Weather, Fuel, Chief Factors in ’07 Idaho Wildfire

September 8, 2008

A state and federal report concluded that last summer’s lightning- and cheatgrass-stoked Murphy Complex fire that torched 1,000 square miles of Idaho and Nevada backcountry would have overwhelmed efforts by ranchers to cut fire danger before the blaze by using their cattle to eat down grass on the range.

The grazing practices were at the center of a political flare-up a year ago, as lawmakers including Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, both Republican ranchers, said the giant fire could have been avoided if more grazing had been allowed on public lands — over the objections of environmentalists who argue the livestock are harmful.

The Western Watersheds Project said climate change, drought and the Bureau of Land Management’s planting of grasses favored by cattle — but more flammable than native plants — exacerbated the fires.

The 49-page report concludes dry fuel from a drought, strong winds, near 100-degree temperatures and a violent lightning storm the evening of July 16, 2007, fueled the fire — a blaze so intense, the report says, that almost nothing could have stopped it.

“The Murphy Wildland Fire Complex was essentially a ‘perfect storm’ for sagebrush-grassland fires,” the report said. “These conditions likely overshadowed (or swamped) livestock grazing as a factor influencing fire extent and fuel consumption.”

The fire, which burned for three weeks, cost more than $13 million to fight and a record $23 million to rehabilitate a portion of the burned lands and promote their natural recovery.

The report, released by the universities of Idaho and Nevada, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey, the BLM and the Idaho Department of Lands, gives a mixed assessment of grazing’s effect on wildfires.

It suggests that grazing of fire fuels, including invasive alien cheatgrass, could slow fires and reduce their intensity when weather conditions are milder and vegetation has retained some moisture. It proposes a pilot project be developed to strategically place grazed blocks across a landscape to reduce the amount of fuel a fire might burn.

The report also recommends developing a general technical report that highlights how livestock grazing influences fire extent, severity, and intensity, but cautions against returning to the heavy grazing of the late 1800s and early 1900s that virtually eliminated fires but left a wasteland across much of the arid Great Basin deserts of southern Idaho, Utah and Nevada.

Reducing vegetation “to levels that would strongly influence fire behavior, particularly under extreme fire conditions, would require reductions to levels that would potentially compromise sustained livestock production and ecosystem goals,” the report said. “However, a targeted grazing program to accomplish fuel management could be both feasible and achievable on selected sites.”

Tom Dyer, state director of the BLM in Idaho, told The Associated Press that any pilot project on public land would be preceded by an environmental review and public comment. Such an effort would have to be in an area where fuels such as cheatgrass have crowded out native plants,he said.

“There might be some opportunities dealing with fine fuels,” Dyer said. “But maybe in a large fast-moving fire, when conditions are right, it may have little effect. If we can move forward with a pilot project, build on what they (the report’s authors) found out, we may be able to get the biggest bang for the investment we put out there.”

Katie Fite, biodiversity director at the Western Watersheds Project, criticized the report’s suggestion that ranchers and land managers further study grazing strategies to limit wildfires. The group seeks to end grazing on the West’s public lands, arguing that it destroys habitat for native grasses, sagebrush and pygmy rabbits and sage grouse,

Grazing makes land vulnerable to encroachment of invasive cheatgrass, something not addressed in the report, she said, adding that the only thing capable of stopping Western wildfires is a landscape grazed to “bare dirt, manure and trampled grass.”

“They couldn’t show that levels of grazing made any real difference in reducing the impacts of the Murphy Complex wildfire,” Fite said. “But it looks as if BLM and the public lands ranchers are still trying to promote increased grazing disturbance and turn our public lands into dust bowls.”

An aide for Craig said he was pleased with the report’s conclusion that grazing could reduce fire intensity on some fires.

“Now we have an analysis from the Murphy Complex that tells us that grazing can be used as an effective fire prevention tool,” said spokesman Will Hart.

Otter wasn’t immediately available for comment. Jon Hanian, his spokesman, said the governor wanted to read the report first.

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