May 1, 2007 in Idaho

Fighting fire with fire

Staff writer
 
Kathy Plonka photo

John Heyn of the Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District walks on Canfield Mountain during a prescribed burn.
(Full-size photo)

By the numbers

The U.S. Forest Service hopes to burn 175 acres in the Canfield Mountain area.

Monday’s prescribed burn on Canfield cost about $300 per acre.

About 6,100 acres are scheduled to be burned on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests this spring.

Fire suppression costs have jumped an average of $80 million per year over the past decade.

The smoke pouring out of national forests across the region Monday – including Canfield Mountain in Coeur d’Alene – will hopefully help keep the skies a bit clearer later this summer when wildfire season heats up.

Depending on the weather, fire managers plan to conduct prescribed burning in coming days on upward of 10,000 acres of national forest across northeastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle.

Most of the burns are focused on thick patches of forest near homes, said Sarah Jerome, a fuels planner with the U.S. Forest Service’s Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District.

“Every acre burned now is reducing the risk later for the community,” Jerome said, as she walked the perimeter of the fire Monday afternoon on the southwest face of Canfield Mountain. The agency hopes to burn 175 acres of the popular recreation area, ending today.

Fires were also lit Monday in Placer Creek outside of Wallace and in the Burnt Valley, near Chewelah, Wash. The fires are carefully planned and not lit until everything from the dampness of downed logs to soil moisture to weather conditions are carefully scrutinized, Jerome said.

Because fires burn uphill, the blazes were lit at the top of the slope, by firefighters pouring a flaming mix of diesel and unleaded gasoline. Once the mix hit the ground, the orange flames started slowly, barely poking through the pea-green brush. Eventually, the line of fire brightened and began creeping uphill, fed by tangled piles of downed limbs and logs – remnants from a massive 1996 ice storm.

The first stripe of fire was ignited just below a forest road on Canfield Mountain. Once the fire reached the edge of the road, it died. Firefighters then lit a line of forest about 15 feet downhill from the burn line. As the process was repeated, the fire was slowly and safely marched downhill.

Afterward, the forest floor was left ashy and gray. Trunks of large evergreens were blackened and charred, but the fire wasn’t hot enough to burn the old trees. The leftover ash will nourish a new generation of shrubs and plants – perfect forage for wildlife – and the thinned forest will be less likely to burn when summer lightning storms pass through, or when a careless motorcyclist flips a lit cigarette butt.

“This is such a heavily traveled area,” Jerome said. “It’s just a fire waiting to happen.”

Monday’s prescribed burn on Canfield cost about $300 per acre – mostly for the firefighters needed to ensure the burn stayed within its boundaries. The cost of fighting a fullblown wildfire on the mountain, though, would be many times higher, and the Forest Service could not ensure the smoke would blow away from town, Jerome said.

About 6,100 acres are scheduled to be burned on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests this spring. In the Colville National Forest, about 5,000 acres will be burned or thinned. The burn targets have been at roughly the same level for five years, according to Forest Service officials.

Many more acres could benefit from a prescribed burn – forests across the West are thick after a century of wildfire suppression – but an increasing share of the Forest Service’s budget must now be used to pay for fighting fires, not preventing them. Fire suppression costs have jumped an average of $80 million per year over the past decade, according to a recent letter sent to Congress by the five previous chiefs of the Forest Service. Last year the agency spent a record $1.5 billion fighting fires.

Gail West, spokeswoman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, said the agency is increasingly being forced to prioritize which fires should be fought. Last year, for example, the two biggest fires on the Idaho Panhandle were effectively allowed to burn because firefighters were being ordered to battle blazes that posed more immediate threats to lives and property.

“People expect that when they see fire burning in the high country, then immediately we’ll be sending in smokejumpers or airtankers,” West said. “That is a paradigm that’s shifting now. As we tighten the fiscal belt, people are going to see us making more difficult decisions.”

West said the smoke from this spring’s prescribed burns should serve as a reminder to people living in forested communities to work now at removing brush and small trees from around their own homes.


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