Rocky Barker: When the smoke clears, the same forest fire problem lingers

Smoke has filled the Treasure Valley again this week, making the air unhealthy and reminding us that wildfire seasons just keep getting longer.

The 5,440-acre Walker Fire, started last weekend by someone in the Grimes Creek drainage, burned four structures and thousands of acres of private timber before heading north into the Boise National Forest. I can’t remember a fire in Southern Idaho that started this late, burned so much and caused the problems the Walker Fire has.

Usually a fire still burning in mid-October makes a few runs on a hot, windy day and then lays down again, providing the natural thinning that is the least expensive management of such forest lands. But when it destroys homes and makes people sick, it’s hard to talk about benefits.

The Seattle Times had a story Sunday that the Statesman has reported many times before: A raging wildfire dropped from the crowns when it reached an area that had either been thinned by logging or burned under controlled conditions. The gist of the story was that Washington rules, especially about smoke, are preventing more controlled burns that can prevent bigger fires later.

The Seattle Times reported that from 2002 to 2013 in Washington, all landholders burned 132,000 acres, while in Idaho, all landholders burned 385,000 acres under controlled conditions.

Many areas, such as the Grimes Creek area that is burning this week, need to have mechanical thinning near homes before prescribed fires. But many other areas can be treated with fire without thinning first. The Boise and Payette national forests have been especially effective at using fire this way.

This is important because of the way the federal government pays for firefighting. Today, excess firefighting costs come out of other agency budgets. But even if Congress changes that, it won’t stop the current trend to keep spending more and more on wildfires, as I reported recently. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified to Congress a week ago that the increasing cost of firefighting is taking progressively more of the money for fire prevention and restoration.

In 1995, fire suppression made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget. This year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the budget will be dedicated to fighting fires.

“Left unchecked, the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67 percent,” said Tidwell. “We are at a critical moment in the history of the Forest Service. Urgent action is needed in order to ensure that the Forest Service does not become further hindered by the continually increasing percentage of our budget that is dedicated to wildfire suppression activities.”

In 2014, the Forest Service was able to do fire-prevention treatment on 4.6 million acres. But it has to do a lot more to get ahead of the buildup in forest fuels that grew out of a century of fire suppression.

This year, firefighting costs have reached a record high, exceeding $1.7 billion. This fire season, the Forest Service spent 24 days with all its available ground and air assets committed to priority work on more than 50,000 wildfires that burned 9 million acres. We lost 13 wildland firefighters as well, a cost that can’t be measured in dollars.

The U.S. could spend the entire firefighting budget on logging and it wouldn’t be enough alone to address the fuel issue in the face of climate change. The tens of million acres that have burned over the past 20 years have reduced some of the fuels, but at a steep cost.

Firefighters, the EPA, state environmental agencies and public health authorities are working collaboratively to find ways to do more preventive burning without loading the rest of us up with smoke. Finding that right balance is what prescribed burning should be all about.

Perhaps Tidwell should consider shifting more of the prescribed burning budget from the Southeast — where just 7 percent of the national forest lies but where 50 percent of the fuel treatments are done — to the West, where the problem is most acute. Or maybe Congress should beef up the forest restoration budgets to at least as much as it’s willing to spend when wildfires grow into a disaster.

Then perhaps we’ll all breathe easier.