Friday, August 24, 2012

More big fires in our future?

Anniversary of Castle Rock, current fires raise questions about forest health

Express Staff Writer

Beetle-killed trees dot the landscape in the Sawtooth National Forest north of Ketchum. Though no large fire has ignited in the Sawtooth Valley in several years, forest officials said the large fires near Stanley and east of Boise are partially being fueled by large numbers of beetle-killed trees. Photo by David N. Seelig

Part 2 of a two-part series on the 2007 Castle Rock Fire and its legacy.

When the 179-acre Enclosure Fire sprang up southwest of Ketchum on Aug. 16, the fire’s location and potential to spread toward homes in the Deer Creek and Greenhorn Gulch neighborhoods called to mind not only the Castle Rock Fire of 2007, but the Halstead and Trinity Ridge fires currently burning, which were causing evacuations at the time.
    The summer has seen three major fires in Idaho: the Halstead Fire, which caused warnings in areas from Lower Stanley to Sunbeam; the Mustang Complex Fire in east-central Idaho, which reached 100,000 acres by press time Thursday; and the Trinity Ridge Fire east of Boise, which at the time of printing was burning at a steady pace toward the communities of Pine and Featherville, in the the Boise National Forest.
    Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said this season’s fire activity was not unexpected, nor was it due to any single factor. Despite the fact that it’s been smokier in the Wood River Valley than it has been in recent years, Nelson said fires are just part of life in the region.
    “Part of living in the Rocky Mountain West is dealing with the smoke and fire,” he said.
    However, he said, several factors are contributing to the multiple large-scale fires in the state this year.
    Forests in Idaho have had a problem with mountain pine and Douglas fir bark beetles over the last decade. The mountain pine beetle has attacked whitebark pines throughout the Rocky Mountains, and the U.S. Forest Service has been battling this beetle through the use of hormone pouches that discourage beetles from making the pines their home. Still, the pouches are not totally effective, and the Halstead Fire especially has grown due to the impacts of this infestation.
    “A lot of the big fires are in part a result of the beetle kill that has occurred on a very large scale across the Idaho forest,” Nelson said. “What you are seeing are thousands of acres with a large percentage of trees that have been attacked by the beetles. That’s providing a fuel source for these very large fires.”
    The state also suffered a hot, dry early summer, absent the spring rains that typically come in May and June. Nelson also pointed out that high temperatures in July broke records, contributing to dry-out of vegetation in the forest.
    A May 25 memo from Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard stated that the Forest Service would not use fires for forest health this year—i.e., allowing fires to burn in areas that might be overgrown or could benefit from a fire.
    “The Washington office direction was that even if it’s a natural start, to put it out aggressively,” Nelson said. “Our direction is, we’d like all fires out.”
    But Nelson said it’s likely that the Halstead and Trinity Ridge fires, which are proving very difficult to contain, could prevent future fires by significantly reducing fuel loads in those areas for years to come.
    “We’re building a mosaic of recent fire areas that will help [the forest] in the long run,” he said.
    Similar to the way that the Castle Rock Fire reduced the amount of burnable fuel within its boundaries, the Ketchum Ranger District is working with Sun Valley Resort to reduce fuels on Bald Mountain.
    Ketchum Fire Department Chief Mike Elle said early last week that he worried about the potential for a large fire on the front side of Bald Mountain, an area that did not burn during the Castle Rock Fire.
    Nelson said the Ranger District is planning to thin young and dead trees across the middle of the mountain, from Olympic run to the Frenchman’s lift. The district is also aiming to remove dead and dying trees, a removal that will reduce the potential for a large fire and also allow for glade skiing.

“Part of living in the Rocky Mountain West
is dealing with the smoke and fire.”

Kurt Nelson
Ketchum district ranger

    Nelson said many dead trees have fallen against each other, creating a structure almost like the start of a campfire.
    “It’s like pick-up sticks,” he said. “It has a lot more oxygen around it to carry that fire to the other pick-up sticks than if they are lying next to each other.”
    The district has also cleared fuel in the Little Wood River drainage in an attempt to reduce fuel loading in that region. About 15,000 acres have been identified as in need of fuel treatment, and Nelson said the district’s goal is to carry out prescribed burns on 1,500 to 1,700 acres per year.
    “The idea is to reduce fuel loading on a landscape level so that when you do have the conditions where a large fire starts, either you are able to catch it more quickly or it runs into an area with past fuels treatment or a past large fire,” he said. “That way, there is less fuel for the fire to gobble up.”
    Nelson said that if there should be a large fire, especially near private land, the district is prepared to inform the public by working with the county commissioners and other elected officials. He said he makes a major effort to keep the forest’s public information officer informed.
    Chuck Turner, disaster services coordinator for Blaine County, said that in the event of another Castle Rock-type event, the county’s reverse 911 system would be activated. The system, known as Everbridge, can alert landowners with landlines in a certain geographical area to any emergencies in the area, including evacuation notices. Blaine County residents can put their cell phones on a subscription list for notifications by visiting
    “It’s a good system,” Turner said. “In any kind of an incident, [using] that would be our first choice.”


Enclosure Fire
The exact cause of the Enclosure Fire southwest of Ketchum is still undetermined, said Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson. The fire was determined to be human-caused over the weekend, when lightning-detection maps found that no natural ignition could have occurred. Nelson said the fire’s cause is still under investigation, and that he has not heard if it was thought to be intentional or not. A federal fire investigator was on scene this week and last, he said, and information gathered was handed off to the Forest Service’s law enforcement branch. “It could be unintentional or intentional,” he said Thursday afternoon. Nelson had no estimate on when the fire investigation would be completed.

Wildfire update
The Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association reported Thursday that the fires were not impacting most backcountry activities, such as horseback riding and rafting. The Corn Creek boat-launch site on the Main Salmon River reopened Thursday, and other river trips are proceeding as planned.
The Halstead Fire is burning at about 95,000 acres north of Stanley in primarily dead, standing, bug-killed trees. The power line along state Highway 75 has been prepped for fire, and evacuations for Yankee Fork residents have been lifted.
The Trinity Ridge Fire east of Boise is burning at about 98,000 acres on the Mountain Home Ranger District of the Boise National Forest. Crews are still maintaining structure protection in the areas of Pine and Featherville, back-burning around Featherville in an attempt to stop the fire’s spread. The fire is 5 percent contained, with 1,141 personnel on scene.
For more information on closures and fires, check

Kate Wutz:

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