Idaho Fire Crews Turn to Starting Fires as Season Ends

September 28, 2006

With what is expected to be Idaho’s last large wildfire of the 2006 season nearly doused, federal fire managers here and across the West have switched from the business of fighting fires to starting them — to boost forest health and restore aspen stands that have been disappearing across the region.

On Friday, U.S. Forest Service firefighting personnel will trudge into the Sawtooth National Recreation Area near Stanley in central Idaho to burn an area that’s about 230 acres, or a third of a square mile.

Their aim: To kill most conifer trees and old aspen trees, in order to promote growth of new aspens that provide food for deer, elk and grouse and give cover to 13 different species of birds, including woodpeckers and owls.

Across the West, there’s concern that aspens have dwindled by as much as 60 percent, dulling the vivid gold color that has come to stand for fall in the region. The slender, white-barked Rocky Mountain natives have been crowded out by other, more aggressive species, though some scientists also blame fungus, hungry caterpillars, drought, human interference with natural fires, even hungry elk.

This week’s burning plan “will result in profuse resprouting of aspen, leading to a stronger, healthier stand of aspen trees,” said Matt Filbert, fuels planner for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, a 756,000-acre preserve created by Congress in 1972 to preserve outdoor sporting opportunities and natural amenities.

To help restore central Idaho aspens, more than just burning is taking place. In the nearby Ketchum Ranger District in the Sawtooth National Forest, close to the resort town of Sun Valley, officials also have plans to cut down Douglas fir trees and other conifers.

Only weeks ago, upward of 20 large fires were burning across the state, consuming beetle-killed lodgepole and ponderosa pine and Douglas fir after dry-lightning storms swept the state.

But colder weather and the season’s first snow — the jagged mountain tops of the Sawtooths and other mountain ranges in the state now are dusted in white — have helped firefighters wrap up most of their work.

The same is true across the West, where only 12 large fires were burning, down from dozens, and just two new fires were reported, one in Hawaii, the other in California. In Idaho, just the 54-square-mile Red Mountain fire, located near Stanley, is listed as burning, and even it is 95 percent contained, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

As a result, fuel specialists can finally divert their attention to meeting some of the resource-management goals that had fallen by the wayside in recent months, when nearly all of the more than 15,000 federal firefighters were tied up on blazes from Washington to Arizona.

“We can start lighting fires now,” said Dick Bahr, the fuel science and ecology program leader for the National Park Service. He’s stationed at the Boise center, and helps coordinate prescribed burning efforts.

Bahr said some of the burns will actually begin after the snow flies.

That way, the forest understory, including tender grasses, will absorb moisture, protecting it from fire — even as dead trees and larger fuels are incinerated by the flames.

Firefighters ignite blazes using so-called “drip torches” that hold a combustible mixture of gasoline and diesel. They spread the flames in various patterns, to allow for control of the blaze and to help regulate its intensity. Firefighters then surround the burning areas to keep the fire where they want it.

Normally, they’ll patrol the perimeter for several days, to make sure it stays put.

So if there’s still smoke in the valleys, officials caution people not to be alarmed.

“We’re trying to get rid of tons,” Bahr said.

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