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Feel the Burn: A Look Back At the 2012 Fire Season Shows Heavy Costs, Big Challenges

Recent summers have brought not only more wildfires, but more intense burns


Idaho burns. If you've lived in the Gem State for any amount of time, forest fires--or range fires--are facts of life. But following national trends, those yearly fire seasons have steadily increased in intensity. If you were anywhere in the Treasure Valley this past summer, that fact was big enough to almost blot out the sun.

"I was one of those who couldn't see the sun for a couple of weeks," said Randy Eardley, assistant chief of external affairs at the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise.

The center, or NIFC, works with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other state and local agencies to coordinate fire and disaster relief around the country. And like elsewhere this year, Idaho has "taken a beating," Eardley said.

"If we look at acres burned, that's 9.1 million acres [nationwide]. That's only the third time we've surpassed 9 million since the 1960s, and all three have happened since 2006," he said. "That's an indication that the fire seasons in the last decade, at least since 2000, have been, overall, seeing a lot larger fires. A lot more extreme fire behavior."

The cost of fighting those fires, though still approximate, is steep. According to Eardley, the Forest Service spent a nationwide total of $1.5 billion ("that's billion, with a 'b,'" he said) and the BLM spent $300 million.

"When you factor in all the other, smaller efforts at the state and local levels, I think we're approaching $2 billion," he added.

That's not unheard of, though.

"At least one other fire season topped $2 billion, but it's safe to say that 2012 was among the most severe," Eardley said.

That trend was definitely reflected in Idaho, where about 1.76 million acres burned during the 2012 season. That was almost 20 percent of the total acreage nationwide, and the biggest burn since 2007, when more than 3 million acres went up in smoke. (That year's fires surpassed 2000's total of about 1.8 million acres, making it the most acreage-intense fire season since the "Big Burn" of 1910.)

Forest managers and fire experts say the total cost of Idaho's most recent fire season is still being tallied, but suppression efforts alone are pegged at $214 million, according to an Idaho Department of Lands report presented to the Land Board on Nov. 20.

While it's a big number, $214 million doesn't tell the whole story.

More than one-third of the acreage burned in Idaho in 2012 can be attributed to just three fires: the Mustang Complex and Halstead Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest (340,659 acres and 181,798 acres, respectively), and the 146,832-acre Trinity Ridge Fire in the Boise National Forest.

"I would compare it to 2007, which was the worst year the Boise Forest has ever experienced, as far as acres burned," said Bob Shindelar, forest fire chief at the Boise National Forest.

According to Shindelar, the USFS spent $54 million on fire suppression in the forest this year and $45 million on just the Trinity Ridge blaze.

"But if you look at the losses of the value of the timber, the recreational opportunities, the tourism opportunities, it was much greater than the cost to put these fires out," he said, adding that while those figures hadn't been calculated for the Boise National Forest, it's clear that "the suppression costs themselves are only a fraction of the true cost of having these fires."

The Idaho Department of Lands has also not yet completed a full accounting of costs related to the 2012 season, and BLM data, too, is unavailable (the agency's fire information office did not return calls requesting comment), but, according to a 2010 report from the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition, the full economic impacts of forest fires "have historically escaped accounting by land management agencies, and may extend years beyond the wildlife event."

Pointing to just how complex it is to measure the long-term affects of a forest fire, the WFLC paper stated that the total price tag of a fire can be anywhere from two to 30 times more than the cost of putting it out. That means Idaho's latest fire season could actually amount to between $428 million and $6.4 billion, including everything from costs relating to long-term forest rehabilitation and lost tax revenue, to shorter term economic impacts like depressed tourism revenue and repairing or rebuilding damaged property.

"You'd need an economist," Shindelar said, "but I think the consequences are the same regardless of how big the fire is. There's the economic impacts to local economies and communities when there's closures ... then there's the other things we need to do on the forest: improving campgrounds or road maintenance. That stuff just doesn't get done."

While there's no debate that big fires cost big money, there is no small amount of disagreement about how best (or whether) to stop them from happening in the first place. And if current trends hold, they most certainly will increase even as the number of fires appears to be shrinking.

According to data from the NIFC, the 2012 fire season--measured from January through October--saw the second most acreage burned since 2000. The number of fires and acres burned per fire, however, beat previous records, but in different ways: 51,811 fires burned around the country during that time period, signaling the fewest number of blazes in 13 years. At the same time, though, each fire burned an average of 173.8 acres.

As in Idaho, the bulk of that acreage was due to a handful of mega-fires, which means we might be experiencing fewer fires, but their intensity and costs are rising.

There are myriad reasons for that, but a season's severity comes down to two simple factors: forest management and climate.

"To me, size does not mean impact, necessarily," said Penelope Morgan, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Idaho. "Some of those fires were burning in places where there hadn't been fires in a long time, and where many plants and animals and ecosystem functions--and, indeed, values that people have--were in the long-term favored by fires. And in some places, less so."

Morgan breaks down these places into three basic categories:

Cold weather forests, like those in north-central Idaho and the panhandle, tend to act more characteristically, with smaller and more climate-limited fires. They don't burn until the weather conditions exist to allow them, and when they do, they seldom spiral into enormous infernos. According to the Idaho Department of Lands, only 182 fires burned 4,674 acres in that region this year, meeting the 20-year average for fire occurrence and coming in at just more than half the average for acreage burned.

Dry forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, like those often found in central and southwestern Idaho, however, experience warmer conditions longer in the year, and are more affected by past land use. "Roads, settlement, logging, grazing, fire suppression has meant that in some locations, the forests have changed to such a point that sometimes they are uncharacteristic," Morgan said.

