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Fire Mitigation Efforts to Include Larger Buffer Zones
Firefighters were able to save all but one home in the 2013 Beaver Creek Fire.
Monday, November 20, 2023


Establishing bigger buffers around residential areas in the Wood River Valley is part of a new Community Wildfire Protection Plan that the county is working on.

The current plan, which follows guidelines issued by the Idaho Department of Lands and FEMA, strives for a buffer of a half mile in areas where public land meets private, said Chris Corwin, Blaine County’s emergency manager. But the growing intensity of wildland fires calls for a 1.5-mile buffer or, perhaps, even a five-mile buffer, he said.

“We’ve had fires recently that moved a couple miles in a couple hours…. The Ross Fork Fire traveled five, six miles overnight, burning two houses,” he said. “The 2013 Beaver Creek Fire in Greenhorn sent embers more than a mile away, which landed on the cedar shake roof of one home. The alarm sounded but, by the time firefighters got there, the house was engulfed.

This picture shows how forest that had been treated with thinning and prescribed fire fared better during Oregon’s 2021 Bootleg Fire than forest that was either not treated or only subject to thinning.

“Given the velocity by which fires are burning, the speed they are traveling and the way the embers fly through the air a half-mile is not enough.”

Corwin spoke Wednesday at a program organized by the Wood River Land Trust to look at ways the Wood River Valley can mitigate wildland fires.

Dennis Becker, dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho, which offers the nation’s oldest fire science degree in the United States, noted that fewer acres burned around the state last year, thanks to record snowfall and a wet mild spring and summer. But, if this winter proves dry, Idaho is likely to have a bad fire year next summer, he said.

Fire is an important part of the ecosystem, he added, so you don’t want to take fire out of the equation completely. But you want to have fire in a way that’s safe.

Blaine County’s emergency manager Chris Corwin says the risk of wildfire is one of the top three concerns in Blaine County, along with cybersecurity.

“You need an actual plan for when fire happens because it’s going to happen,” he said.

The Nature Conservancy is working throughout the country to educate those who live near wildlands  about how to make their homes firesafe. It’s also trying to improve forest health by thinning timber and prescribed burns, said Tess O’Sullivan, the Nature Conservancy’s land conservation strategy lead.

Prescribed burns involve either piling up tree slash and burning it or setting fire to a landscape when the moisture, wind, temperature and time of year is optimal for a burn.

She showed a picture of the Black Hills Ecosystem Restoration Project Area in Oregon that was burned in the lightning-caused 413,000-acre Bootleg wildfire that sent sky loads of smoke into Idaho in July 2021.

Idaho’s largest fire to date has been the lightning-caused 2007 Murphy Complex Fire in Twin Falls, Elk and Owyhee Counties. It was the third largest wildfire in the United States between 1997 and 2009.

An area that received no treatment was completely burned over, she pointed out. An area where excess trees had been thinned was mostly burned. An area that received both thinning and prescribed fire remained largely green.

Blaine County just signed a contract for evacuation planning software that will be available to the public, Corwin said. The county also plans to do its own modeling. For instance, it might investigate how long it would take to evacuate 6,000 people from the Sun Valley Pavilion during symphony season.

The county also plans to work with Idaho Power’s new wildfire program director, he said: “They’re conscious of the risks in Blaine County given what happened in Paradise, Calif, and Maui.”

Kathryn Grohusky, director of The Sawtooth Society, noted that the Sawtooth Valley Wildfire Collaborative pushed for more prescribed burns in and around Stanley where many lodgepole pine are beetle-killed. But Sawtooth National Recreation Area officials have done just a few because they’re concerned about the risk of prescribed burns getting out of control, she said.

Tess O’Sullivan says one of the biggest barriers to improving forest health is lack of workforce capacity.

“People need to let them know we support these prescribed burns,” she added.

An East Fork resident voiced his fears about the risk of wildfire in that canyon, given its large amount of unburned fuels and power lines.

Corwin replied that East Fork is one of the areas the county is most concerned about. A model has been done showing which trees need to be removed and where new tree planting needs to occur to provide for a healthier forest there, he said. And a fuel mitigation project needs to be done like that done recently in the Starweather neighborhood, where highly flammable cottonwood trees were removed.

The challenge is that not much of the work can be done on public lands in East Fork unless private homeowners give permission to be on their land, Corwin said.

“We would love to come out and work with the neighbors and the homeowner’s association,” he added.

Sun Valley Fire Captain Reid Black said that the Sun Valley Fire Department would like to do some prescribed burns around Sun Valley.

“I feel that’s our best option,” he said.

He added that the city is working with the Bureau of Land Management to establish some fuel breaks around residential areas that could then be used as walking paths by the public.

“Prescribed burns are exactly what need to happen,” said Becker. “You decide when and where, as opposed to Mother Nature.”

Nationally, the Forest Service has been criticized that the number of acres it’s treating with prescribed burns has not changed, said Becker. That said, the Forest Service has been doing more prescribed burns closer to communities, and that takes more resources and is more expensive.

Smoke from prescribed burns are not as bad for people’s health as those from wildfires. But they are still harmful, especially for those with respiratory disease, said Becker. The advantage of prescribed burns is that residents can be warned ahead of time so they can leave town for the day.

“The amount of carbon released during wildfire is enormous, especially in peatlands, bogs and boreal forests, he added. “We’re trying to figure out how to capture it, but it’s a work in progress.”

One audience member stated emphatically that the BLM should implement Stage 1 fire restrictions from May to October in the canyons of the Wood River Valley to prevent fires being started by campfires or exploding targets on red flag days.

“How do you convert trail crews into fuels crews?” a firefighter asked, noting that the Forest Service is short on resources. “How do you assist the Forest Service to do what they know is right? I would love this to be a model county, for this to be a fire wise county.”


University of Idaho fire management students study how to handle forests and grasslands to prevent the humongous fires that have plagued the West in recent years. Students at the Wildland Fire Science at the university are also studying such things as microbes, or airborne particles made of fungal and bacterial cells, that can be transported thousands of miles in wildfire smoke.

These microbes are released from plants or trees during fire. It’s also possible tht they lie latent in the soil until fire releases them.

And it’s thought that they may spread infection. For example, coccidioidomycoses--a fungus that becomes airborne when soils are disturbed--is the cause of valley fever. If smoke bourne microbes do cause infection, they’re one more danger in wildfire smoke, which is already known to worsen asthma, bronchitis and damage the heart and lungs.

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