Should lightning spark a fire in North Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountain backcountry this summer, the U.S. Forest Service might respond in a radical new way.
Let it burn.
Under the careful watch of fire managers, the agency plans to no longer snuff certain naturally caused wildfires in the remote headwaters of the St. Joe River. By restoring a bit of this ancient cycle, the Forest Service hopes to improve wildlife habitat, as well as make the forests less prone to erupt in massive, uncontrollable wildfires, said Mark Grant, fire management officer for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.
“Sooner or later it’s going to burn,” Grant said. “If you let it burn under conditions that are more favorable, it gives you fuel breaks later on. Those burns act as barriers.”
Shoshone County officials are skeptical of allowing any fire to burn, saying that just one lightning strike is enough to cause a fire that could wipe out tens of thousands of acres, not to mention homes and bridges. Much of the county, including the city of Wallace, was effectively turned to moonscape by huge wildfires in 1910.
“Everything Mother Nature does isn’t always good,” said county Commissioner Jon Cantamessa. “I don’t subscribe to the idea you can always control (fire) when you decide to.”
The wildland fire use policy applies to 86,500 acres of the 2.5-million-acre Idaho Panhandle National Forests. The largely roadless area is south of the St. Joe River and includes the rugged Mallard-Larkins Pioneer Area.
Although it represents less than 4 percent of the Panhandle National Forests, the mere suggestion of wildfire as a possible friend represents a dramatic shift for the Forest Service in North Idaho. For the past century, the agency has been largely successful at keeping fires out of the forest. Last year, dozens of fires ignited in the forest, but an aggressive policy of suppression meant only 46 total acres were burned, according to agency records.
The Colville National Forest is also considering allowing certain wildland fires to burn, but this probably won’t happen for at least another couple of years, said Steve Rawlings, the forest’s fire management officer. Roadless areas of Colville potentially suitable for wildland fires have been identified, he said. They include the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, the Kettle Crest and in the area of Abercrombie and Hooknose mountains.
“We are setting the stage, working through the process,” Rawlings said, adding that more analysis and consultation with local officials is needed before anything is set in stone. Rawlings also added that the Colville National Forest “is on the edge of practicality” in terms of having large enough tracts of roadless forest where fires could roam without endangering communities or large stands of commercially valuable timber.
The vast forests of the Inland Northwest once were shaped and defined by fire. Researchers with the Forest Service have concluded that 13,000 acres would burn in the Panhandle forests in a typical fire season.
The agency’s success at suppressing these fires, however, has helped to set the stage for even bigger fires by allowing for a thick buildup of fuels, said Grant, the fire management officer. “You can only keep putting fires out for so long.”
Before the agency will allow any lightning-caused fire to burn, fire managers will go through a complicated risk assessment procedure, Grant said. Within the first eight hours of the fire’s detection, officials will consider factors such as weather, topography, proximity of dwellings and the potential of the fire to be reined in if needed.
Fire managers have been given special training to be able to monitor the fires, Grant said. St. Joe District Ranger Chuck Mark comes from a background in Montana where such fires were allowed. Mark will have the ability to call in firefighters at any time, Grant said.
“This is something brand new for the Idaho Panhandle,” Grant said. “We wanted to start in an area we could be confident we’d be successful.”
The Forest Service is considering expanding the wildland fire use policy in coming years to include the Scotchman Peaks near Sandpoint and the Salmo-Priest area northwest of Priest Lake, Idaho, Grant said. The areas are designated as recommended wilderness, which means logging and road-building are already off-limits.
“We’ll move forward and expand at a reasonable pace,” Grant said.
Wildland use fires are already being allowed in many national parks, designated wilderness areas and at some national forests in the region, including the Clearwater National Forest in north-central Idaho. Jay O’Laughlin, director of the University of Idaho’s Policy Analysis Group and professor of forest resources, said the natural fires in the Clearwater have been critical tools for restoring food and habitat for elk and other creatures.
“Under the right conditions, they have great benefits to the forest,” O’Laughlin said.
According to recent research conducted by O’Laughlin and others at the University of Idaho, fire managers have been fairly reluctant to allow natural fires to burn. In areas of national forest where natural burns are permitted, only 40 percent of the fires between 2002 and 2004 have been given the green light to continue burning.
Along with naturally occurring and prescribed burns, O’Laughlin said the agency needs to use timber harvests to prevent large buildups of fuel in the forest. Years of suppressing fires and the recent decline of logging has only made the agency’s job tougher. “We do have uncharacteristically large wildfires. They’re bigger, hotter and harder to control than ever before,” O’Laughlin said.
By allowing certain fires to return to the region, some wonder if the Forest Service isn’t inviting another 1910 fire, which grew to massive strength when dozens of smaller fires combined during a violent windstorm. O’Laughlin said he has spent countless hours studying this million-acre question for the Inland Northwest.
“I think the answer to that is no,” he said. “We have forces in place and technology available to firefighters that would really preclude that from happening. … We do a great job now of fire suppression.”
But Shoshone County officials wonder if it’s worth the risk to find out. Commissioner Sherry Krulitz recently toured forests in the St. Joe River area. A recent infestation of mountain pine beetles has killed thousands of acres along the Bitterroot Divide, creating vast swaths of tinder-dry trees.
“I was appalled at how much dead and dying timber there was,” Krulitz said. “It’s just terrible.”
The regional economy continues to struggle with the decline in logging on federal land, Krulitz added. The adoption of a “let it burn” policy – even forests far from sawmills and where roads have never been built – simply doesn’t sit well with many local residents, she said.
“We hate to see a tree burn that could have been harvested,” Krulitz said.