Cecilia Seesholtz put a map on a screen at the Owyhee Plaza Hotel of the Boise National Forest Tuesday showing where the 148,000-acre Trinity Ridge fire burned from August through October.
The Boise Forest Supervisor was showing that its boundaries were, for the most part, past fires that have burned since 1992. What is amazing is how the fire filled in the gap between all of these fires that have been a part of the lives of Idahoans for the last 20 years.
Seeholtz won’t say it, but there isn’t much left to burn.
So Boise’s backcountry backyard must be a wasteland of ashes right?
Wrong, Seesholtz told the Idaho Environmental Forum. More than 50 percent of the forest within the perimeter was either unburned or low severity burn. Another 34 percent was only moderately burned.
Only seven percent was severely burned, she said and that doesn’t mean the soil was sanitized. It mostly refers to vegetation. Dutch Creek along the Middle Fork of the Boise River was one of the places that burned hot.
In the last 20 years 19 million acres of forest and rangeland have burned across the western United States. Idaho burned 1.7 million acres, compared to more than the l.2 million acres that burned in 2007 and 1.3 million in 2000.
Jeff Foss, Bureau of Land Management Deputy State Director labeled this time in the West and Idaho in his talk.
“We’re really moving into the megafire era” Foss said.
That presents a challenge for his agency that manages 12 million acres of public rangeland in the state. Sage grouse and sagebrush is the big issue right now. In the last 20 years a lot of the state’s sagebrush steppe habitat burned.
This year alone 7.5 percent of the sage grouse habitat burned. It takes 20 to 30 years for the sagebrush to mature to a point it supports sage grouse after a fire.
In the meantime, invasive plants like chestgrass have moved in and changed the fire cycle. Instead of fire every 20 years, now fires, fueled by the hot burning cheatgrass are coming back to the same sites every seven to 10 years, he said.
So what can we expect next year?
Of course it early. But Seesholtz said the National Interagency’s Predictive Services people “think we’ll have as tough a season next year as we had this year.”
Based on recent history, that’s a safe bet.