Wildfire Report Pushes For Better Community Planning In Idaho’s Wildland-Urban Interface

Sep 17, 2013

The 2012 wildfire season went down as one of the most active in Idaho’s history. It was an expensive year too, with more than $211 million spent to suppress fires that burned 1.75 million acres.

Credit U.S. Forest Service

According to a new report by Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League, there are some valuable lessons imbedded in those stats.

“What we wanted to do was to go back, take a look at those fires and see whether or not there were some lessons we could learn from them,” says Oppenheimer.

He says one of the lessons learned from the 2012 wildfire season was the importance of letting some naturally occurring fires burn. Oppenheimer says wildfires that are allowed to run their course in remote and forested areas can help stave off more intense and dangerous blazes.

“So much of Idaho has burned in the last 30 years that there are tremendous opportunities to manage the fire in these patchwork of areas that have burned much more safely,” he says.

Oppenheimer also concludes Idahoans are overdue for a real conversation about the places where homes intersect with the forest. He says that conversation needs to focus on better community planning to keep people and their property safe.

“Appropriate community planning and zoning and regulations with regards to how and where homes are built in the wildland-urban interface is critical if we’re going to get a handle on the issue of more acres burned, more homes lost, and more firefighters lives sacrificed.”

Oppenheimer says there’s a lot people can do to protect their homes – from clearing needles out of gutters to cutting back trees. But he says policymakers need to get involved, and that laws regulating homes in the wildland-urban interface shouldn’t be off the table.

The last wildfire report by the Idaho Conservation League was from 2007. Oppenheimer says they chose to study the 2012 wildfire season because it was one of the most significant in recent history.

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

"Fires burned with a patchwork of low- to high-severity. Overall, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the national forest acres impacted by fires were classified as low severity or unburned. U.S. Forest Service experts labeled only 13 percent “high severity.”

Policy changes in Washington, D.C., restricted options for Forest Service fire managers to manage some remote backcountry fires, even when those fires might have an overall benefit for the forest. Even so, some Idaho fire managers used less aggressive firefighting tactics, saving money, keeping firefighters safer and benefiting forests.

Large fires consumed a disproportionate share of fire costs, with the five largest fires consuming $145 million, 68 percent of the total cost of suppression.

Nearly 20 years after policies were updated to restore the natural role of fire, the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho has failed to implement any plans to manage natural fires for resource benefit."     -Idaho Conservation League