Summer in Idaho is punctuated by bright sunny days, cool mountain streams and, all too often, destructive wildfires.
If it seems like the fire season is getting worse every year, there’s good reason.
A warming climate has led to drier conditions, weakening trees and making them more susceptible to insect infestations. The encroachment of cheat grass in the sagebrush steppe and years of overgrowth caused by the systematic suppression of natural fires have provided an abundance of fuel.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, the area burned annually by wildfires across the West likely will double by late this century. These fires threaten not only wildlife, but also human populations.
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It’s estimated that almost a third of U.S. homes are built in the wildland-urban interface. As this number increases, so do the risks. In response, Idaho researchers are dedicated to finding ways to better assess and manage wildfire risks and mitigate the damage, from both policy and science perspectives.
For example, John Freemuth, executive director of Boise State’s Andrus Center for Public Policy, is working on a five-year project with the BLM to develop strategies to reduce the size, severity and cost of rangeland wildfires. The project also focuses on improving rehabilitation and other conservation efforts following large, devastating fires.
In addition, Eric Lindquist, director of Boise State’s Public Policy Research Center, is working with University of Idaho faculty to create and implement legal and planning solutions for wildlife hazard planning at the wildland-urban interface. Their work is funded by the U.S. Forest Service and Idaho Department of Lands. The project will help identify how the public perceives risk in regard to wildfires.
It is important to understand not only what feeds these fires, but how that has changed over the years and how we can better prepare for the floods and debris flows that follow.
The University of Idaho is a key player in fire science and offers a number of courses in programs like forest, rangeland and fire sciences. Allistair Smith, head of the U of I’s Fire Ecology and Management program, is working with an international team of researchers to understand how communities can better prepare for and recover from wildfires and ways to address the “wicked problem of wildfire.”
Another project, with U of I’s Crystal Kolden and colleagues from U of I and Washington State University, aims to improve models to predict where fires are likely to occur and how severe they will be. And U of I’s Travis Paveglio is focused on understanding how different communities adapt to fires and how they assess risk.
A sampling of additional U of I fire science work includes the following:
▪ Penny Morgan seeks to understand post-wildfire tree regeneration and fuel accumulation under changing climatic conditions in the Northern Rockies.
▪ Arjan Meddens is studying how increased fire severity is reducing the number and size of isolated unburned areas that are vital to the repopulation of ecosystems devastated by fires.
▪ Leda Kobziar is working to understand the duration and depth of soil heating in long-unburned areas where prescribed fires are being introduced, and how this affects seed banks, soil carbon cycling and root systems.
At Boise State, Jen Pierce, associate professor of geosciences and director of the Earth, Wind and Fire Lab, looks at how prolonged drought and increasing temperatures are lengthening the fire season and changing the landscape. With the help of graduate student Katie Gibble, maps are being created showing which basins are at greatest risk for post-fire debris flow to allow for greater awareness and response. Support comes from several sources, including the federal Joint Fire Science Program.
Nancy Glenn, Boise State professor of geosciences and director of the Boise Center Aerospace Laboratory, is working with graduate students, the BLM and U.S. Geological Survey to understand how frequency coupled with post-fire precipitation and temperature affects vegetation communities and their regrowth in the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey area. Another of her students is focusing on the area ravaged by the 2015 Soda Fire southwest of Boise, comparing the area’s prefire vegetation and potential post-fire restoration.
I have only touched on the incredible breadth and depth of fire science research across Idaho. In a state where land resources are vital to economic stability and quality of life, learning to manage, prevent and learn from wildfires is key to a sustainable future.
As development pushes farther into wilderness areas, we also must accept the responsibility to be fire wise and enact the public policies that will benefit both human populations and the environment.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column examines scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.