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The Danger Of Wildfire Continues After The Fire Is Gone


Fires in Idaho forced mandatory evacuations and closed miles of roads.

Fires in Idaho forced mandatory evacuations and closed miles of roads.

Aaron Kunz

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Wildfires took the west by storm this summer. While this year hasn’t been the biggest fire season to date. There is no doubt that fires here in the west are getting bigger, faster and more devastating.

The National Interagency Fire Center as of September 6, 2013 had Idaho leading the western states in large wildfires.

  • Idaho: 6
  • Oregon: 1
  • Washington: 1
  • Montana: 5

Sometimes fires are just the first problem. I took a quick trip to the town of Hailey last week in central Idaho to check out the aftermath of the large Beaver Creek Fire. The fire was the national priority in August and firefighters managed to stop the fire just a few hundred feet from dozens of homes.

Hailey Fire 2013

But now that the fire and smoke is gone, the town is struggling with big mudslides and the Wood River runs chocolate brown with sediment runoff from recent storms. Hillsides without plants is fragile, especially with strong rains that push tons of mud down hill and burying anything in its path.

Mudslides are a common occurrence after a fire. Jennifer Pierce, an associate professor at Boise State University studies fire and climate. She explains that the roots of grass, trees and shrubs help hold the soil together. After a fire the plants are gone and the soil becomes unstable.

Hailey Fire 2013-2

In one area you can see where the mudslide came from. The slide began at the top of a hill side and picked up speed and additional mud until it crested a fenced incline and dropped onto a road and continued into a uninhabited valley beyond.

Researchers and scientists say the severity of fires is growing and today there is very little we can do to stop or control wildfires. With more fire comes the risk of more mudslides like this one. But is there anything we can do to stop wildfires? It largely depends on who you ask.

Rocky Barker is the environmental writer for the Idaho Statesman and recently wrote a story about the notion that forest thinning can reduce the severity of wildfires.

If we simply went back to logging our forests like we did in the 1950s through the 1980s, we could reduce the size of fires, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Sen. Jim Risch said at a press conference last month with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. But this year’s fires are confirming what forest scientists have been saying for the past decade: The changing climate, not forest fuels, are driving the growth in the size and fierceness of fires.

Hailey Fire 2013-4

The research shows that as temperatures get hotter and the snowpack melts off earlier and earlier, fires are going to get bigger and more destructive. BSU associate professor Jennifer Pierce says that since 1985, fires have grown in severity and burn locations regardless of prior management. What she means is the effect of forest thinning won’t be a fool proof method of fire management.

“I think people are more comfortable with something thy can control. And we’d like to think we can control these large fires but thats just not the case.”

Pierce says the big reason fires are growing in severity is climate. That includes looking at the problem of wildfires permanently killing native trees and sagebrush. In places where sagebrush and lodgepole pine trees once flourished, cheatgrass is replacing those native plants. A plant that burns easily and grows back just as fast. That means we will need to learn to adapt.

— Aaron Kunz

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