By Miles Benker
Thick, white smoke is seen high above the ridge. The fire crew walks along the freshly dug fire line, watching carefully as the brush snaps and crackles. The flames are moving slowly and the crew is pleased.
Far different than several current wildfires burning out of control, this fire was intentionally set this spring by fire experts and is called a controlled or prescribed fire.
In some areas where fire has been prevented from conducting its natural role, state and federal agencies have set prescribed fires to mimic natural fire and improve landscape health and community safety. These managed fires are timed to occur, generally in the spring and late fall, when conditions are favorable and fire danger is low.
There is a need, and a place for allowing fire to play out its historical role on the landscape. The Forest Service has allowed some lightning-ignited fires to burn for habitat benefits. Many of these fires occur in a rugged area that are very remote, inaccessible and have low risk to people and property.
Of course, during the hot, dry summers, some fires need to be aggressively attacked, especially those near forest communities and private property.
Earlier this month, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho toured the Clearwater Region by airplane and pledged to see more fires be allowed to burn on federal lands to benefit elk habitat. Sen. Crapo was also instrumental in forming the Clearwater Elk Collaborative through an elk summit in Lewiston three years ago. This working group provided several recommendations to improve elk habitat, including the use of fire and some logging.
But many fires now are larger and more damaging than in the past. Much of this is due to past campaigns to exclude fire entirely from the landscape. Decades of forest management practices that have eliminated fire have caused many forests to become choked with thick undergrowth and smaller trees that naturally occurring fires would normally weed out. After years without fire, these forests become tinder boxes prone to hotter burns that are harder to control and pose a greater risk to communities. These intense fires can also severely damage plant and wildlife species.
This is very evident in the Clearwater Region's elk herd struggle to recover to its previous population levels, which built up for the most part from large fires that shaped much of the upper Clearwater region to favor elk habitat needs. Returning some large expanses of the forest to early succession favored elk tremendously. The way the fire burned some areas and skipped other areas created a mosaic of habitat types across the landscape. The results were openings in a dense forest, creating habitat and food for a diversity of wildlife.
Other evidence of long term fire suppression is the fact that fire dependant species such as Ponderosa pine and aspen are diminishing in their distribution range throughout the western United States. They are dependant on fire for their current existence and future regeneration of the site. These habitat types struggle with competitive shade-tolerant species and increased fuel-load buildup, making them susceptible to fire loss. The many species of wildlife that rely on these fire-dependant habitat types are also being affected by this trend.
The Department supports these land management agencies in finding the balance between fire suppression, wildland fire use and the tool of prescribed fire. We all understand the importance of fire and the role it plays in forest health and wildlife habitat rejuvenation. We also support logging and thinning in areas where that activity is feasible. Much of this has been or is planned to be conducted in areas that will protect forest communities from large catastrophic fires. These fuels-reduction programs can address the human safety and property protection issues while also benefiting wildlife.
With the return of fire and selective timber harvest to the landscape, forest health, wildlife populations and their habitat, and sportsman hunting opportunities will be improved. This is a long-term Department partnership goal with the land management agencies in Idaho and organizations such as Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Before working for IDFG, Miles Benker was a wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. He currently is a habitat biologist in the Clearwater Region.