comJune 2, 2013 

  • ABOUT ROCKY BARKER

    Rocky is the Statesman's environment and energy reporter and author of the book "Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America." He's covered many fires the past 25 years, including the Trinity Ridge Fire in 2012.

STANLEY - Ben Forsgren knows what catastrophic wildfire looks like.

The owner of Jerry's Country Store watched as winds sent 200-foot flames through the crowns of beetle-killed lodgepole pine last August during the 182,000-acre Halstead Fire, which burned to within three miles of his store in Lower Stanley.

The fire that burned from July to October closed campgrounds, shut down Idaho 75 briefly and put a damper on Stanley's short summer tourism season.

So Forsgren and other Stanley business and community leaders have formed a group looking to prevent a worse fire burning in or near Stanley. They are pressing the Forest Service to burn larger parts of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in the spring and to log "anchor" sections that will make future burns safer.

"We can stand a little smoke in the spring," Forsgren said, "so we don't get smoked out in the summer."

It would be an expansion of the work the Forest Service already has done with local officials and homeowners to cut down trees and do preventive burns around homes, businesses and developed areas such as Redfish Lake.

The unbroken green forest that frames Stanley and the Sawtooth's jutting, cathedral peaks is one of Idaho's most famous views. The law that protected the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in 1972 contained specific provisions to protect that view, with limits on logging and other measures to reduce the fire danger. The invasion of the mountain pine beetle in the 1990s that turned giant patches of the forest brown and lifeless complicated the effort.

The Sawtooth forest is lodgepole pine, which grows in moist, higher-elevation areas and burns under only the driest conditions. The thick stands of lodgepole cannot be easily or cheaply thinned to reduce fire danger, as can lower-elevation ponderosa pine forests.

A CANADIAN MODEL

The Forest Service burns thousands of acres of ponderosa pine in prescriptive burns, but very little lodgepole. But Stanley leaders have looked to Canada for a late-winter, early-spring model for burning lodgepole, and they hope the Forest Service will consider it.

Most of Southern Idaho forests have burned over the past 25 years. With those forests cleared of built-up fuels, firefighters have made steering new fires into those previously burned tracts their main tactic.

But the heart of the Sawtooth Valley remains largely untouched over the same period.

"What remains to burn is right in front of us," said Herbert Mumford, mayor of Stanley, which has 63 year-round residents.

There is only one power line connecting the mountain hamlet to the grid that snakes up the Salmon River from Challis. If a fire burns through the line, Salmon River Electrical Cooperative officials tell Mumford, it could take weeks to rebuild it.

No electricity would mean the sewage treatment plant would stop working, Mumford said, leaving the community helpless. That's why he and Steve Botti, president of the City Council, are leading the effort to seek a more aggressive prescriptive-burning effort.

"Should we just sit back and buy marshmallows and weenies and wait for the fire to start?" Mumford said.

Botti, a retired National Park Service fire ecologist at Boise's National Interagency Fire Center, was familiar with Parks Canada's ambitious burning program in lodgepole pine forests in British Columbia and Alberta. Two of the program's leaders came to Stanley this spring to tell of their success.

A MATTER OF TIME

In Kootenay National Park, about two hours west of Calgary, Parks Canada embarked on a landscape-level program designed to burn strategic chunks of forest under carefully managed conditions. The burning is done during spring or late fall. Loggers cut large open spaces, or "anchors," to ensure that the fire stays within its parameters and to protect revenue-producing forests nearby.

The logging is done in winter, to reduce impact on the land and the park's visitor season.

"It is understood as a sacrifice on national park land" to prevent future fires and improve the larger ecology, said Rick Kubian, resource conservation manager for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay parks.

The fires have been successful. They burn the identified areas in a mosaic pattern, which will slow down any future fire that tests the forest. It's the kind of burning that Stanley leaders hope they can convince the Forest Service to try in Idaho.

Sawtooth National Ran-ger Joby Timm is pleased that Stanley has put together the fire collaborative and is encouraged by its support for increased management. He proudly points to the agency's record of preventive "treatment" of 90 percent of the recreation area's wildland-urban interface.

He and the Forest Service's local fire managers support what the Canadians have done, but Timm is skeptical that large Canada-style winter burns, along with the necessary logging, could get the support needed from Idahoans who want their scenic views unchanged.

"Politically and socially," Timm said, "I don't know how logging a quarter-mile swath would be accepted in the Sawtooths."

Forsgren, Mumford and Botti all say that it's just a matter of time until the Sawtooth Valley burns. Those who want to see it left alone could see the view they love blackened and an entire summer recreation season lost.

The next step is for the collaborative group to make a formal proposal to the Forest Service.

"Fire is part of the ecosystem, but we don't want it all to burn," Forsgren said. "We'd like the Forest Service to do some logging and prescribed burning so when the fire comes, it drops to the ground, where they can fight it."

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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