Printed on: November 27, 2012

Next year's fires

Louise Wagenknecht
Local columnist

Idaho's fire seasons now run later and burn hotter, and logging isn't going to change that, writes Louise Wagenknecht.

Jim Gerber and Heather Thomas continue to blame lack of logging for the massive fires of 2012 in Idaho. But even heavily logged and roaded areas will burn given the right conditions. In 1987 forests from the southern Sierra Nevadas to southern Oregon burned out of control from September to November, even with roads every thousand feet and lots of recent clear-cuts in between.

The Forest Service's timber program was never about fuels reduction, but about cutting the biggest, most valuable timber first. Thinning held little interest since it brought in small revenues for the effort involved. Taxpayer subsidies created roads and clearcuts in marginal stands that private industry would not have tackled.

Modern firefighting employs expensive tools, and having invested in them, federal managers use them. It's psychologically impossible for them not to prove to local residents that they are "doing something," even when they know that only rain and snow will put out really large fires. So it came to pass that local contractors made a pile of money from the Mustang Complex Fire, which will help the economy here.

The Mustang Complex Fire began in steep, remote country that was never logged because the timber was scattered and of poor quality. Lightning fires are common, however, and driven by strong west winds, several lightning fires burned together and grew.

As the fire moved eastward up the Salmon River corridor, it crossed Colson Creek, Spring Creek, Squaw Creek, Indian Creek and Sage Creek. These drainages grew better timber and were all lined with roads and punctuated by clear-cuts. The fire jumped them. Turning into the North Fork drainage, a maze of roads and many hundreds of clear-cuts cover upper Sage Creek, Hull Creek and Hughes Creek. The fire jumped some of these, too, before weather conditions changed.

Fire intensity maps show that a mosaic burn pattern wasn't confined to the Hughes Creek fuel reduction project area. The Hughes Creek project did help: the reduction in fuels gave firefighters confidence that they could safely maneuver in the area. But it involved far more than logging, and it did not come cheap. And by the time the fire reached the Hughes Creek area, the west winds had died down and the weather had cooled. Fire managers admit that if the original weather conditions had continued, the fire would have blown right through Hughes Creek, thinning or no thinning.

Forest fires in Idaho are now behaving like those in the forests of California that I knew 25 years ago. Fire seasons run later and fires burn hotter. Fire models from one year are outpaced by next year's fires. Something's happening here, set up by past fire suppression policies, and now exacerbated by all the effects of a warming climate.

Wagenknecht, a fourth-generation timber beast, is currently at work on her third memoir about the decline and fall of the western timber industry.