Old burns slow new fires across Idaho

Published: September 2, 2012

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    Rocky has covered fire in Idaho since 1985 and is the author of “Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.”

The millions of acres that have burned since the 1980s now stand as wildfire buffers.

By ROCKY BARKER — rbarker@idahostatesman.com

A map of past fires laid over a map of the Halstead Fire near Stanley reveals to Elizabeth Reinhardt the legacy of 25 years of Idaho wildfire.

“The Halstead Fire was sharing boundaries with these old fires on every side,” said Reinhardt, the U.S. Forest Service assistant director for fire ecology and fuels.

She was seeing what fire managers and ecologists have observed on fires across southern and central Idaho forests this year: Forest fires are bumping up against older burns, where the fuels have been reduced, and petering out.

The many fires that have burned from the Boise Foothills to Lolo Pass in the past 25 years have restored much of the landscape to its condition during the early 1900s, before the federal government launched a policy of putting out all forest fires, said Dick Bahr, a fire ecologist for the National Park Service. That policy began crumbling in the 1970s when managers started strategically allowing some back-country fires to burn.

Millions of acres have burned, reducing fuels across large swaths of the landscape and making it easier to fight new blazes, even when they get as big as the three major fires burning in Idaho today, experts say. But the climate is warmer and drier than in the “Little Ice Age,” from 1400 to 1900, when the trees that have burned germinated.

That means the forests that are starting their growth now may be different or even gone over the next century.

For example, places such as the hills around Lowman may not grow back into tall ponderosa pine forests. Instead, those trees may be replaced by pinion pine or juniper that thrive in warmer, drier climates, said Jen Pierce, associate professor of geosciences at Boise State University. “Or perhaps those burn areas will be dominated by range lands instead of forests.

“We really have seen a regime change in fire in the western United States since the late 1980s,” Pierce said.


Foresters in the early 1990s said decades of absolute fire suppression, along with grazing that removed fine fuels, overloaded low-elevation forests with thickets of young trees. Without these smaller fires that historically burned specific stands of pines every seven to 30 years, this build-up contributed to giant Idaho fires that burned in 1989, 1992, 1994, 2000 and 2007.

In some places, such as Lowman in 1989, flames burned through most of the trees, and the forests’ future is in doubt, Pierce said. But most of the fires left forests healthy, with far less fuel to keep the next fire alive.

The higher elevation forests, where lodgepole pine dominates, are different. The time between fires there historically has been much longer, and when fire comes it often replaces the entire stand of trees.

These forests — around McCall, in the Sawtooth area and around Yellowstone — have burned dramatically in the past 25 years just like the lower elevation forests where the fuels had built up due to fire policy. Scientists now recognize the warming climate has overwhelmed the impact of fire suppression.

“The reality is the forests we love so much are changing,” said the Forest Service’s Reinhardt. “Our job as land managers is not to stop change but to shepherd the change so we still get the benefits we love so much.”


Central Idaho is almost unique in the current mix of Western U.S. burns. Fire and forest managers have been unable or unwilling to restore fire into the system because of the proximity to communities or the high density of forest homes.

In the late 1970s, managers began to allow fires to burn, sometimes without approval, in the 2.4 million acres that became the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. They did it because of the growing recognition that forests evolve with fire.

As summers became warmer and drier in the 1980s, huge fires burned. 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.

The Boise National Forest also 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.


For retired Forest Service ranger and supervisor Glenn Bradley, all of this fire has been a resource disaster, not restoration. His first exposure to fire came in 1946 when, as a 10-year-old, he carried water to firefighters and his father, the forest ranger on a fire near Featherville.

The fire burned 80 acres that afternoon but the firefighters, including loggers and workers from the Featherville timber mill, had it out the next morning. Decades later in the same area, Bradley was the ranger, and a plantation of ponderosa pines was growing.

In 2008, the South Barker Fire began burning there. The Sawtooth Forest plan called for allowing fire to burn in this area, and Supervisor Jane Kollmeyer followed that plan.

“I was particularly concerned about it, because I planted those trees,” said Bradley, now of Shoshone. “A lot of them got burned up.”

He thinks the entire forest management system is out of whack. He fondly remembers when roads and logging crews cut through the forest.

In addition to providing lumber and jobs, the activity provided the Forest Service with a ready army of firefighters. Bradley remembers times when 83 fires would start one day and 53 the next, and all would be extinguished because there were people available throughout the forest.

“That (was) how we kept those fires small,” Bradley said.

The Forest Service’s short-term success contributed to the size and ferocity of fires today, said Penelope Morgan, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Idaho.

But Kollmeyer’s decision in 2008 to let the South Barker Fire burn made it easier for firefighters this year. The Trinity Ridge Fire burned into the South Barker Fire zone, which slowed it dramatically. And the area might have burned even if Kollmeyer had sent crews to fight South Barker.


The large fires of the past 25 years have burned in both the previously frequent-burning ponderosa pine ecosystems and the longer-burning lodgepole pine forests of the higher elevations. Scientists expect Idaho’s forests will see even warmer and drier conditions in the future as climate change accelerates.

“What we ought to be managing for is resilience to change,” Morgan said.

That means determining what types of forest will grow in the conditions and climates managers will face in the future. It means planning budgets and resources and tolerance for increasingly frequent big fire seasons.

“We are going to have more large fires and more people in the path of those fires,” Morgan said.

Retired ranger Bradley looks back at the huge 1910 fire that burned more than a million acres in North Idaho and Montana in a couple of days as he expresses doubt the fire ecologists and the agency he grew up in.

“No one talks about the number of board feet we are burning up anymore,” Bradley said. “The American public has lost sight of that.”


Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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