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Left out to dry: Big burns like the Badger Fire will happen more often

From the The Badger Fire changes the South Hills series

SOUTH HILLS — Firefighters marveled at how the Badger Fire bolted 10 or so miles down Rock Creek Canyon in just a day. The fire ate up wet, dense willow thickets along the creek edge that often survive blazes. The South Hills had never been more primed to burn than it was this September.

Even though the Badger Fire thrived because of unprecedented conditions, the burn wasn’t truly surprising. Wildfires get bigger and happen more frequently as the West gets hotter and more arid every year.

“We just keep setting records,” U.S. Forest Service Minidoka Ranger District Fuels Specialist Stacy Tyler said.

Many of the biggest fires in Idaho history have happened in the last two decades and the Magic Valley is one of the state’s hotspots, both for fire frequency and size. Parts of the desert here have burned over and over in the last 25 years — as many as seven times in some places.

In 2007, the Murphy Complex Fire swept through 652,016 acres from Balanced Rock into northern Nevada. The Long Butte Fire in 2010 torched more than 300,000 acres near Hagerman. Another desert burn, the 210,874-acre Kinyon Road Fire, did its damage near Castleford in 2012.

A few decades ago the 90,000-acre Badger Fire would have been an outlier, but now it doesn’t even crack Idaho’s top 25 biggest fires list.

The fire problem

Members of the U.S. Bureau of Land Managment reinforce a line along the fence of a cattle ranch in 2012 south of Murtaugh while battling the Cave Canyon Fire, which burned almost 90,000 acres in the South Hills.

The Badger Fire is just one massive burn among dozens this year, but it’s a microcosm of the West’s fire problem. Most of the major factors contributing to bigger wildfires played a role in the Badger.

Climate change is making the West hotter and drier. Decades of fire suppression have stashed a ready-to-burn fuel stockpile on the landscape. Invasive species like cheatgrass create less healthy, more flammable ecosystems.

As bad as the West’s fire problem is right now, all of the best available science points to it getting progressively worse. Predictive models suggest the West will not only keep burning, it’s going to burn more often and its wildfires will be bigger.

Ian Rickert has been watching firsthand the rise of south-central Idaho megafires since 2005. The National Interagency Fire Center fire planner said that 30 years ago, a Badger Fire would have been exceedingly rare.

“What was extreme and abnormal 15 years ago is now something that you see almost every summer,” Rickert said. “What we saw this summer is not an anomaly. It’s a trend that we’re going to continue to see unfortunately.”

The fire problem

Tyler Kennedy, of the Idaho City Hotshots, monitors a back burn in 2013 at the 111,000-acre Elk Fire Complex that burned more than 50 structures northwest of Fairfield. Climate change, long-term fire suppression and invasive species are making wildfires increasingly common in the West. 

Why is this happening?

There are three reasons the West is burning up.

“Climate change, fuel accumulation and invasive species — those are your three,” Rickert said.

Climate change, which climatologists say is largely human-caused, is making the planet hotter. The five hottest years in recorded history are, in order: 2016, 2019, 2015, 2017 and 2018. The top 10 have all happened since 1998.

Earth is, on average, 2 degrees warmer today than it was in 1900. In Idaho, it’s more like 3 degrees — climate change doesn’t impact every region equally.

John Abatzoglou is one of the leading experts on how climate change influences fire in the West. The University of California-Merced assistant professor of climatology and former University of Idaho professor said that while three degrees might not seem like a big deal, from a climatology perspective, the difference is massive.

“In the West, we’ve had a really substantial change in our summers becoming much, much warmer and much drier,” Abatzoglou said.

There are a handful of reasons why a three-degree uptick comes with such intense consequences.

First, warmer temperatures have lengthened the fire season — the annual window when weather conditions allow for fire — by at least two months.

It’s not just that the window of fire opportunity has grown, though. From a fire’s perspective, the longer season sets up better burn conditions. Say you hang your wet laundry on a clothesline. The longer your pants dangle out there, the more likely they’ll dry (if it rains, your pants aren’t going to dry at all). The same applies to many Western ecosystems: The land bakes in the sun even longer because spring ends sooner and winter starts later.

Extra heat sucks moisture out of plants and soils, too — a dry tree burns better than a soggy one. It’s also raining less in the West. Part of the reason the Badger Fire burned so fiercely is because the South Hills hadn’t had any significant rain since June.

In addition to all of that, snowpacks are shrinking and melting earlier. When snowpacks melt, they slowly water plants. Bump up the melting date and plants dry out sooner in the year.

Picture the West as one big campfire, Abatzoglou said. The principles of a wildfire and a campfire are essentially the same.

“You need to have kindling, enough fuel,” he said. “You need the fuel to be dry enough to be an ignition source.”