Sagebrush country, as in south-central and eastern Idaho, has in many places been invaded by cheat grass and other annual grasses, and in those locations, too-frequent burning and long, hot seasons have turned some areas into tinderboxes.

"Fires are going to happen, and we're going to have to find ways to balance the risks to people and property with the ecological effects--and what some people have called the ecological imperative: There are some cases where plants and animals and ecological functions depend on having the burn," Morgan said.

And therein lies the rub.

Ask a forest manager why fires have increased in acreage and intensity, and they won't even have to think of the first major factor.

"It's definitely the result of fuel load increasing," said Shindelar. "Also, the amount of mortality we're seeing in our mature timber stands. Whether it's from insects or other kinds of causes ... but we definitely have an abundance of vegetation on the national forest."

Paradoxically, Shindelar added that putting out fires often actually encourages more in the future. That's a point made by Morgan, as well as Gary Macfarlane, who serves as ecosystem defense director with Moscow-based Friends of the Clearwater.

"The impacts of fires are generally short-term and they tend to be what watershed scientists call 'pulse events,'" Macfarlane said. "Watersheds have adapted to deal with these events. Fire helps bull trout and salmon, west slope cutthroat. And not only are they adapted, they've become almost a necessary part of the system over the millennia."

The problem, according to Macfarlane, crept in when forest managers started aggressively suppressing every fire, no matter how small. Where in the past, fires would periodically sweep through and eliminate that excess fuel, aggressive suppression tended to step in and stop the fire from doing its job.

"It was done for political reasons, for ideological reasons," Macfarlane said. "It fit the story that the U.S. Forest Service and the timber industry wanted to tell about fire."

The results of that kind of policy could be seen in areas where big fires had burned through in the past, versus those where a series of small fires had been snuffed out over the years. The big Halstead Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, for instance, was surrounded by areas that had burned in the past and whose fuel load had been depleted. Research on areas affected by the Big Burn of 1910 has also revealed healthier ecosystems and less propensity toward wildfire.

"In this part of the world, stand-replacing fire plays a very major, or dominant role [in the ecology of a forest]," Macfarlane said, adding that with a long enough view, it's doubtful even that current fires are more severe than those in past centuries, even millennia.

"I'm not sure that any of those fires burned out of the range of what one would expect in this part of the world," he said. "Stand-changing fires, while infrequent, are the main drivers of ecological change."

For career forest managers, like Shindelar, an excess of fuel poses a simple problem: too much dead material or vegetation on the ground makes it easier for fire to climb into the tops of trees.

"We can deal with fire on the ground, but once it gets up into the canopy and becomes a crown fire, we have very few tools to deal with that," he said. "We really have to rely on the weather."

The longtime habit of attacking every fire with maximum efficiency may also be a big part of why we're seeing fewer but more intense fires.

"We're good at detecting and suppressing fires, we put out, get to, find, work on prevention, do all those things we can do before a fire burns, and our initial attack puts out 96 to 98 percent of fires when they're less than a quarter-acre in size," said Morgan. "The big ones are those that escaped initial attack. Then it's about the weather under which they're burning, the fuel conditions and what we can do to manage."

The solution, according to many, is simply to let some fires burn with less aggressive suppression, but another major problem--and one which compounds the costs of fighting fires--is the encroachment of development. No one's going to let a fire burn unchecked a few miles from a subdivision, but those subdivisions are creeping closer and closer to the backcountry.

"It's really changed the complexion of the business, too," said Eardley, adding that the growth of people living in fire-prone areas has been a trend for the past 30 years.

"It changes how you fight fires. Protect structures. Lives and property come first, then resources," he said. "Back when I was a young puppy starting out, it was rare that we had to deal with subdivisions and infrastructure. Now it's rare when you don't have to deal with that."

Shindelar agreed that urban creep was one of the major problems facing fire managers.

"You've got houses in places where there are no fire departments, subdivisions being built with poor road access for fire crews," he said. "A lot of our rural communities have become bedroom communities to the Treasure Valley; people buying second homes up there in their own private paradise."

More people, of course, means more fire risk. Indeed, according to Dave Olson, spokesman for the Boise National Forest, 21 human-caused fires were reported this season, along with and 42 caused by lightning--eight more human-caused starts and 30 fewer lightning starts than the 10-year average. The biggest fire in the forest, the Trinity Ridge Fire, may have been started by a burning vehicle and is still under investigation.

"Our saving grace was that we had fewer starts from lightning," Shindelar said. "But our human-caused fires were above normal. ... It all adds up. With population, it goes hand-in-hand. We're going to see more human-caused fires."

For many, including Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, the solution to limiting costly and extensive burns is to increase the amount of federal land open to logging and lift regulations barring roads from certain backcountry areas.

As he wrote in an Oct. 4 op-ed sent to Idaho media outlets:

"The existing approach to managing these lands and the fires on them is unacceptable. Public land management and priorities have been studied and debated to death. Federal land managers are hamstrung by laws that try to be everything to everyone on every acre. Their path forward is being determined by environmental lawsuits and bureaucratic inertia."

But scientists like Morgan think a more nuanced approach is called for, and much of the effort is going to fall on the people who choose to live among the trees.

"We need all of the tools in our box. Some of them are going to be igniting fires, some of it is going to be suppression, some of it is going to be thinning," she said. "I think Idaho has been a laboratory for very creative fire management. As a result, we've had some of the worst and some of the best fire management anywhere. ...

"My dream is that we have fire smart landscapes so that we have houses that are fire-wise, so that when the rain of embers from fires falls upon the houses they're not going to fall on and among the houses and the houses aren't going to burn up," she added. "I want to see us have forests that are resilient and the communities of people that are in them are resilient."