Letters From the West

Idaho’s the right place for secretaries to learn about wild fire

Smoke dominates the skyline from the Halstead Fire base Aug. 1. The Halstead Fire was one the biggest  fires that burned in Idaho in 2012 (Pete Zimowsky photo)

Smoke dominates the skyline from the Halstead Fire base Aug. 1. The Halstead Fire was one the biggest fires that burned in Idaho in 2012 (Pete Zimowsky photo)

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will make her first visit to the National Interagency Fire Center with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Monday.
The two landlords for most of the West’s public lands will meet with the press to talk about the upcoming fire season. I expect them to tells us to expect another long, hot fire season in the American West.
It has already started in California and even Idaho has had a few range fires already. Last year 9.3 million acres of private, state, and federal land, and more than 4,400 structures burned in wildfires, That was the third highest number of acres burned since at least 1960.
In 2012 1.7 million acres of Idaho burned last year costing the state and federal government $214 million. The biggest loss in the state though came from the death of 20-year-old Forest Service firefighter Anne Veseth.

If you would believe some critics all of those acres represented a failure by the mostly federal land mangers who oversee them. Remember, that the interagency firefighting teams that are run out of Boise put out 98 percent of all of the fires that start. The century-long policy of suppression contributed to the growth of fuel we had when the more than two decades of large fires came to Idaho’s forests.

Shifting the balance back to more even more suppression may lead to less safety and more deaths. Idahoans remember the tragic case of Jeff Allen and Shane Heath in the Cramer Fire on the Salmon River 10 years ago this year.

Add to the fuel the hotter, drier and longer fire seasons we have today because of the changing climate and we have conditions that were ripe for disaster. When Lowman burned in 1989 and the huge Foothills fire burned in 1992 foresters feared for the health of the Boise National Forest and other southern Idaho forests.
In 1995, the Forest Service put in place a policy where national forests developed fire plans that helped managers decide which areas could burn safely. Boise National Forest staff aggressively thinned and logged forests around communities like Idaho City and Garden Valley. These mechanical measures were followed up with controlled burns on thousands of acres.
Between wildfire and intentional burns, more than a million acres of the 2.6 million acre Boise Forest have burned at least once since 1989. Last year the 148,000-acre Trinity Ridge fire burned from August through October threatening Featherville, burning a few cabins but largely controlled with the help of old fires that limited its growth.
The Trinity Ridge Fire filled in the gap between all of the fires that have been a part of the lives of Idahoans for the last 20 years. More than 50 percent of the forest within the perimeter was either unburned or burned at a low severity. Another 34 percent was only moderately burned.
Essentially the forest is more resilient today than it was in 1985. Unfortunately the story is very different in Idaho’s sagebrush steppe desert lands. “Megafires” like the 630,000-acre Murphy Hot Springs Fire have been destroying native bunchgrass and shrub habitat during the same two decades.
Last year alone 7.5 percent of the state’s sage grouse habitat burned. Far more burned in Oregon and Nevada.
In the meantime, invasive plants like cheatgrass have moved in and changed the fire cycle. Instead of fire every 20 years, now fires, fueled by the hot-burning cheatgrass are coming back to the same sites every seven to 10 years, experts say.
There are no easy answers to this fire challenge. It takes 20 to 30 years for the sagebrush to mature to a point it has the resilience Boise’s forests have reached.

Vilsack already has been tested in several of the toughest fire seasons any cabinet member has faced. You can bet Jewell will get her own test soon and I expect she will return to Boise to talk about the same subject again soon.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West