As big wildfires become routine, communities face cascading consequences

PRIEST RIVER — For two weeks in August, western Bonner County residents frantically prepared to evacuate their homes and cleared away brush so that firefighters would have room to work if the Tower Fire did come to their doorsteps.

The 24,000-acre Tower Fire was burning on the Washington border just six miles from Priest Lake, a popular recreation and second-home center with subdivisions that reach deep into the forest. The east side of the Priest Lake State Forest, among Idaho’s most productive state-owned timberland, escaped the fires when a cold front developed and prevented a repeat of the 1967 Sundance Fire that consumed thousands of acres.

With a national shortage of firefighters and equipment, the Tower team had just one helicopter to drop water before the cold front came through Aug. 22. When heavy winds did come a week later, more firefighting resources were available and morning humidity helped firefighters keep the fire in check.

“We somehow have passed this one,” said Eric Anderson, a former Idaho lawmaker and volunteer firefighter who worked with local officials and neighbors to prepare for the worst. “Nobody here can believe we’ve survived this threat.”

The stories were different in Southwest Idaho’s Owyhee County, where the Soda Fire incinerated cattle and rangeland. Fires in Idaho and Clearwater counties left Riggins and other tourism areas covered in smoke, closed public lands and destroyed homes and state and private timber.

These are only the immediate effects on the people, the economy and the institutions of Idaho. More effects will be felt in the months and years ahead.

Already Idaho County estimates it has lost more than $6 million in assessed value on its tax rolls because of the more than 50 homes that burned, said Commissioner Skip Brandt. Many of the people who lost homes, rangeland or crucial weeks of tourism-related business will suffer such deep financial costs they may be forced to leave.

Ranchers in Owyhee County will wait two years or more — depending on how the land recovers — before they can put their cattle back on the public rangeland. Ranchers whose range burned in the Pony Fire south of Boise in 2013 won’t get cows back out there until 2016.

This winter or spring, denuded slopes will erode away, and the resulting slides and floods will wreck roads and add more costs to counties, the state and federal governments.

“We call these the cascading consequences of fire,” said Crystal Kolden, a University of Idaho geography professor and fire ecologist.


These longer-term effects are not new to Southern Idaho, which has seen hundreds of thousands of acres burn annually on average since 1989. But this year, North Idaho joined its southern neighbors in witnessing the landscape-transformation that climate change is bringing across the American West.

Fire season now averages 75 days longer today than it did 45 years ago, according to a Forest Service database analysis by Climate Central, a group that advocates action on climate change. In both 2007 and 2012, the two hottest summers on record in Idaho, more than 1 million acres in the state burned. Temperatures those years were more than 1.5 degrees hotter than the 1980-to-2000 average.

Since 1992, Idaho has had 568,000 acres burn annually, making it the wildfire capital of the continental United States. Only Alaska has burned more.

This summer the Soda Fire burned 279,000 acres, adding to the millions of acres of rangeland that has burned across Southern Idaho over the past 23 years. Much of the native sagebrush steppe has been turned into unbroken acres of invasive cheatgrass, which is more quick to burn and more quick to return after a fire.

In the Boise National Forest, more frequent fire is changing the landscape as well. Portions of the forest already have been converted to brush and grasslands by fires in Lowman and around Mayville. The 2013 Pony Fire burned young ponderosa pines that hadn’t had a chance to get established after burning in the Foothills Fire of 1992. Foresters can’t depend on history to guide their future planting.

“Climate change is really going to be transformative for the Northwest,” said John Abatzoglou, a U of I geography professor and climatologist. “I don’t think it’s the end of the world but it’s going to change our natural resources and our culture.”


Idaho’s culture is closely tied to its natural resources. Towns like Priest River and Kamiah depend on the timber industry and tourism. Owyhee County is defined by the ranching industry with a history reaching back to the 19th Century. Tribal culture throughout the state depends on fish, wildlife, natural foods and sacred places since time immemorial.

The repetitive nature of fires has a cumulative effect on the economy. Johnny Wilson, an Idaho County Sheriff’s deputy and a businessman who sells high-end audio equipment nationally, said the Tepee Springs Fire that burned around Riggins for much of August and early September was tough on him and others.

“We have no self-sustaining economy,” Wilson said. “Almost 100 percent of our money comes from tourism. A month like this hurts us.”

Brandt, a former Idaho state senator, is worried about how the county and the state will pay for the costs they will face soon. He wants burned timber logged as soon as possible and steps taken to stop erosion. He points to the slopes of the Selway River burned in the 2014 Johnson Bar Fire as an example of the threat to watersheds and water quality.

“You can see the waves of sediment running down,” Brandt said.

