Rocky Barker: Listen to one of the nation’s smartest fire experts

Idaho StatesmanDecember 9, 2013 

National Park fire ecologist Dick Bahr at the National Interagency Fire Center and I have come a long way since we both experienced firsthand the huge fires in Yellowstone National Park 25 years ago.

I was a reporter for the (Idaho Falls) Post-Register. Bahr was in charge of aviation operations in Yellowstone in 1988. Both of our careers were shaped by that amazing fire season.

The variety of assignments and locations in Bahr’s federal career has molded him into one of the most insightful fire experts I’ve met in a 38-year career as a reporter.

Dick and I will speak at the Wednesday lunch forum, put on by the City Club of Boise and the Idaho Environmental Forum. People get to read me all the time in the Statesman, but this is a unique opportunity for people to hear Bahr and to ask him questions.

Today, Bahr is the fire science and ecology program leader for the National Park Service at Boise’s National Interagency Fire Center. He began his career at Glacier National Park as a microbiologist before moving into fire control there in the 1980s.

He went to the Everglades in 1987, where the Park Service was pioneering the use of fire as a natural disturbance in the ecosystem. There, in a short period, he saw how the ecosystem responded after multiple burns.

He returned to the West as the helitack foreman in Yellowstone, just in time to be a part of one of the most dramatic fire events of the century.

After Yellowstone, Bahr became a prescribed fire specialist, increasing the agency’s use of fire in parks across the nation. He came to his NIFC post in 2005.

Although we were both in Yellowstone in 1988, we didn’t meet until 2007, another big fire season in the Northern Rockies. He and Tom Boatner of the Bureau of Land Management briefed me on the unusually volatile conditions their firefighters were seeing in places like Murphy Springs in southern Idaho’s desert and in the forests around Yellow Pine.

Today, those kinds of fierce wildfires that burn tens of thousands of acres a day have become routine.

In the summer of 2012, Bahr was detailed to an area fire command for Southern Idaho. He noted, and I reported, that more than half of the forests of southern and Central Idaho had burned since 1988. By steering fires into those old burns, firefighters used the fires of the past to help control new fires, demonstrating the wisdom of fuel treatment by fire and logging.

Then this year, Bahr told me about the return of fire to areas burned within the last 20 years — something we really hadn’t seen before — and how that behavior is reshaping the forests as fire seasons get longer, the summers hotter and the winters warmer.

Bahr, along with University of Idaho fire ecologist Penelope Morgan and University of Wisconsin ecologist Monica Turner, are among the heralds of a new way of understanding fire and its role in our world. For anyone who cares about how fire and climate change is transforming Idaho’s landscape, this is a chance to hear what the future holds from one of the people who knows it best.

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