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Prepare for Fire Season

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It's getting mighty dry out there on the Game Trail

As I write this, wild fires are raging across most western states, most notably Colorado and California.  Thousands of acres of forest and grasslands are burning, and hundreds of houses are at risk to being lost.  Idaho has been spared thus far this year, but we typically see fires more as summer starts to wane on, usually around August.  And the extended forecast for our area calls for unusually hot and dry conditions this summer, meaning the likelihood of forest fires in our own backyard is pretty high this year.

The US Forest Service spends nearly half of its budget fighting fires at the cost of a few BILLION dollars annually, give or take a few bucks.  Fire suppression is big business, and the feds aren’t the only ones in it.  Idaho Department of Lands will also use significant resources to fight fire on state endowment lands. Government agencies, private timber companies and local land owners want to protect their timber investment and ensure public safety.  One way they do this is through responsible timber management and harvest.  But even this isn’t always enough; a lightning strike in a dry forest or an irresponsible person leaving a campfire unattended or a careless cigarette smoker can burn vast tracts of land quickly.

So what are the consequences of forest fires?  Well, forests evolved with fire, as did the animals living in the forests, and in fact fire is a necessity to a healthy forest.   Therefore, in considering the consequences of fire we also need to consider the consequences of fire suppression.  Low intensity fires that do not burn out of control are vital to some species-- plant and animal alike.

For example, the cones of lodge pole pine are serotinous meaning they will only open to disperse their seeds if heated by fire, making them fire dependant.  Further, once released by heat (generally at least 120 degrees); burnt soil will best germinate the seed.  Low intensity fire also helps clean out the forest floor of debris, makes trees grow stronger, and reduces nutrient competition leading to healthier trees.  

Fire also kills diseases and insects that can prey on trees and if left unchecked can change species composition on the landscape.  For example, widespread white bark pine damage in the Yellowstone ecosystem has lead to decreased availability of white bark pine nuts available for forage by many species that depend on them, including grizzly bears.  Looking for alternative food sources can lead animals into territory unfamiliar to them, including closer proximity to people.

Fire also supplies wildlife with superior habitat.  I remember driving through Yellowstone several years after the widespread fires of 1988 that burned almost 800,000 acres (nearly one third of the park).  People would shake their head and remark at the utter devastation.  And the fires certainly were devastating in many ways.  After years of fire suppression, fuel levels had reached levels that resulted in a very high intensity burn that devoured everything in its path.  No trees were left standing to grow stronger, and serotinous cones often found themselves consumed by the burn rather than opened by it!  However, the habitat that resulted from those fires has in time helped elk herds grow strong and healthy.  And as more time passes, the forest will continue to grow.  In fact some researchers suggest that declining elk herds in the Clearwater area are due as much to habitat change in the absence of recent fire as to the proliferation of wolves.  

Elk are just one species that benefit from the brush fields that follow a wild land fire.  Bears, bats, flying squirrels, hares, woodpeckers and salamanders to name a few, benefit from a regular cycle of low intensity burns in the forests.  Wildlife managers encourage forest management through the use of fire-- and sustainable timber harvest in the absence of fire-- to help mimic the natural progression of things.  

So what is the natural progression of things in this area?  Different ecosystems have evolved to depend on certain naturally occurring events to progress.  The general rule is every 50 to 150 years.  Forest succession refers to this progression of a forest through time.  An area that starts as a brush field slowly gives way to shade intolerant species of trees such as pines, which then give way to hemlocks and firs that grow up in the understory as shade tolerant species and slowly begin to dominate the over story and the landscape.  Fire injected into any of these stages will revert to a previous stage, depending on the intensity of the blaze.

Please note the distinction between a low intensity fire that is beneficial and a high intensity fire that will consume every living thing in its path.  And if your house happens to be in its path, that can pose quite a problem! 

People living in the woods or in the wildland-urban interface should ensure that they are taking steps to keep their dwelling safe in the case of a fire.  Removing brush and debris around the house, keeping the roof clean of leaves and needles, and ensuring their home has a buffer of open area from the trees, so if a fire does come knocking in your neck of the woods, your home is spared.  

And of course everyone living and recreating out there needs to be ever vigilant to make sure campfires aren’t left unattended, that cigarettes aren’t carelessly thrown out the window (this is also littering and will earn you a hefty fine) and fireworks aren’t set off in wooded areas (or set off at all!).

Although many of our wild neighbors enjoy the benefits that result from a little forest fire here and there, and as forecasters predict a hot dry summer, we should all be responsible when we are out there camping with the kids and enjoying our little chunk of paradise!  

Leave No Child Inside  



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Author info

Matt Haag Matt Haag is an Idaho Fish and Game Conservation Officer.

Tagged as:

fire, The Game Trail, fire protection

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