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Tough Idaho fire season destroys state, federal land

A helicopter carries water to douse the Cape Horn fire above Bayview on July 6. (File)
A helicopter carries water to douse the Cape Horn fire above Bayview on July 6. (File)

North Idaho forests are burning this year, and despite controversy over management of federal lands, the fires are paying no attention to whether it’s private, state or federal land they gobble up.

In fact, two of the state’s most destructive fires, the Cape Horn fire that burned six homes near Bayview and the Clearwater Complex that destroyed 42 homes in Kamiah, have burned largely on private, tribal or state land – in the Cape Horn case, land owned by a private timber company, Stimson Lumber.

“The numbers suggest that everything burned,” said John Freemuth, Boise State University political scientist and an expert on public lands, “and that’s because the conditions are so awful. … Our problems are the conditions creating this and the way we spend money to fight it – not who’s managing it. I think we’ve finally learned that that’s simply a false hypothesis.”

That hypothesis has been that states would more actively manage public land than the federal government, reducing fire risk and making money. There have been several attempts in the Idaho Legislature to look into how the state could gain control of federal lands, and some Idaho politicians continue to push the idea.

 But the culprits this year are an incredibly dry landscape, with minimal snowpack, little rain and unusually low humidity; record high temperatures; and storms that have ignited and driven wildfires with lightning and high winds.

Tim Murphy, Idaho director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and former director of the National Interagency Fire Center, said the landscape is so dry that even a fresh-shod horse walking over rocks “is going to kick up sparks” and could ignite a wildfire. State and federal agencies have launched a “One Less Spark” campaign, urging people to avoid igniting wildfires by respecting forest closures, snugging up trailer chains and making “a conscious decision where to ride” on horseback.

The state’s biggest fire so far this year was in Murphy’s jurisdiction in southern Idaho, where the Soda fire roared through nearly 280,000 acres of sagebrush and grasslands, driven by winds up to 50 mph.

And though in the aftermath some pointed fingers about whether more or less grazing would have made a difference, nearly all the land involved was grazed, and the fire actually started in a farmer’s private pasture.

“That fire was highly resistant to control,” Murphy said. “It burned state land, federal land, private land.”

This year’s fire season overall in Idaho is not that far above average, with 712,000 acres burned statewide as of Friday, just over 20 percent above the average of 577,695 a year.

But what’s different is that usually, the bulk of acres that burn in Idaho are like the Soda fire – big, fast-moving southern Idaho rangeland fires that fly through sparsely occupied, open brushland. This year, it’s the dense forests of North Idaho that are sparking, and that means huge risk to lives, property and the state budget.

As of last week, the 6.2 million acres for which the Idaho Department of Lands has fire-protection responsibility – which are almost entirely in the northern part of the state – have seen 700 percent of the 20-year average for fire starts, and 648 percent of the 20-year average for acres burned, according to state forester David Groeschl.

The state’s firefighting costs for the year have hit nearly $60 million, doubling in the past two weeks. State Lands Director Tom Schultz said on the Clearwater Complex fires alone, “We’ve been spending over $1 million a day.”

Schultz said despite this year’s forest blazes, state officials are confident their more active management of state forests is making state lands more fire-resistant. That’s because heavy logging reduces the amount of fuels that are ready to burn; logging roads come in handy as fire breaks and for firefighting access; and when trees are cut, the state carefully calculates which species of tree to replant in each location, choosing those that are more fire-resilient, resistant to insects and disease, and likely to thrive in the changing climate conditions.

“I’m not going to say logging is a panacea,” Schultz said. “But I do think management can help.”

Similarly, in rehabilitating southern Idaho rangelands from the Soda fire, the BLM is now working on a landscapewide restoration aimed at making the range more resilient to fire in part by driving out flammable invasive grasses.

Shoshana Cooper, spokeswoman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests in North Idaho, said dry conditions and lightning have been driving wildfires not only in North Idaho but throughout the Northwest. “Lightning does not have discretion between state, federal and private land,” she said. “Back to May, we have not been getting the moisture that we needed. The wildfires have started on private land as well as state land and federally managed lands.”

Groeschl said when an actively managed forest with less fuels burns, it doesn’t burn as hot and doesn’t cause as much environmental damage.

But he said in extreme conditions, forests and rangelands will burn. “This whole fire season has been extreme,” he said.



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