Nature's Tinderbox ...
by Jennifer Sandmann
STANLEY -- In the lush basins of the Sawtooth Mountains, preparations are under way for the big one.
The aging lodgepole pine forest is at the height of a mountain pine beetle infestation. Estimates put tree losses since the late 1990s at more than 1 million.
The beloved Sawtooth National Recreation Area is marked with stands of dead, rust-red trees vulnerable to fire.
"A lot of people are shocked. Some people are bummed out," said Jim Rineholt, an SNRA forester.
But it's all quite natural, he said.
"That's how the lodgepole is regenerated -- by fire and pine beetle," he said.
Factor in dead trees flush against homes, limbs hanging over roofs, stands of limb-to-limb pines and the thousands of visitors who pack the Sawtooth Valley and Stanley Basin each summer, and "natural" becomes a public safety threat.
Homeowner Sandy Vail lives in the Smiley Creek subdivision at the base of Galena Summit. The mountain views, Redfish Lake and fresh, crisp air called her from Boise eight years ago.
She noticed dying trees a few years later.
"At that point it didn't seem to be a major problem. We assumed the beetles would go through their cycle and winter out. But it hasn't happened that way," Vail said. "It's just getting exponentially larger."
Last summer at the annual homeowners' picnic in the shadow of the mountains, the water users' association spelled out the pressing danger. The subdivision isn't covered by a fire district and doesn't have the water pressure to fight a fire.
"We were galvanized into action at that point," she said. "The reality is we could have a fire. It's not if it happens. It's when it happens. Rather than worry, I decided to do something."
Her house has become fire prevention headquarters for homeowners in Smiley Creek, a development of about 60 homes. Books, papers and brochures are stacked on her coffee table and breakfast bar. A "firewise" poster spread across her dining table shows a home engulfed in flames while a neighbor, who has cleared brush and other flammable vegetation away from his house, tends to his lawn.
Be smart and be prepared -- that's the message.
"What we're trying to do in each of these little communities is create an ever wider defensible and survivable space," Vail said.
More than 900 trees will be removed from the subdivision this year. Healthy trees will be sprayed for protection. Saplings will be planted next year.
To pay for it all, the subdivision secured a federal fire grant of nearly $60,000 administered through the Idaho Department of Lands. A 10 percent match by property owners either in funds or labor is required.
A total of $450,000 in grants has been awarded to the SNRA's six subdivisions, said Rineholt, who continues to work with individual, isolated homeowners on project options. Another $800,000 is available through a grant program for counties with communities bordering national forests.
And back at Smiley Creek, property owners will vote to create a fire protection district that also will make them eligible for grants to upgrade the water system.
Taking the place of fire
The Sawtooth Valley and Stanley Basin haven't seen a major fire in recent memory, and the forest doesn't show evidence of a catastrophic burn over the past 100 years or so, Rineholt said. That can be attributed in part to 20th century fire prevention that ironically increased wildfire hazards. Fire control permitted the build-up of dead trees and underbrush that otherwise would have been cleared out by lightning-caused fires.
Today the beetles are doing what fire would otherwise -- regenerating the lodgepole pine.
"If fire doesn't get them, usually beetles do," Rineholt said.
Forester records discovered from 1910 indicate pine beetles have done this before in the Stanley Basin, Rineholt said. The forester's nearly 100-year-old notes report stands of dead trees.
Today forestry inventories estimate that the SNRA's lodgepole pine stands range between 80 and 120 years old.
Older stands tend to be crowded, and their defenses weaken, said Dayle Bennett, an entomologist with the Boise National Forest. Once an outbreak starts, the beetle population snowballs, and even healthy, smaller trees can be lost.
It takes 15 to 20 years after an attack before the dead trees begin to fall, Bennett said. More sunlight reaches the forest floor. The young trees flourish. The downed timber eventually decomposes, and the forest has recycled itself.
With so many dead trees surrounding development and tourism in the SNRA, the prospect of a big fire can't be ignored. Prevention and protection efforts are focused on developed areas.
The Forest Service has worked with local counties to develop evacuation routes, said Randy Richter, the Sawtooth's fire management officer. The popular Redfish Lake camping area is of particular concern. Logistics are planned to get people out and fire suppression equipment in during a wildfire.
Bird researcher Kim Fluetsch is part of the fire prevention effort. Under contract with the Forest Service, she walks among acres and acres of trees using a long pole fitted with a mirror on one end to look out for nesting birds. This spring she has found robins busy incubating eggs.
The precautions are taken in advance of spraying. About 11,000 SNRA trees have been sprayed since 1998 to protect healthy trees from attack.
"This year alone we're hoping to spray almost 9,000 trees," Rineholt said.
That's another $350,000 the Forest Service is spending on prevention. Spraying with the insecticide carbaryl can't occur within 50 feet of water bodies, to avoid killing insects that fish feed on.
The SNRA is selling timber to thin trees in campgrounds and other developed areas. An estimated 3.3 million board feet of lodgepole pine will be harvested over five years. The SNRA is protected to preserve its scenic beauty, so logging isn't a major issue. Contracts are confined to existing roads and developed areas.
Across Redfish Lake, the lodgepole stands climb upward into the Sawtooth Wilderness. In remote areas, the fire danger is worse, Rineholt said. Those areas will be left to nature.
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