Fire Season 2015: It’s not over ’til it’s over

Back in the 1980s, I met a forest landowner with an interesting story to tell. She grew up on her family’s homestead at Glengary along the west shore of Lake Pend Oreille and even though she was just a youngster of 10 years old, she vividly remembered the epic 1910 Fires. More than seven decades later, she captivated me with nightmarish stories of looking across the lake to see huge columns of smoke during the day and an entire mountain range glowing with flames at night. She recalled burning embers blowing across the lake and starting fires around the Glengary area. The smoke lingered for days.

Similarly, the summer of 2015 will be remembered with superlatives such as hottest, driest, most fires, biggest fires, most fire retardant dropped, most money spent, etc. While not all records were broken, the cumulative effects of this season will set new benchmarks.

And, it’s not over yet. As I write this on October 1, the Grizzly and Kaniksu Fire Complexes continue to smoke up the valleys around Sandpoint, while post-fire consequences begin to emerge.

In the fires’ aftermath, local sawmills have announced specifications and prices for fire-salvage logs. Some mills intend to curtail taking green logs in order to process burned timber before it loses merchantability. Salvage logging is already underway on private lands.

Landowners have also ordered tree seedlings to reforest their burned stands – so many that nurseries already report a shortage. Remember, nurseries grow enough seedlings to meet normal demand but cannot anticipate unexpected events like fires. Even greenhouse container seedlings require about one year to develop.

A third consequence of this season’s fires is the dilemma facing the US Forest Service regarding enormous firefighting costs. In fire years like 2015, the Forest Service must “borrow” money intended for its other programs to pay fire costs. Ironically, money budgeted for ongoing hazardous fuels treatments to mitigate the severity of wildfires must go toward putting out today’s megafires. We will never get ahead of the fire curve if this trend continues.

How, you may ask, does this federal lands issue affect private forest owners? State forestry agencies, including the Idaho Department of Lands, receive grants through the Forest Service to support fire mitigation and preparedness programs. Money diverted from these grants to suppress fires on federal lands will likely reduce amounts available for county hazardous fuels treatment programs such as Bonner County BonFire, Kootenai County Fire Smart™, BEnewah FIRE SAFE and Boundary County Fire Safe. Also, fire districts will receive less money to coordinate and prepare for future wildfires.

Congress acknowledges that changes are necessary to pay firefighting costs without borrowing from other important projects. Hopefully they will act.

On the local fire front here at IFM, our wildland fire engines assisted with suppression efforts on several regional fires; first on the Cape Horn Fire near Bayview, then finishing with the Parker Ridge Fire north of Bonners Ferry. But as the late Yogi Berra cautioned, “It’s not over ‘til it’s over.” Our engines remain ready for another assignment.

We continue to assist Boundary, Bonner, Kootenai, and Benewah Counties with their fire mitigation programs by creating shaded fuel breaks in carefully prioritized communities.

Just as that 10 year old girl vividly recalled the 1910 Fires, we will all have our memories of Fire Season 2015. —Bill Love, CF