Idaho wildfires snare even managed areas

Foresters say thinning, logging and prescribed burning is still a useful tool, but it has its limits.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comSeptember 5, 2013 

Aden Creek burn.JPG

The Elk Complex Fire burned so hot that it left few trees alive in this managed state forest near Prairie.

PROVIDED BY THE IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF LANDS

Emmett logger Tim Brown had just completed the White Flat timber sale on the Boise National Forest near Prairie when the Elk Complex Fire burned through in early August, destroying most of the remaining trees.

“That timber sale completely burned up,” said Dave Olson, a Boise National Forest spokesman.

The same happened on state lands nearby.

With extremely dry conditions and 50-mph winds, the fire burned so intensely that even the 6,000 acres of intensively managed state endowment forests burned, said Idaho Department of Lands Director Tom Schultz.

“There is little that land managers can do to prevent that kind of intense fire behavior,” said Schultz, who holds a master’s degree in forestry.

During the past quarter-century, firefighters routinely have seen larger fires with more erratic fire behavior across the West. Beginning at Yellowstone in 1988, the forests of Idaho have faced a series of years where the fire behavior was described as “off the charts” by fire experts.

Meanwhile, the value of a forest that’s been thinned, logged or cleared by prescribed burn that brings a raging crown fire to the ground where firefighters can control it has been proved repeatedly over the past 20 years.

SUCCESS STORIES DRIVE NARRATIVE

A prescribed fire in the Tiger Creek area on the Boise National Forest brought the 1992 Foothills Fire — near this year’s Elk and Pony complex fires — to the ground in an incident that was cited as an example for years afterward. A similar prescribed burn on the Salmon National Forest dropped the Clear Creek fire west of Salmon from its run through Douglas firs in 2000.

Boise Cascade’s success at stopping crown fires at its boundaries — where the fires dropped to the ground when they hit the logged forests — supported the case for active management in the mid 1990s, when the new interest in healthy forests drove the forestry debate. The promotion of this management strategy by American Forestry Association, the timber industry and the U.S. Forest Service became conventional wisdom — if overly broad and simplified.

Still, it won support from environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Wilderness Society, especially for prescribed burning and primarily when used in areas near communities.

“Often, but not always, fuel treatment works,” said Penny Morgan, a fire ecology professor at the University of Idaho. “They are not 100 percent effective.”

In 2007, another year of extreme fires, Morgan and other researchers found that areas that had been thinned or burned around Warm Lake showed a higher rate of tree survival. Even on this summer’s Elk Complex, when the winds died and the humidity rose just a few degrees, firefighters were able to herd the fire into areas that the Trinity Ridge Fire had burned in 2012.

Political leaders across the West, looking for explanations as to why the region’s wildfires have gotten so much bigger and fiercer, often blame the buildup of forest fuels — essentially dense stands of small trees.

If we simply went back to logging our forests like we did in the 1950s through the 1980s, we could reduce the size of fires, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Sen. Jim Risch said at a press conference last month with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

But this year’s fires are confirming what forest scientists have been saying for the past decade: The changing climate, not forest fuels, are driving the growth in the size and fierceness of fires.

REPLANTING FOR AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

The past is not necessarily the best model for the future of forestry in the region, Schultz said. Nor should land managers and policymakers be dogmatic about the science.

“There’s always some degree of complexity and uncertainty in natural systems,” he said.

The Idaho Department of Lands is moving quickly to salvage 40 million board feet of burned timber this winter and next summer before it deteriorates. This will bring an estimated $5 million to $7 million to Idaho schools, which benefit from revenues generated on those state lands.

State foresters will replant millions of seedlings and allow the areas where seed trees remain to naturally regenerate.

But they face uncertainty over the changing conditions in which those new trees will grow over the next century.

Climate scientists say Idaho summers will continue to get warmer and fire seasons longer. Mountain runoff will end earlier, the snowpack will get smaller and the late-summer river flows lower. Schultz’ foresters already have shortened the rotation on state forests from 100 to 120 years to a 60- to 80-year rotation to adjust to the market.

The Department of Lands’ mission is to maximize the financial return from state endowment lands. As the state replants, it will favor high-value species that “provide greater flexibility and adaptability to meet our mission as well as adapt to any natural condition that may or may not be changing on the landscape,” he said.

The Forest Service and other landowners may make different calls based on different values, be they recreation, watershed protection or scenery.

“The forest will be managed,” Shultz said, “either by humans or fire.”

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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