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Idaho's Conservation Experiment: 50 Years Later explores the history and future of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Wildfire prevention in southwest Idaho gets boost from federal infrastrucure law

A firefighter stands next to a patch of trees in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest that are burning due to a prescribed fire.
Forest Service
Firefighters patrol containment lines on a prescribed fire in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in 2019

Millions of dollars from the federal infrastructure law will go toward implementing the U.S. Forest Service’s 10-year wildfire strategy.

An initial $131 million investment will focus on ten high-priority projects in eight states, including Idaho. The Southwest Idaho Fuels Reduction Project is one of the initiatives to receive funding.

The project expands upon efforts already underway in Idaho to reduce wildfire risk, such as the Good Neighbor Authority and Shared Stewardship programs. They work to make sure forest treatments happen collaboratively across federal and state lands.

The new project is expected to receive about $60 million over the next couple of years for work on 55,000 acres that could include noncommercial thinning and prescribed burning. The goal is to treat 18,000 acres this year.

Through this effort, the Forest Service wants to reduce hazardous fuels and the risk of catastrophic wildfire to cities in southwest Idaho such as Boise, Garden Valley and McCall. The projects will take place on federal lands, and state, local and private lands.

“The focus on this is for broad-scale work across the agency that results in reduced fire risk for communities, broader resilient forests across our country and local, steady, good jobs in the communities that we’re a part of,” said Chris French, the Deputy Chief of the National Forest System. He spoke at an Idaho- and Montana-focused forest restoration conference Tuesday about the infrastructure law investments.

According to a 2021 report by CoreLogic, a financial and property analytics company, Idaho ranks second-highest for the proportion of the housing stock that’s at risk due to wildfires.

As one of the fastest-growing states, Idaho’s development is getting pushed into the wildland-urban interface surrounding cities like Boise.

There are many challenges, French said, in scaling up this forest resiliency work in the face of climate change. One of them is labor.

“You have two things that are occurring: a very limited staff to begin with and then that staff is being diverted to work on fire,” he said.

When most of the nation’s fire professionals are working at once to suppress blazes around communities, as they have been the past couple of years, it leaves few personnel left to work on preventive forest treatment initiatives.

That’s why collaborative approaches are important, French said. The Southwest Idaho Fuels Reduction Project includes state and federal agencies, local governments and non-profits.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.