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A Burning Need for Long-Term Wildland-Urban Interface Management

New partnership proposed for Ada County, BLM, City of Boise and Fish and Game.

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By the time the flames from the Oregon Trail Fire had subsided in late August 2008, some 20 Southeast Boise homes were destroyed or damaged, more than a dozen firemen had coughed up smoke in emergency rooms, and one person, Boise State professor Mary Ellen Ryder, had died. The personal loss was incalculable. The property damage topped $5 million. City officials decided the toll was too great to leave policies and procedures unchanged. Two and a half years later, the city changed its fire code in April to make homes less susceptible to wildfires. But a permanent plan to keep the threat of fuels in the wildland-urban interface remains on the table.

"Many items related to fire suppression and prevention have been implemented; however, relatively few activities related to long-term vegetation management have been implemented," Terry Humphrey, Four Rivers Field Manager for the Bureau of Land Management, wrote to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter on May 17.

Humphrey is proposing a partnership among Boise city officials, Ada County, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and BLM to mitigate wildfire hazards. And according to Boise Planning Director Hal Simmons, federal funds can help mitigate the expense.

"As the recent visit by Department of Interior Secretary Salazar has borne out, they have funds to spend in the Boise area, and a strong desire to move forward with programs," said Simmons.

Annually, an average of 23 fires occur in the wildland-urban interface of the Boise metropolitan area. Approximately 83 percent are human caused. Seventy-five percent of the Foothills between Highway 55 and Highway 21 have burned at least once between 1959 and 2010. Fires in 1959 and 1996 burned 25,000 and 16,000 acres respectively, resulting in subsequent flood damage to residential areas, persistent scars from rehabilitation efforts, and the long-term loss of critical big game winter habitats.

Humphrey, Simmons and their BLM and City of Boise staffs have hammered out a new plan that Humphrey said will "make our community a national model for managing hazardous fuels (those within 300 feet of residences), and enhancing habitat for wildlife."

Among other items, the plan includes pilot hazardous fuel reduction projects in the Warm Springs Mesa neighborhood, Military Reserve and other Ada County locations. The plan also calls for the restoration of "desirable" wildland grasses, forbs and shrubs by reducing and eliminating exotic annual and noxious species. Proponents also want to beef up enforcement of existing ordinances and implement new ones to address appropriate landscaping and construction practices in the wildland-urban interface.

"Community members have largely taken for granted that these treasured areas will be there for their enjoyment without much thought to long-term management," said Humphrey.

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