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As fire seasons turn into fire years, fuels reduction programs in Idaho’s forests can help

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The Boundary Fire, first detected Aug. 10, 2021, burned in steep, inaccessible terrain in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. It burned more than 87,000 acres about 24 miles north of Stanley, Idaho. (Courtesy of the Salmon-Challis National Forest)

Mother Nature is outpacing us at unprecedented scales with wildfires that burn uncharacteristically, writes guest columnist Charles Mark.

Hotter and drier weather, combined with more frequent drought, and longer fire seasons have turned into fire years, allowing wildland fires to feed on fuel ⁠— abundant landscapes burning at higher intensities, longer durations and at larger scales than we have ever experienced.

Further complicating this conundrum is the ever‐expanding wildland‐urban interface which diverts attention to private property, infrastructure and public safety. Mother Nature is outpacing us at unprecedented scales with wildfires that burn uncharacteristically and cause severe impacts to ecosystem services, local and regional economies.

The Salmon‐Challis National Forest Fuels Reduction and Restoration Project is an initial step to address this wicked problem. The proposal is to utilize prescribed fire and hand treatments, in preparation for the use of prescribed fire, in areas needing restoration outside of designated wilderness and areas already approved for or currently undergoing treatment.

Prescribed fire treatments would be focused in areas defined as wildfire protection zones and secondly in areas where the departure from historical composition, structure and function have increased the risk and hazards of uncharacteristic wildland fire effects. The wildfire protection area totals about 1.1 million acres out of the 2.7 million acre project area.

The proposed action envisions doubling our annual treatment acres to around 8,000 acres per year. This amount of acreage is still small in comparison to what is needed, which is around 77,000 acres per year historically, but this project moves us in that direction.

The project explores the use of prescribed fire exclusively, because it is the one tool that treats the landscape on a scale that is necessary to affect the spread and intensity of a large wildland fire. Prescribed fire is not the only tool in the toolbox, though.

Areas that require treatment that present opportunities for removal of forest products will be further analyzed for mechanical harvest before an application of prescribed fire. Another tool in our fire management toolbox is managed wildland fire to achieve forest plan objectives, which has been utilized exclusively in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

Even then, the majority of fires in the wilderness are suppressed and only one fire, in my 10 fire seasons on this forest, has burned beyond the wilderness boundary, which still burned within the expected and planned area.

The other tool in the land management toolbox is mechanical timber harvest. Timber harvest is especially useful in, around and near values at risk, such as the Salmon Municipal watershed and the wildland ‐ urban interface along the North Fork River corridor. The Phelan‐Good timber sale, along the ridge road and the head of Williams Creek, should soon be harvested.

The environmental assessment for the Stormy project, which is proposed to utilize timber harvest and apply prescribed fire, will soon be out on the street for comment.

The Sheep Creek project in the North Fork Salmon river drainage, also proposes to use a combination of timber harvest and prescribed fire, to reduce fuel accumulations and break up the continuity of vertical and horizontal forest fuels, and should be out for comment before summer arrives.

The challenge with addressing hazardous fuel accumulations through timber harvest is that implementation is subject to market conditions and purchaser operations elsewhere, which frequently delays harvest for years.

Reality is that wildfires have and will perform much of the fuel reduction work across the West. We need to learn from and adapt to their inevitable occurrence on the landscape.

I believe that this project will help contain wildland fires where needed around communities and municipal watersheds, increase the safety margin for our wildland firefighters, improve wildfire response effectiveness, reduce the negative impacts from large wildfires, which are causing such disproportionate impacts under severe fire weather conditions, and treat a fuel‐abundant landscape to improve the future resistance and resilience of forests as we experience uncertain climate conditions (Bailey and Tappeiner, 2021).

The question is not if, it is when the next wildfire ignition occurs. We can either wait for Mother Nature to light wildfires during the driest times of the year and react or we can pick the time, place, and conditions under which to utilize the tool of prescribed fire to reduce hazardous fuel accumulations at scales that matter.