Most Southwest Idaho forests have burned since 1985

A recent ICL report shows that just a small percentage of fires were considered severe.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comSeptember 17, 2013 

This June 2012 photo shows residents of the Mink Creek area flee down South Bannock Highway as the plume of smoke from the Charlotte Fire blocks out the sun. The Charlotte Fire was one of Idaho’s most destructive fires in the past century.

DOUG LINDLEY — Idaho State Journal file

Wildfires since 1985 have burned 69 percent of the Payette National Forest and more than 50 percent of the Boise National Forest, a new report issued by the Idaho Conservation League shows.

Most of the acres burned were in six years, when conditions were dry and temperatures high, the report said.

The Payette, Boise and Salmon-Challis national forests are dominated by drier, lower-elevation ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests, contrasted to the high-elevation, wetter forests of north and east Idaho that are dominated by lodgepole.

The low-elevation forests historically had frequent fires, and the trees and other species adapted.

“While none of us want to breathe smoke or see flames from our doorstep, there’s no way to remove fire from Idaho entirely,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League, author of the report. “Our challenge is to live with, and prepare for, inevitable fires.”

Oppenheimer analyzed the 2012 fire season and the history of fire in Idaho. Some of his key findings:

-- Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the national forest acres were burned by fires of low severity or untouched. Forest Service experts said only 13 percent were burned in “high severity” fires.

-- Large fires consumed a disproportionate share of fire costs, with the five largest fires consuming $145 million — 68 percent of the total cost of suppression.

-- Nearly 20 years after policies were updated to restore the natural role of fire, the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho has failed to implement plans to manage natural fires for benefit of the resource.

-- The Charlotte Fire raced through the Mink Creek and Gibson Jack areas of Pocatello and destroyed 66 homes and 29 outbuildings, making it one of the most destructive Idaho fires since the Big Burn of 1910.

Oppenheimer advocates essentially what firefighters have been doing in Idaho: Staying out of the way when fires are big and attempting to restore fire to the ecosystem. To do that, communities need to feel safe.

“The wise way forward is to focus thinning around communities, carefully restore fire where it belongs and keep new homes out of dangerous areas,” Oppenheimer said. “Anything that detracts from that is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Tom Bonnickson, professor emeritus of forest science at Texas A&M University and a former park ranger, challenged this view in a guest opinion recently in the Calaveras, Calif., Enterprise.

“We can thin little trees and use prescribed burns to reduce fuels, but that is not enough,” Bonnickson said. “We must use history as a guide and restore the natural immunity of our forests to monster fires. That means cutting whatever trees are necessary, big or small, to recreate the patchiness and diversity of historic forests that kept fires gentle and helpful.”

Penny Morgan, director of the University of Idaho Wildland Fire Program, said Idaho has led national thinking about fire management for more than 100 years.

“While fire is naturally part of Idaho summers, things are changing in our forests and rangelands,” she said. “Idaho should remain at the forefront of creative solutions to restore forests and keep communities safe.”

Erich Zimmermann, a senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, supported using fire to reduce fuels away from communities. He says it’s not just a safety and environmental issue; it’s also about saving federal dollars.

“We know that putting out every fire is misguided in places like the backcountry of Idaho,” Zimmermann said. “Experts tell us we can help save money and restore our forests by allowing fire to play a more natural role.”

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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