Letters from the West

Strategy for controlling Idaho’s Pioneer Fire at crossroads

With most of Lowman’s residences secure, Boise National Forest officials are trying to decide how to proceed next week on the Pioneer Fire, when the high-level fire management teams in place finish their stints on what is the largest wildfire in the nation.

Firefighters on Tuesday night burned out a key section of forest between the front of the 125-square-mile fire and houses overlooking Idaho 17, completing the protection for Lowman.

Boise County still has a voluntary evacuation in place, though, and Idaho 17 remains closed between Lowman and Danskin because extreme burning last week caused trees and rocks to fall onto the road.

Most of the southern section of the fire has burned into forests that had burned before, which dramatically slowed its spread. But to the north is the 56,000-acre Deadwood Roadless Area south of Deadwood Reservoir, which contains perhaps the largest unburned forest left in the Boise National Forest. The fire burned into the southern part of the roadless area, where prescribed burns the past few years reduced fuel buildup and moderated the burning, said John Kidd, the Forest Service’s Lowman District ranger.

Kidd has been trying to get patches of fire into the roadless area for several years, but wants it on his own terms. In these conditions, however, he and other managers worry that one big wind storm could push fire high up into the drainage, best known for its big ponderosa pines that offer high-quality wildlife habitat.

“As you know, nature’s going to do what it’s going to do,” Kidd said.

In the 1990s, the Deadwood Roadless Area was at the center of a national debate over logging in roadless areas authorized in a rider to an appropriations bill signed by then-President Bill Clinton. A timber sale that would have harvested 50 million board feet — enough wood to build 5,000 houses — was opposed by conservation groups.

The debate finally was resolved when the Clinton Roadless Rule was signed in 2001. Logging was permitted under the subsequent Idaho roadless rule, but the closures of Boise Cascade mills in Emmett, Horseshoe Bend and Cascade dropped the bottom out of the market.

So Kidd and other forest officials have sought to manage the fuels in the steep, rocky terrain using fire. In contrast, the overall strategy for the Pioneer Fire is to contain it.

As of today, however, bosses are not ordering firefighters to directly attack the fire in the Deadwood area, primarily because of safety concerns in the steep, rugged terrain.

“There’s just no good place to draw a hard line,” Kidd said.

Firefighters don’t expect to contain the fire until either rain or snow comes, which could be October. The containment level Wednesday evening was at 50 percent.

On the fire’s eastern flank, crews have made good progress with burnout operations and extinguishing hot spots, according to reports on the fire incident website Inciweb. Crews are working to clean up the Idaho 21 corridor, where motorists are urged to proceed with caution due to smoke and firefighter activity.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Boise National Forest Supervisor Cecilia Seesholtz met with the leaders of the two separate teams that are fighting the fire — a force that numbers 1,843 people. Seesholtz will decide whether to ask for two national incident command teams to replace the two that are rotating out or request one team, or to put fire command back under her local forest staff.

So far the fire has cost $46 million to battle.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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