Erosion after fires has reshaped the Boise River watershed, in the North Fork in the 1990s and the Middle Fork after 2012 fires. In 2013, a mudslide in the South Fork came close to damaging Anderson Ranch Dam. Atlanta has been cut off by mudslides several times since 2000.

U of I’s Kolden said damage to Anderson Ranch would have been felt downstream in Boise and could have hurt farmer’s water supply.


Kolden and other U of I researchers will join colleagues from Washington State University to study ways to increase communities’ ability to withstand and recover from wildfires with a $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

They hope to combine research on how drought and insects contribute to wildfire growth and severity and how post-fire hazards such as floods, landslides and mudflows happen with studies on what social and economic factors make communities vulnerable.

They hope to develop vulnerability maps and early-warning systems for the region, Kolden said.

These maps won’t necessarily help Kamiah or other communities that already had fires. But they would identify places where future fires could come or where fires will be followed by landslides and floods.

Places like Priest River will be able to use the tools to make their communities better prepared for the fires next time through planning, creating defensible space and siting public institutions like schools.

“This will allow us to work with land managers and community planners to develop more holistic mitigation and adaptation strategies,” she said.


As fire behavior has become more fierce and unpredictable, the number of people in harm’s way has risen. Since the 1990s, 15 million to 17 million new homes have been built in dangerous fire zones nationwide, a federal report said.

A collaborative program called “firewise” and state and city codes have evolved over the past 25 years. The guidelines recommend residents remove fuel, such as dead grass, and entry points, such as cedar-shake roofs, which can carry fire through rural subdivisions like those around Kamiah.

Randy Tolman of Idaho County emergency services used Forest Service funds to help residents make their homes firewise; in several cases it saved homes even when a neighbor’s burned. But even with money available, many people weren’t interested — until the fire arrived.

It’s the same story elsewhere in Idaho. Even many people in wealthy neighborhoods in Hailey have not prepared homes to be fire-resistant even after multiple fires.

Boise and Ada County beefed up building codes to require residents to make homes safer. But throughout Idaho and West, where freedom and independence is cherished, there is little regulation that discourages people from moving into fire-prone landscapes.

“People move to Idaho County because they can move to the hinterlands,” Commissioner Brandt said. “Otherwise, stay in Boise or Seattle.”

Idaho County disbanded its planning and zoning commission in 1986. It has no building code; many houses are built in steep canyons with only one road or driveway in.

Even worse, said Jonathan Oppenheimer, a wildfire expert with the Idaho Conservation League, is nothing stops people from building new houses or rebuilding houses in places that burned before.

“You could build a cedar-shake subdivision on the top of the mountain with one road in and there’s nothing to stop it now in Idaho County,” Oppenheimer said.

Brandt supports encouraging people to use firewise techniques to create defensible space for their homes and to make them safer. But the issue is personal responsibility, he said: “Just because there is planning and zoning that’s not going to restrict people from doing stupid things.”


Communities that have been through fires are making their communities, government and even businesses more resilient. Creating new rangeland fire protection associations has improved protection across Idaho’s sagebrush steppe by letting trained ranchers help fight fires, for example.

The Idaho Department of Lands, which manages more than a million acres of forest in the state’s endowment lands, has hedged its bets in the face of repeated large fires. Using models developed with the University of Idaho, managers are shortening their rotation on trees they harvest, based on threats like insects, disease and fire.

Foresters also are changing what species of trees they plant — more fire-resistant species like Douglas fir, for example. They’re looking at the elevation and the evolving seed zone where each tree will flourish, said David Groeschl, Idaho state forester.

Because of the changing landscape, foresters can no longer depend on what trees grew on the land historically.

“The historic range of variability can’t provide us with a roadmap,” Groeschl said.

Since 2000, fires have repeatedly burned through the Salmon River canyon, forcing floaters to breathe smoke and face delays or even closures. Some outfitters are adapting.

Ryan Dudgeon, a guide with Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures of Missoula, was on a private trip with other guides to end their season on the Salmon River when they were forced to hold up at Carey Creek when fire and smoke closed the Salmon River Road.

“I’ve been guiding for eight years for the company through several wildfires and it always seems to be fine,” Dudgeon said. “We just make it fun even when there is raging fire on the banks around us.”

Guides have learned to be flexible about where they put it in, take out and how they present the trip to their customers.

“I think it depends on their guide’s mentality,” she said. “If we were freaking out, our clients would feel that freakout. But we can make it fun — you know, ‘Check out that tree on fire’ instead of ‘Oh my God we gotta get out of here!”’

Anderson said even the close call at Priest Lake has an upside.

“One great benefit from this exercise is we are better prepared as a community,” Anderson said.