Idaho is on fire from the Panhandle to the Nevada border, endangering property, wildlife, timber and people. As of July 25, 14 large wildland fires were burning in Idaho, encompassing more than 840,000 acres. Many have lost power; some have had property destroyed. To complicate matters, multiple federal agencies’ resources are strained fighting fires of this number and magnitude.
The stage has been set for many years for this catastrophe—the frustrating result of forest management grounded in almost a century of misunderstanding about wildland fire science and exacerbated in recent decades by an inability to implement responsible, better-researched modern forest management. Misguided politics by organizations lacking experience in sound forest management have hindered progress. Ironically, many of those same voices are some of the most vocal about air pollution; large wildland fires spew vast amounts of particulate matter into the air.
In Idaho, wildland fire prevention and mitigation includes efforts to address rangeland fires and forest fires and steps individuals can take to protect their property. Rangeland fires can be managed through conservation and grazing projects. On July 23, the Idaho delegation asked Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns for emergency haying and grazing authority under the Conservation Reserve Program for 2007. I’ve recently co-sponsored a bill that makes producers eligible for annual incentive payments for approved wildfire presuppression conservation practices on their rangeland. Strips of private land bordering public lands would be managed to encourage growth of native grasses and plants that are more fire resistant, provide critical habitat for wildlife and enhance rangeland health.
Since Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 (HFRA) implementation, multiple forest stewardship projects have been approved and completed across Idaho. HFRA promotes stewardship contracting projects that incorporate public-private partnerships into the larger mosaic of responsible, localized forest management. More of these successful projects must occur, and I will continue to press for active land management that decreases the likelihood of fire situations like we currently face.
According to a Boise National Forest (BNF) official, while there are currently no wildland fires in fuels reduction treatment areas, the Reardon Fire and Monument Fire are close to wildland/urban interface areas that have been treated. This treatment has reduced threats and potential damage to these lands. The BNF official also pointed to the beneficial change in fire behavior in areas where current fires reach burns 20 years old or less. The fires go from crowning, largely uncontrollable fires to ground fires, which are easier to manage.
Individuals can also make a difference. Residents who live in an area near Lewiston recently swept by fire stated unequivocally that defensible space projects—thinning trees, grass and brush around personal properties—made the difference between keeping or losing their homes and property to those fires.
As a nation, we profess to be concerned about air quality. The Airshed Coordinator of Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality recently responded to an observation about the high number of orange air quality days in the Treasure Valley: “We’ve never had anything like this in the summer before.” Particulate matter from these fires, year after year, devastate our environment. Unfortunately, all most Idahoans have to do is step outside today to experience this. And this is only the beginning. The combination of weather, dry conditions and limited resources doesn’t bode well for the season.
Clean air; preservation of natural resources; wildlife and land; and safety are compelling reasons to continue to responsibly and effectively manage rangelands and forests from the ground up. Make no mistake—our success or failure in these endeavors will affect all of us.