May is National Wildfire Awareness Month, a time to discuss prevention and preparedness for wildfires. There used to be five seasons in the West: fall, winter, spring, summer and fire, but fires are now making inroads into all the other seasons. The wildfire season itself is more than 80 days longer than a few decades ago due to climate change.
Although wildfires have always been a fact of life in the West and many species are fire-dependent, the dynamics of wildfire management is more complex today. Increased temperatures and extended drought brought on by climate change have made fuels hotter and drier, and wildfire seasons last longer each summer. Decades of well-intentioned fire suppression efforts have led to unnaturally high fuel loads in some forests. Invasive annual grasses are converting sage-steppe wildlands into cheatgrass monocultures, resulting in more frequent and explosive fires.
Humans are also having a big impact, as development continues to encroach into areas where wildfires had routinely burned naturally. Humans are the cause of an increasing number of fires in Idaho, accounting for 70% of wildfire ignitions in 2020. Now, even a characteristic, normal wildfire can threaten homes and lives. Here in Idaho, populated areas have a greater wildfire risk than more than 90% of other states. You can check out the risk ratings for your home here.
The good news is that there are efforts across the state to combat climate change and its impacts. Many communities are taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become carbon neutral. Homeowners are getting more serious about creating defensible space and making their homes more fire resistant. We have also become smarter about reducing hazardous fuels around homesites and in dry site forests. Instead of old-school clear cuts that can increase fire risks, the Forest Service now focuses on removing small and medium diameter trees and leaving large, legacy trees. Controlled or prescribed fires are deliberately set under suitable weather conditions to help clear out fuel buildup.
The Forest Service also recently committed to doubling the acreage treated for hazardous fuels in Idaho by 2025 and coordinating with adjacent landowners. With funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Forest Service allocated $17 million for fuel reduction efforts in high priority areas in southwest Idaho. The area between Boise and McCall was selected as one of ten priority landscapes in the nation. Collaborative groups like the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership and the Boise Forest Coalition are helping bring stakeholders together and make site-specific recommendations. Projects like the Clear Creek project on the Boise National Forest are focusing fuel reduction efforts around the Wildland Urban Interface instead of in remote backcountry – a strategic and smart move. After all, we don’t know where the fires are going to start, but we do know where the homes are.
The goal is not to prevent wildfires but to make sure that wildfires behave naturally, clearing out the smaller brush and leaving large trees intact. Subsequent fires ideally leave the large trees intact, which means less fuel is consumed and less smoke from the fire. To help advise landowners on safe and effective burning practices, the Idaho Prescribed Fire Council provides educational materials on reducing and understanding fuel and fire types.
While more than 99% of controlled fires go according to plan, this spring an escaped burn in New Mexico merged with a natural wildfire to form that state’s largest wildfire. Due to public backlash, the Forest Service Chief issued a recent statement putting prescribed burning on hold while the agency conducts an internal assessment of its protocols. Because the Forest Service usually stops prescribed burning in the summer anyway, it is unlikely that this pause will stop many restoration efforts, but we hope the Forest Service can resume this critical work this fall.
There are many actions individuals can take to be more aware and prepared for wildfires, as well as prevent them.
- Start at home! Create defensible space around your home before fire season arrives in full.
- Practice campfire safety! Take extra care with your campfire this summer (or just skip the campfire and enjoy the stars instead). Check and see if other campfires you come across are out and cold to the touch. If not, douse it yourself.
- Stay engaged! Get involved with the Forest Service in developing local projects that reduce hazardous fuels and restore forests while protecting old growth, watersheds and fish and wildlife habitat. Join a local forest restoration collaborative to develop recommendations for forest, watershed and wildlife habitat restoration projects.
Remember that wildfires are a natural part of Idaho’s forests and public rangelands, but the reality is that in many parts of Idaho, fires are behaving differently. We can all play a role in helping protect our public lands, communities and firefighters by being fire-aware. For more tips on wildfires, responsible recreation, and all things public lands – sign up for our email updates here!