Letters from the West

We might not like it but we are all learning to live with wildfire

The Mile Marker 14 Fire scorches 2,000 acres near Idaho 21 in Boise

Three structures have been destroyed and due to shifting winds, 10 structures are threatened Tuesday evening by the human-caused fire. The fire is burning on both sides of the Idaho 21 highway, which closed east and west of Lucky Peak Reservoir. A
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Three structures have been destroyed and due to shifting winds, 10 structures are threatened Tuesday evening by the human-caused fire. The fire is burning on both sides of the Idaho 21 highway, which closed east and west of Lucky Peak Reservoir. A

Watching a giant gray plume from the Mile Marker 14 Fire rise over the Boise horizon Tuesday was not really a surprising sight for residents.

Big fire on our doorsteps is becoming routine.

Ever since 1992, when the Foothills Fire’s giant pyrocumulus cloud rose to the south, the sight of the smoky front of a wildfire has become a shared experience for all of us in the Treasure Valley. Last year it was the Soda Fire across the Owyhee Mountains that sent a huge column into the atmosphere.

According to the Department of the Interior, more than 29,000 wildfires have burned over 2.6 million acres in 2016, increasing concerns that we could see yet another busy, dangerous and costly fire season.

The Elk Creek and Pony fires cooked up a column in 2013 that matched the 1992 in size and location. It was a month ago we all woke up to the Table Rock Fire, and the blackened hillside remains a reminder of how close it came to being even more of a disaster.

We all remember in 2012 living for a month under the smoke of the Trinity Ridge Fire, which burned a large section of the Boise National Forest from Idaho City to Featherville.

Smoke was still in the air when we awoke Wednesday morning from the Mile Marker 14 Fire, and other blazes are burning near Idaho City.

That forces my daughter with asthma to stay inside, changing her life and limiting her activities. The smoke is no fun for any of us, but it’s been coming to town so frequently now, we seem to accept it.

All of the logging in the world wouldn’t have stopped the two fires near us this year. They were range fires burning through mostly cheatgrass that we can’t manage our way out of easily.

But as Mary Lewerenz showed this week, that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. She made sure her trees around her home were trimmed, nearby vegetation removed and her yard around the house well irrigated. That gave the firefighters the defensible space they needed to save her home when the fire came this week.

It was the same for Pat Telleria, owner of Barber Nursery, whose defensible space and firewise landscaping kept the Table Rock Fire from destroying his home. Just a few hundred yards away, Steven Danielson and his family lost their home, which was surrounded by tall grass.

These are lessons individual Idahoans and communities are learning. I spoke Wednesday with Idaho Republican Rep. Ryan Kerby, of New Plymouth, who was on his way to a wildfire mitigation meeting in Council. Local officials and residents are working to build fire breaks around communities and buffers for roads and power lines, and ensure that they have a dependable water supply that won’t be sullied by a wildfire.

Then he planned to attend a meeting of the Payette Forest Coalition in McCall. This collaborative group has had some success thinning, logging, improving wildlife habitat and protecting water quality by removing poorly placed roads.

Its Lost Creek-Boulder Creek landscape project near Council would have been able to do even more, including improve bull trout habitat, but was stopped in court by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. But a federal judge recently ruled the project could move forward as the case is pending, recognizing the wide consensus behind the project, including groups such as the Idaho Conservation League.

Not all collaborative processes are equal, but the Payette Forest Coalition has all the right elements: buy-in from local government, the timber industry and environmental groups, along with true support from the Payette National Forest staff from the top down.

They are not trying to stop fires on the Payette. Instead they are seeking to make fire a force with which they can live.

They aren’t alone.

A similar collaborative group is working on the Boise Front, trying to handle projects for thinning and fire fuel reductions not far from where the Mile Marker 14 Fire started. With 29,000 fires already burning 2.6 million acres nationally, we are all learning how we can make ourselves better prepared for our own fires next time.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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