Wednesday, September 25, 2013

ICL: Let more fires take their course

Group issues report on fire management in Idaho

Express Staff Writer

A family watches the Beaver Creek Fire burn last month. The fire, which scorched more than 110,000 acres of forest and brush west of the Wood River Valley, threatened numerous houses but only one was burned. Photo by staff files

    Anticipating more years of severe wildfires, the Idaho Conservation League is urging federal land managers to let more fires run their course while focusing on fuels reduction around residential areas.
    The Boise-based environmental organization made its case in a report issued last week titled “Fire in Idaho: Lessons for Community Safety and Forest Restoration.” The report analyzes the behavior and effects of the largest wildfires of 2012, one of the state’s most active fire seasons ever. Nearly 2 million acres burned, and more than $211 million was spent to manage these fires.

Policy and fire cost reviews are needed to ensure that
these outlays are justified in the future.”
Idaho Conservation League

    The report’s primary argument is that letting large fires burn so long as they are not threatening structures would save money. It points out that the year’s five costliest fires accounted for $145 million, or 68 percent of the total spent.
    “Policy and fire cost reviews are needed to ensure that these outlays are justified in the future,” the report states.
    The report’s author, Senior Conservation Associate Jonathon Oppenheimer, said in an interview that allowing fires to take their natural course would also create more diverse forests.
    According to the report, ICL collected and analyzed all Burned Area Emergency Response team reports developed for Idaho’s national forests after the 2012 fire season. They demonstrate that while some local impacts were significant, the fires generally burned well within the ability of Idaho’s forests to respond. The ICL report points out that fires tend to burn in a mosaic, depending on weather, topography, vegetation and other factors.
    However, the report states, in May 2012, Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard issued guidance that restricted the ability of forest managers to use fire to achieve resource benefits. Fire managers are now generally required to suppress fires immediately, even if they pose little threat or are in an area with an approved plan for Wildland Fire Use—that is, managing fires to take their natural course. As a result of this change, more fires were actively suppressed in 2012 than in prior years.
The report states that researchers have not detected an increasing trend in burn severity in forests of Idaho and Montana. However, in an interview, Oppenheimer said there has been an increase in acreage burned.
The report also states that research is beginning to demonstrate the interrelation between climate change and wildfires, finding that recent fire seasons are starting earlier in the spring and lasting longer into the fall. Years of widespread fires had warm springs followed by warm, dry summers.
    “If climate projections prove accurate, we can expect future intense and widespread fire years in the future,” the report states.
    The report points out that the rising cost of fire suppression is associated with the expansion of homes built in areas adjacent to wildland fuels, known as the wildland-urban interface.
    “The rules and regulations associated with residential development are controlled at the local level, whereas the cost of fire suppression is borne at the regional and national level,” the report states. “As a result, there is a disconnect between the growth of the wildland-urban interface and its impact on fire management. A lack of incentives to manage growth in these high-risk areas is resulting in continued residential development.”
    The report acknowledges that a strategy of allowing fires to burn is not appropriate where structures and other valuable resources are threatened, but contends that much of Idaho is suited to restoring fires to their natural role.
    “Regardless of how, where, and whether fires occur in Idaho, the approach should be consistent: prioritize fuels reduction around communities to reduce the risk of homes burning down, restore natural fires to the landscape to prevent future flareups, and control residential expansion into the wildland-urban interface through better community planning.”
Greg Moore:

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