The Soda Fire has become the first test of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s sage grouse fire initiative. The jury won’t be in until BLM managers show they can restore the thousands of acre of sagebrush steppe habitat burned.
That’s why Neil Kornze, the Bureau of Land Management’s director, on Wednesday toured the land burned in the 279,000-acre fire with some of the team planning rehabilitation efforts. Their challenge is not only to stabilize the areas that could erode and cause flooding, but also to ward off encroaching cheatgrass and medusa-head invasive plants that threaten the sagebrush so important to sage grouse.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide next month whether to keep sage grouse listed as an endangered species or to downgrade the listing to “not warranted.” How well the BLM can stop fires and restore sagebrush habitat will be critical to that decision.
The Soda Fire started Aug. 10. Boise BLM District firefighters fought high winds, drought conditions and heavy fuels in the early days with dozens of firefighters, six fire engines, three bulldozers and lots of aircraft but were unable to stop it. Flames 100 feet high and spot fires started hundreds of yards away by wind-whipped firebrands kept them from reining in the blaze.
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“I’ve been on a thousand wildfires and that’s the first time” firefighters didn’t have the fire contained “in a box,” said Todd Floyd, who was the fire boss in the crucial first three days.
The extreme conditions on the fire and the tight firefighting forces nationwide with huge fires in California and Washington spotlighted the challenge the BLM has protecting sage grouse habitat from fire. About 37,000 acres of “core” sagebrush habitat, which the BLM says is the best, burned up in the fire. Another 168,000 acres of “important” habitat, the next-best, also burned.
Out of the millions of acres of habitat across 11 states, the Soda is by far the biggest loss. Another 70,000 acres of habitat have been lost in Oregon fires as well as 47,000 acres elsewhere in the Great Basin before the Soda Fire began.
Floyd was pulled off the Soda Fire to battle a Boise Foothills fire Aug. 13. It was quickly extinguished with the help of air tankers making retardant drops.
Kornze said the huge effort to stop the Soda fire didn’t wane when the Foothills began burning. Instead, firefighters continued with full efforts in both places — one to protect lives and homes, and one to protect grouse habitat.
Having such double priorities “is not something we would have done in the past,” Kornze said. “I think we’re demonstrating a change in approach.”
He told his troops Wednesday he wanted the same creativity and commitment for the restoration effort on the Soda fire. The biggest challenge is to stop cheatgrass from expanding its already strong place on the landscape to completely wiping out the sagebrush.
Walking through a stand of healthy sagebrush and bunchgrass, the former Senate aide and son of a mining explorer who grew up in Elko, Nev., said it felt like home.
“This looks like my backyard growing up,” Kornze said.
FAST RESTORATION WORK
T.J. Clifford heads a team of 40 resource specialists from across the West who are writing the rehabilitation plan over the next three weeks for work that must get done in the next three years.
“We’ve got to have a plan to remove (the cheatgrass and medusa head) and to out-compete it,” Clifford said. “It means we have to push the limits on seed, herbicide and equipment.”
The weather, which has been a challenge to firefighters across the West this month, also may be tough for restoration efforts.
A so-called “super El Niño,” a tropical weather pattern, is expected to bring warmer, wetter weather to Southwest Idaho this winter, say National Interagency Fire Center forecasters. That will favor cheatgrass, which begins growing in the spring and does best under moist conditions.
But Clifford was optimistic that the high-elevation sagebrush steppe, which was in good condition before the fire, can be restored — but that could be 30 years from now. Kornze urged the team to look at ideas that may have previously been rejected by higher-ups.
“Make the big ask,” Kornze said. “Make this the project of your career to date.”