Letters From the West

Logging and thinning couldn’t slow Idaho’s Elk Complex fire

The Elk Creek Complex fire, driven by high winds and super dry conditions burned even through logged and thinned forests. (Incident Command photo)

The Elk Creek Complex fire, driven by high winds and super dry conditions burned even through logged and thinned forests. (Incident Command photo)

Emmett logger Tim Brown had just completed the White Flat timber sale on the Boise National Forest near Prairie when the Elk Complex fire burned through the area, destroying most of the remaining trees.

“That timber sale completely burned up,” said Dave Olson, a Boise National Forest spokesman.

The same happened in state lands nearby.

“Most actively managed thinned forests provide breaks in fuel to slow the growth of fires,” Idaho Department of Lands director Tom Schultz said. “However, the Elk Complex fire burned so intensely due to extremely dry conditions and 50 mile per hour winds that even the 6,000 acres of actively managed state endowment forests in the path of the fire burned.”

The value of a thinned, logged or prescribed burned forest for bringing a raging crown fire to the ground where firefighters can control it has been proven repeatedly in Idaho over the last 20 years.

A prescribed fire in the Tiger Creek area on the Boise National Forest brought the Foothills Fire in 1992 to the ground in an incident that was used as an example for years afterward. A similar prescribed burn on the Salmon National Forest dropped the Clear Creek fire from its run through the Douglas firs in 2000.

Boise Cascade’s success at stopping crown fires at its boundaries where they dropped to the ground supported the case for active management in the mid-1990s when forest health drove the forestry debate. The promotion of this management strategy by American Forestry Association, the timber industry and the U.S. Forest Service grew into a pubic narrative that like most ideas became overly broad and simplified.

Still, it brought support from environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Wilderness Society, primarily when it was used in the area near communities and especially supporting prescribed burning. I contributed to this as a journalist in a publication I edited for the Idaho Forest Products Commission called Forestry 2000 and an essay I wrote for the book The Next West.

This is the Elk Complex Aug. 10 near Prairie. (Incident Command Photo)

This is the Elk Complex Aug. 10 near Prairie. (Incident Command Photo)

Since then political leaders across the West, looking for a answers to why the region’s wildfires had gotten so much bigger and fiercer, blamed increased fuel. If we simply went back to logging our forests like we did in the 1950s through the 1980s, the story goes, we could control the fires and create thousands of jobs for rural communities.

There is no doubt that reducing fuels also reduces the ferocity of fires under all but the most extreme conditions. But today extreme conditions are increasingly more frequent.
““There is little that land managers can do to prevent that kind of intense fire behavior,” said Schultz, who holds a master degree in forestry.

I had first seen this in late August in Yellowstone in 1988. I had written a story where a fire boss described seeing fire behavior like he had never experienced before, including the fire burning fiercely against the wind and though meadows and other open areas.

A Forest Service manager called me after the story ran to say I was pushing Park Service propaganda. He pointed to the double dozer lines and the Targhee-Caribou Forest’s clearcuts you could see from space as a fire break that no fire could cross.

The next day an east wind pushed the fire out of Yellowstone back into the Targhee through multiple fire lines and the clearcuts, only stopping on the edge of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River when the evening humidity quieted it.

The new evidence the burned timber sales of the Elk Complex provide, gives foresters new benchmarks to ply their expertise.

The Idaho Department of Lands is seeking to quickly sell fire-damage trees before they deteriorate after an especially hot burn. (IDL photo)

The Idaho Department of Lands is seeking to quickly sell fire-damaged trees before they deteriorate after an especially hot burn. (IDL photo)

In the meantime the Idaho Department of Lands is moving quickly to salvage 40 million board feet of timber from the area this winter and next summer before it deteriorates. This will bring an estimated $5 million to $7 million to Idaho schools.

Its foresters will replant millions of seedlings and allow the areas where seed trees remain to naturally regenerate. But they face the uncertainty of the conditions those trees will grow in during the next century.

If as climate scientists say the summers get warmer, the fire seasons longer, the runoff keeps getting earlier, the snowpack smaller and the flows lower in the late summer, the tree may never get to mature. This will force new choices for all of us to consider that might not fit our ideology.

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