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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It was pretty miraculous’: How University of Idaho forestry students helped slow a particularly risky wildfire

Mike McManus knew Aug. 30 had all of the ingredients of a bad fire day. He wasn’t wrong.

A barn fire reported early that Monday afternoon on Idler’s Rest Road north of Moscow, Idaho, eventually grew into a 116-acre wildfire that took firefighters around a week to put out. An investigation determined the fire started due to an electrical issue in a barn.

That same day, a red flag warning was issued for most of Eastern Washington, just over the state line. McManus, assistant fire warden with the Ponderosa Forest Protective District, said low humidity and high winds, especially prevalent on that side of Moscow Mountain, lent themselves to the blaze’s further development, with spot fires starting a quarter- to a half-mile ahead of the fire itself.

And while the fire broke out in a location rife with wildfire fuel, firefighters got an assist three years in the making that at least slowed down the fire in some smaller areas – and may have helped save a home.

In September 2018, students with the University of Idaho’s Student Association for Fire Ecology (SAFE) Club and the Prescribed Burning Lab class embarked on work in that area around Idler’s Rest Road to reduce wildfire fuel .

From that September to this past May, more than 35 students spent 350 hours to burn 30 piles of tree refuse drawn from a 1-acre area. That expanded to a neighboring property about a half mile away, where students worked from March 2020 to May 2021 to burn 10 piles from a 2.5-acre area.

“It’s an enormous tragedy, but I recognize that the best thing we could possibly do to educate people is to give them examples,” said Heather Heward, a senior instructor in UI’s forestry program and chair of the Idaho Prescribed Fire Council. “People don’t tend to have action around their own property unless they see it might do something.”

The efforts were apparent to firefighters a few weeks ago.

Whereas the fire crept as high as 20 to 50 feet, with some torching through untreated trees, McManus said flames in the fuel treated area extended only 2 to 6 feet, and spread less quickly.

“And it was not torching those trees, which was one of our most likely candidates for getting the spotting that we were seeing in those spot fires,” he said.

UI’s SAFE Club has been active for around 20 years, said Heward, the club’s adviser. She started the club’s “Fire Fighter for Hire” program, which sees students perform prescribed burns and other maintenance tasks to earn money for trips to work with the club’s East Coast partners.

The recent project got off the ground after Heward was approached by Dale Miller, a friend of hers from church. Heward said Miller was in need of tree thinning on his West Twin Road property near Idler’s Rest.

In 2005, a house Miller had under construction caught fire, forcing him and his family to live in a cabin near Dirtyface Peak for some time.

They had to evacuate, however, when the Dirtyface fire broke out that August.

“We don’t feel cursed, but we do not like fire,” Miller said. “It’s come too close to us too many times.”

With Miller’s property, Heward said many of the trees that the students thinned were already dead.

“It was more of a traditional thinning where the things that we were taking out were about the same as the things that we were leaving,” she said. “We were just making sure there were less trees in one particular spot.”

The resulting noise caught the attention of Helen Stroebel, who lives around a half-mile from Miller’s property.

Stroebel’s 81-acre property has been owned by her family since 1963, she said. Growing up there, Stroebel said her family lived with a fear of fire that has promoted action over the years, including a recent commercial logging operation on 40 acres.

“That thinning logging operation took out those bigger trees, but we still had clumps of other trees that were too young to be harvested and sent to the mill, and that’s where the work of the SAFE Club really was key,” she said. “They went in with chainsaws, took out all of the underbrush and limbed the remaining trees up to a height where if fire was on the ground, it wouldn’t reach into the lower branches of the tree.”

Because of the prior commercial operation, Heward said students focused on thinning the overstory trees from below.

Heward said they also took down some larger fir trees that were growing too close to Stroebel’s ponderosa pines; not only were they an increased fire risk, but they were competing for resources from the pines .

“From my own ability to communicate with my students, it’s such a great opportunity to be able to share with them the impact that they can personally have on a landscape,” Heward said. “That is invaluable.”

Both Stroebel and Miller said while the SAFE Club didn’t charge anything, they donated to the club.

“It was very clear that it slowed down the fire in there before it got into the heavier stuff and went further east,” Miller said. “I do think it saved our new home because the firefighters had time to get up here. It burned over the driveway. It came really close. It was pretty miraculous.”

McManus said the effects of the fuel treatment were especially noticeable in battling a 20- to 25-acre spot fire on Stroebel’s property.

“We were able to put aircraft on that area and focus on it,” he said. “It allowed us to go right up to the fire’s edge with a bulldozer, with hand crews that evening. The intensity was lowered enough that we were able to engage right on the fire’s edge, which is – for us – the safest and also the most efficient place to fight fire.”

If the fire hadn’t slowed down at that point, Stroebel said it’s possible it could’ve jumped all the way up the mountain.

“It’s what really allowed the fire to slow down and stay on the ground so that the firefighters were actually able to contain it within that east 40-acre part of our property, and keeping it from jumping,” she said.

The barn where the Idler Fire started wasn’t the only structure lost, however. Another home owned by Miller on his property was destroyed.

A GoFundMe page started to support the family that was staying in the home has raised more than $74,000 to date.

“To me, it does highlight some of the importance of the structure. You can do as much fuel work as you want,” McManus said. “As I understand it, that structure was an older-type wood construction. Much more susceptible to wildland fire.”

McManus said efforts are underway to start a “fire wise community” near that area of the Moscow Mountain to promote namesake initiatives, including fuel treatment programs.

The main challenges with getting areas fuel treated are time and money, Heward said, though funding assistance programs can help with the cost.

“The first barrier is people like their trees and they don’t want to see change,” Heward said. “You can continue to gamble and think that the trees that make your view so pretty are going to be just fine and say, ‘I don’t think it’ll happen to me.’ Or, you can take the initiative and be proactive.”

McManus said the process can be “a difficult and complex issue for folks to deal with.

“There’s a lot of avenues,” he said, “but I think the important thing is to see it as an issue.”