Shoshone Forest officials are bracing for a possibly bad forest fire season, but they also are doing work that could reduce its impacts.
That’s what Forest Supervisor Becky Aus told Cody Club members during their lunch meeting Monday.
The entire northern Rockies is in serious condition, Aus said.
She said of the Shoshone’s total 2.4 million acres, some 400,000 acres of dead trees pose a high risk of catastrophic fire because of insect infestations, disease, drought and dense forests.
That number will double in the next 10 years as insects and disease continue their march through forest lands, Aus said.
She added that fire suppression costs currently are consuming 40 percent of the Forest Service’s annual national budget, and likely will reach almost half of it (48 percent) by next year.
That means, Aus said, less money for other important projects
We’re back on an upward trend with fires, she said.
In 2006 a total of about 9.7 million acres burned in all forest fires, costing the government about $1.9 billion in suppression. On the Shoshone just one blaze, the Little Venus Fire near Meeteetse, claimed 30,000 acres, carried by dead fuels on the ground and standing dead trees.
The challenge forests face, Aus said, is to provide managers with tools to make fires less destructive to communities and the environment.
The focus has been on vegetation treatments such as salvage timber sales, removal of standing dead and dying trees and clearing brush and undergrowth that might allow fires to spread along the ground.
Vegetation management helps protect communities, watersheds, habitat, scenic views and amenities, Aus added.
The work also restores ecosystems to a properly functioning condition.
The Shoshone collaborates with Park County, private landowners and agencies, including the state Forestry Division, BLM and Park Service, to provide vegetation treatments.
Focus acres on the North Zone of the Shoshone include the North Fork corridor, Upper Clarks Fork, Carter Mountain and the lower Wood River.
Projects have included mechanical treatment for 1,540 acres and prescribed burns for an additional 13,400 acres, Aus said.
Areas were selected for treatment to optimize structure protection and modify fire behavior by removal of fuels.
Forest officials met personally with cabin owners, distributed literature and suggested ways of improving defensibility through pruning and cleanup of trees and brush, Aus said.
In some cases owners created hand piles of brush that forest fire crews burned for them.
Work around summer homes, particularly on the North Fork, has included improving roads to give better access for fire trucks, clearing vegetation along two miles of road and creating 116 hand piles that were burned in the winter of 2003.
North Zone successes, Aus added, include conducting seven timber sales and a like number of prescribed burns.
Aus said while fire will continue to impact the Shoshone, the fuel treatments will limit impacts to public improvements and increase public safety.
Decreasing the damage fires can cause, such as the reduction of live trees to ash and stumps, Aus said, improves the water quality, fish habitat and the water we drink, she said.
Fuels reduction programs can prevent the huge wipe-out of an entire canyon such as the North Fork corridor, which at one time was at risk for a sweeping holocaust.
It was a huge project that was a great deal of work and effort, Aus said of the fuels reduction program.
But sooner or later this stuff has to burn, and it’s preferable that it burn under controlled conditions.