Guest Opinions

Fire is a natural part of Idaho ecosystem

The Beaver Creek Fire creeps down the western canyon wall above the Wood River outside Hailey on Aug. 17, 2013.
The Beaver Creek Fire creeps down the western canyon wall above the Wood River outside Hailey on Aug. 17, 2013. Idaho Statesman file

Just about anything you can say about wildfire is true in some, but not all, Western forests.

The same might be said for Fred Birnbaum’s recent column (Nov. 5). His comments are not true for all forests — logging won’t reduce the threat of wildfire.

One thing, however, is certain: Lingering drought combined with high winds create extreme conditions in Western forests that can lead to extreme fires. In the face of such fires, human efforts are all but irrelevant; only a change in weather can extinguish them. That is true for forests from the normally rain-soaked Olympic National Forest to Yellowstone to the dry ponderosa forests of New Mexico.

Where the absence of fire has allowed dead wood, needles and leaf litter to build up on the ground, fires are more dangerous, more expensive to fight and more likely to become extreme fires. And a warming climate may increase the likelihood of extreme conditions.

Birnbaum argues logging and thinning were the reasons for fewer large wildfires between 1946 and 1979, and that reduced logging resulted in an increase in extreme wildfires in recent years.

Fire experts say otherwise.

The 2000 National Fire Plan says: “The removal of large, merchantable trees from forests does not reduce fire risk, and may, in fact, increase such risk.” (The Fire Plan is the common name for a federal report on the effects of fire on communities and the environment in response to the Cerro Grande Fire near Los Alamos, N.M., in May 2000.)

The Congressional Research Service in a 2000 study found that “fewer acres burned in areas where logging activity was limited.”

Statistics show a steady rise in fires since 1945 with worse fire seasons in the late 1980s, when timber harvest peaked at about 12 billion board feet. The 10-year average number of acres burned nationwide during the late 1980s was 4.2 million acres; in the 1970s it was 3.2 million acres; and in the 1990s 3.6 million acres.

The Congressional Research Service explains why: “Timber harvesting removes the relatively large diameter wood that can be converted into wood products, but leaves behind the small material, especially twigs and needles. The concentration of these fine fuels on the forest floor increases the rate of spread of wildfires.”

In 1935, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a strict policy of fire exclusion. And as firefighting equipment and tactics improved following World War II, the average annual acreage burned in the Lower 48 dropped from 40 to 50 million acres in the early 1930s to about 5 million by the 1970s. Today, 97 to 99 percent of wildfires are put out in the initial attack, chiefly by men with shovels, Pulaskis, bulldozers, airplanes and helicopters.

Fire is as much a part of Idaho ecosystems as the wind and the rain. It is a biological process and serves important functions in recycling forest nutrients and controlling insect pests and forest diseases. Between 1910 and 1934, large wildfires burned more than a million acres in North Idaho forests on the west slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains. The fires opened the forests, creating some of the best elk habitat and backcountry elk hunting in the country.

Understandably, it is difficult to see past the blackened aftermath of fire and the heartbreak of people losing homes and family or friends. But large wildfires are inevitable, and homes can be protected with simple measures.

This doesn’t mean forests shouldn’t be logged, but logging won’t reduce the threat of wildfire.

Niels S. Nokkentved has written about natural resources in the Northwest for about 30 years.