Fire Wise? Officials look to fire to safeguard forest

Fire Wise? Officials look to fire to safeguard forest

9 September 2008

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USA — What the South Barker Fire is not: a wall of flames barreling through the wilderness, incinerating anything in its path and leaving a blackened moonscape in its wake, hundreds of years away from rejuvenation.

What the South Barker Fire is: creeping flames meandering through dead pine needles, built-up underbrush and small saplings, mostly leaving larger trees unscathed.

Forest managers hope that by allowing this low-intensity fire to burn away shrubs and dead trees, they can protect the area from larger, catastrophic fires for decades to come – lessening the risk to recreation areas, private property and lives.

The fire in the Fairfield Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest – which started Aug. 7 – is being managed as a “fire-use” fire. This means that fire officials have outlined a safe perimeter within which they will allow the fire to burn. When the fire exceeds those boundaries, immediate suppression actions are taken.

When flames spotted into the Boise National Forest, that part of the fire was immediately attacked.

Within 48 hours, the northwest flank of the fire was fully contained by seven hot-shot crews, helicopters, airplanes and engines.

“We threw everything we could get on it,” said Val Norman, logistics chief for the fire.

Fire information officer Chris Wehrli emphasizes that “fire use” does not mean fire has free rein to go wherever it wants.

“There are 200 firefighters out there who monitor this and are actively managing it,” he said. “We’re not just standing back and watching it burn.”

Some of those firefighters, like Patrick Ahrnsbrak and Sally Averette, are clearing away years’ worth of dead pine needles from around the base of large Ponderosa pine trees, to protect them if the fire passes by.

Others, like C.W. Stewart and Frankie Valado, are wrapping campground bathrooms with fire-retardant materials.

Some are even sleeping on the fire lines, keeping round-the-clock watch on fire behavior.

They’re like soldiers on a peacekeeping mission. Working behind the scenes, keeping an eye on things, but ready to pounce if the situation warrants.

Only a fraction of the firefighters and administrative staff are necessary on fire-use fires. Less equipment, fewer meals and a smaller fire camp all add up to saving thousands of dollars a day over suppression fires.

“We are a lot leaner than a normal suppression team,” said incident commander Kim Soper.

Officials estimated in August that the South Barker Fire had cost $99 per acre. Soper estimates that fire suppression fires cost about $3,000 per acre. However, fire-use fires usually burn more acreage, which dilutes their per-acre costs.

The savings come in many ways.

Ray Miller, the food unit leader for the fire, has worked fires where he’s ordered 1,800 dinners. On a recent Monday, he ordered 170 for the entire camp.

And spending millions on suppressing a fire doesn’t necessarily put it out, Norman said.

“It’s Mother Nature that puts out fires – it’s not us,” he said.

Forest scientists say many fires are natural and needed in the woods, allowing healthy trees to thrive and eliminating deadfall and other easily burned materials that can strengthen the intensity of catastrophic fires.

But while fire-use fires may benefit the forest, they aren’t necessarily welcomed by residents – or officials.

A few days ago, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons bashed the Forest Service for letting a fire there grow too much and too close to Jarbidge.

“The forest fire that we have today was allowed to get out of control, knowing the dangers of the fuel loading and the weather conditions – dry, hot, windy,” Gibbons told the Elko Daily Free Press.

Around the South Barker Fire, residents and visitors frequently complain about smoke to Kris Nitz, who, with her husband, Greg, owns the Nitz Pine Store in nearby Pine.

That smoke wouldn’t be there, presumably, had the fire been one of the 98 percent of forest fires that are attacked and successfully suppressed.

“(Some residents) thought that it should have been put out when it started,” said Kris Nitz.

Pat Johnson, who lives between Featherville and Baumgartner, is one of those residents.

She worries that the fire will devastate the forest, like the Lowman Fire did in 1989.

“I don’t believe in ‘let burn.’ I would truly rather see selective logging than total devastation,” she said.

Johnson said she doesn’t fully believe reassurances from fire officials that the forest will be better off.

“You can’t tell me trees aren’t burning,” she said.

Dennis Laib, a former volunteer firefighter himself, owns a cabin in Baumgartner, just up the Boise River from Pine and Featherville.

He said he cleans up grass and brush around his cabin every year, and supports the concept of fire use.

“This is the right thing,” he said. “I’m not worried.”

Fire can allow certain invasive weeds, such as cheatgrass and skeleton weed, to take hold. These quick-growing invasive plants can re-establish themselves more quickly than native species. But forest managers weigh those risks against the benefit of possibly saving thousands of acres of forest from a catastrophic fire.

There is more than 34,000 acres of land inside the boundary of the fire. But wildlife biologist David Skinner estimates that only about half of that, possibly even less, has actually burned.

The fire is burning a “mosaic” pattern, he said – low-intensity fires often leave lots of land untouched, and the more fires are allowed to burn through forests, the more likely the fires are to remain low-intensity.

A walk through the burned portion of the fire reveals blackened hillsides with healthy, green trees. In some places, burned land abuts lush drainages. This kind of fire doesn’t often produce the heat necessary to kill large trees. Thick bark on Ponderosa pine trees makes them more resilient to fire.

In his meetings with area residents, Wehrli repeatedly assures people that the fire isn’t turning their recreation areas into a “moonscape.”

“Firefighting is changing and you’re going to see a lot more of these kinds of fires, and less suppression,” Norman said. “And that’s not a bad thing.”

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