2015 Historic Fire Season Ends with a Look Forward

— The 2015 fire season in north central Idaho will be remembered it for its extremes —explosive fire behavior and devastating effects on communities and resources on one hand, a positive rallying point for community disaster and recovery support, and some positive impacts on the land, according to the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests. On federal lands, the fires produced the same battle of extremes seen on state and private gound: ranger stations, recreational infrastructure, critical habitats and timber stands were threatened by fire. Most were saved. Some were lost. The season is replete with stories of heroism, hard work, and people coming together for a common goal. Facts and figures do not tell the whole story.

Planning for the 2015 fire season began long before the lightning hit in early August. Fuel moistures were low and temperatures were high through the spring and early summer. The central Idaho fire leadership group braced for an epic season and ordered additional firefighting resources. When lightning ignited more than 250 fires between August 9-11 and immediately threatened communities outside of lands managed by the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, the additional Forest Service firefighters were already on the way. As fire threatened Kamiah, Orofino, Peck, Nezperce and other communities, the Forest Service diverted initial attack personnel, aircraft, and incoming firefighting resources for use by Idaho Department of Lands to protect the public and the values most at risk, at that time. The Forest’s remaining initial attack resources extinguished many of the fires on the Nez Perce-Clearwater, but those that were unstaffed grew big. When communities near forest lands were threatened, firefighting resources, regardless of agency affiliation, were shared to continue to keep the public safe. This season’s interagency effort involved two countries, 26 states, nine counties, nine cities, several rural fire districts, four tribes, and seven federal agencies in the effort.

The 2015 fire season was intense and relatively short-lived, but the impacts will be felt personally, professionally, socially, economically, and environmentally for years to come. When the smoke in the valleys cleared, more than 280,000 acres of private, state, tribal, and federal land were impacted. On the Nez Perce-Clearwater, mapping shows 195,683 acres burned with about two-thirds of that in the roaded front country. Assessing impacts and restoration began while the fires were still burning. Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Teams inventoried and prioritized imminent post-wildfire threats to human life and safety, property, and critical natural or cultural resources on National Forest System lands. Recently the Nez Perce-Clearwater received $1.09 million to begin to address those threats. In addition to working on National Forest lands, many current and retired Forest Service employees are assessing private lands to assist landowners. “The Forest will continue to be a player in the restoration efforts off National Forest System lands because it is the right thing to do for the communities and the resources in the basin,” said Cheryl Probert, Forest Supervisor.

In order to address all the post-fire work needed, we have redirected our planned work on the Forest. Many people only think of salvage of burned timber when they talk about post-fire work. On the Nez Perce-Clearwater, salvage of burned timber is only one of many types of actions we are taking to deal with the fires of 2015. We retained as many of our seasonal employees as we could this fall to have them work on assessing post-fire needs. We have categorized our current activities into several types:

  • Fire suppression rehabilitation—Most of this work such as fireline rehab was done before the incident management teams left the area. Firelines in the more heavily timbered areas will not be completely finished until the majority of the cut trees are removed.
  • Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER)—Inventory and planning have been completed and implementation has begun on the most critical needs. Some of these actions include emergency culvert replacement, adding drainage dips to roads, and felling those hazard trees posing the most imminent threat to safety.
  • Restoration on private lands—Work accomplished to date includes inventory of restoration needs, planning projects, applying for grants, providing information, and supporting community forums. A group of retired Forest Service employees assessed burn severity and emergency restoration needs on private lands throughout the Basin. Current Nez Perce-Clearwater employees are members of the Soil Conservation Districts’ Multi-Agency Cooperative Restoration Organization (MACRO) at the leadership and technical levels.
  • Maintenance of roads, recreation sites, and administrative sites—Field personnel have been out assessing additional maintenance needs, including hazard tree removal, and an interdisciplinary team is analyzing the impacts of those actions.
  • Salvage harvest for fuels reduction and insect and disease prevention—Field personnel have been assessing potential areas where salvage harvest is needed, practical and possible within the analysis timeframes. Three interdisciplinary teams of resource managers are developing proposed actions and analyzing impacts. This effort began with a coarse filter approach that identified areas we would not salvage such as wilderness and unroaded lands. Next, our foresters went out with other resource specialists and assessed the feasibility and economic value of those remaining areas. They also considered dropping areas with resource issues that could take a long time to analyze. This initial evaluation removed about 90 percent of the burned areas from consideration for salvage harvest. The interdisciplinary teams are prioritizing and refining the proposals in the Tepee Springs/Deadwood fire area, Wash fire, Woodrat and Motorway complex areas. In the salvage harvest areas, downed woody debris will be left for soil quality and wildlife habitat, and areas will be replanted with desired species to re-create more historic conditions.
  • Recreation site and other infrastructure repair and restoration—This will be accomplished as funds become available.
  • Large-scale Restoration—Field personnel have been inventorying reforestation needs, aquatic/stream conditions, and invasive species, and developing monitoring plans to determine fire effects. Restoration needs will be incorporated into the Forest’s program of work.

“Just as the communities and the agencies came together while the fires were burning, we will continue to work together in the post-fire landscape. We are committed to helping in the recovery of all lands in the basin as well as increasing the pace and scale of fuels reduction and forest vegetation restoration on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests for the future,” said Probert.

Pro-active management will result in long-term ecological sustainability in many ways—by reducing the fuels and potential for high intensity reburn; providing opportunities to reforest more acres with early seral species that are more resistant and resilient to disease, fire and drought; by improving wildlife habitat for species such as elk that are reliant on more open pockets of vegetation; and by improving the quality of life for some through jobs and income. “The Forest Service is directed to contribute to the long-term economic, social, and ecological sustainability of the communities in our area and we look forward to many years of working with our stakeholders to meet that commitment,” added Probert.

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