Letters from the West

Past blazes may keep Pioneer Fire out of communities

Boise hotshots fought the Pioneer Fire northeast of Idaho City on Sunday.
Boise hotshots fought the Pioneer Fire northeast of Idaho City on Sunday.

A dark, opaque shroud of smoke engulfed the Sawtooth Valley on Sunday, blotting out the mountain view of the resort community of Stanley in the height of the summer season.

The smoke was carried by the gale-force winds from the Pioneer Fire about 30 miles as the crow flies. Visitors to Redfish Lake reported ash falling like snow.

For Steve Botti, a Stanley city councilman and a retired National Park Service fire program planning manager, it was an ominous sign. The 38,000-acre fire that was first detected July 18 is heading northeast toward the Sawtooths through a doughnut hole of unburned timber in the Boise National Forest.

“The smoke Sunday was thicker than any time during the Halstead Fire,” Botti said Monday, referring to the 181,000-acre blaze in 2012 that burned to the doorsteps of Stanley from the northwest.

One fire managed during the 2007 season may be Stanley’s savior this season. But the area where a logging, thinning and burning project had just been approved was burned up by the Pioneer Fire.

Since 1986, more than 55 percent of the 2.2 million-acre Boise National Forest has burned. The Pioneer Fire already has burned into the 154,000-acre 1994 Rabbit Fire. And firefighters are using the boundary of the 1989 Lowman Fire to establish a final defense line to keep the fire out of the Payette River watershed and protect Lowman.

When a fire burns into an area already scorched by an older fire, its behavior changes depending on its intensity and the intensity of the previous fire. The Rabbit Fire burned hot, but like all fires left areas of lightly burned forest in a natural mosaic pattern.

As the Pioneer Fire burned into the Rabbit Fire, it dropped from the crowns of the trees to the ground, which was easier to control. The Rabbit Fire acts as a southern boundary that should limit, but not stop, the growth of the Pioneer Fire to the south.

The Lowman Fire, the first firestorm on the Boise National Forest in decades, left the slopes around Lowman denuded for two decades despite replanting, leaving large brush fields ripe for reburning. It, too, will affect the behavior of the Pioneer on its northern boundary.

The Trapper Ridge Fire burned about 18,500 acres of forest 28 miles northeast of Idaho City in 2007. It was designated a “fire use” fire at the time and was allowed to burn as a way to allow it to play its natural role on the landscape.

Still, retired Boise National Forest Supervisor Dick Smith, who made what was then a gutsy decision, used lots of firefighters, helicopters and other resources to keep that fire from burning into the Payette watershed, where it would threaten Lowman.

“We actually fought it pretty aggressively on that flank,” Smith said Monday from Colorado.

The Trapper Ridge Fire links the Lowman and Rabbit fires on the east, effectively blocking the Pioneer Fire from racing into the Sawtooths unhindered.

But that doesn’t mean they’re safe, Botti and Smith agree. Past fires reduce the intensity of the next fires but they don’t put them out. Under unusually high temperatures, low humidity and high winds — such as the kind that grew the Pioneer Fire 11,000 acres Sunday — fire can move through nearly any fuel.

That’s why Botti has been a leading voice for bold action by the Forest Service to reduce the size of the unburned forest around Stanley. He called for the kind of large winter and early spring burns used in national parks in Canada anchored by logging projects that make the burning safer.

The Stanley fire collaborative group looked at proposed projects in the Capehorn area west of Stanley in late July. Even though they could see smoke from the Pioneer Fire, Sawtooth National Forest officials were hesitant to support such a large prescribed fire.

Even if they could go forward, nothing would be done until 2018, Botti said.

In June, a logging, burning and thinning program called the Becker Integrated Resource Project was finally approved after two years of environmental analysis. The project covered 19,000 acres in the Edna, China Fork and Beaver Creek drainages, where the Pioneer Fire is burning. At least 90 percent of the project area burned last week, negating years of collaborative talks and hundreds of work hours, forest officials said.

“We had a dozen specialists who pushed really hard to get this done,” said Brant Petersen, an Idaho City District forest ranger. “This is like a punch in the gut watching all of our work go up in smoke.”

Botti has seen it before and he worries he will see it again in the Sawtooths despite years of pleas for action, including during the Capehorn tour. He is watching closely because there still is a thin line of unburned area west of Grandjean.

“There’s a real irony there,” Botti said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Pioneer Fire update

As of Monday evening, the fire was 30 percent contained, with 35 people reported evacuated, fire managers said via Inciweb. The estimated containment date is now Aug. 12, a week later than was estimated last Friday.

The number of people fighting this fire has risen to 1,282.