The West’s dry conditions explain why fires start so easily now.

And the fuel’s there to keep them going.

The fire problem

Tom Giesemann, a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, jumps through a back burn at the Fir Grove Fire in 2013 north of Gooding.

Firefighters are too good

Throughout much of the 1900s, Americans tried — and often succeeded — to snuff out nearly every fire they could. Humans disrupt natural fire regimes and ecosystem processes when they prevent burns. You can sometimes see in today’s giant infernos signs of firefighter efforts from a century ago.

Historically, fires would have burned through forests every 100 years or so — intervals vary depending on the ecosystem. Those natural, lightning-caused fires removed fuel and gave old, possibly weakening tree stands a chance to begin anew, keeping them healthy. Plants and animals evolved traits best-suited to their environments’ fire cycles.

In many places, European settlers broke those millennia-old cycles. By doing our best to suppress many fires, we’ve basically set out a bunch of kindling on the land. Hotter years dried it out; prepped it for fire.

“We built up a larger stock of biomass,” Abatzoglou said. “That may allow for fires that used to stop where a previous fire went through (and removed fuel). Now you don’t have that barrier in place.”

Breaking the natural fire cycle changed vegetation in countless ways.

Many tree stands have grown denser without fire. Dead branches and logs litter the ground, whereas in the past they might have been incinerated consistently.

Fire suppression created thicker, fuel-rich forests. Abatzoglou explained that generally speaking, large fires are correlated with contiguous fuels. In the past, landscape vegetation would generally have been less contiguous. There would be natural blockades fire couldn’t cross. Flames couldn’t jump as easily between less tightly packed trees.

The fires of the past tended to burn more mildly, too, killing less vegetation while still removing some fuels.

For a host of reasons — drought may be the most important — many of the West’s forests are sick.

“The South Hills forest is, from a disease standpoint, fairly unhealthy,” U.S. Forest Service District Wildlife Biologist Scott Soletti said. “There’s a lot of mistletoe, broom rust, various diseases.”

Regular, natural fire can reduce the amount of disease in a forest, and sick trees typically carry fire better than healthy ones.

The fire problem

Members of the Filer Fire Department battle a blaze in 2013 north of Filer in the Snake River Canyon. 

Broken ecosystems

Adding an extra three degrees of heat doesn’t just increase the likelihood of fire, it also makes it difficult for native species to survive.

Humans are highly adaptable — for instance, people can siphon huge amounts of water from rivers and convert a desert into a metropolis, such as Twin Falls. But plants and animals have spent thousands, millions of years adapting to specific sets of climate conditions. When the conditions change, some species can’t hold on. Some areas aren’t recovering from fires.

“A lot of these areas aren’t regenerating very well,” said Charles Goebel, a University of Idaho forest ecology professor and head of the school’s forest, rangeland and fire sciences program. “I can’t say that specifically for (south-central Idaho), but I know other parts of Idaho we’re seeing, especially on drier sites, regeneration failures.”

Abatzoglou said the data suggests forests will shrink in the West.

“I think the forests that are at sort of moderate to high elevation, those areas probably will recover (from these fires),” Abatzoglou said. “The ones that we probably should be concerned about the most are the lower-elevation forests. They were established in a wetter and cooler time and we’re no longer in that era.”

Climate change has almost certainly impacted the South Hills already, even if it’s hard to say precisely how. And some models suggest climate change could dramatically alter the forest. Back in 2010, Nicholas Coops of the University of British Columbia and Richard Waring of Oregon State University published a paper about future lodgepole pine distribution. Based on their models, lodgepole might be gone from the South Hills by 2080.

Invasive species are exacerbating the fire problem as well. Cheatgrass is Idaho’s most notorious non-native, invasive species. It thrives in disturbed habitats. Almost every time a fire comes through, cheatgrass expands. It could become more common at the lower elevation parts of the South Hills in the wake of the Badger Fire.

Cheatgrass is infamously flammable. More cheatgrass leads to more fire, which disturbs the land and leads to yet more cheatgrass.

The fire problem

Bert Brackett pauses on July 24, 2007, while describing how the Murphy Complex Fire trapped and killed several of his cattle about 40 miles west of Rogerson.

Shifting baselines

Much of Abatzoglou and his colleagues’ research focuses on modeling and projections. Their projections aren’t rosy. They suggest that as anthropogenic climate change continues warming the planet, the West will see more large fires.

The trends are blatant. For instance, from 1993 to 2002, roughly 430,000 acres burned in Idaho every year. In 2019, the 10-year average had climbed to 630,000 acres per year, about a 50% increase. Nationwide, the 10-year average increased 64% during that time, from 4.1 million acres a year up to 6.8 million in 2019. Annual burn acreage has trended consistently upward for decades.

Goebel said that even though Idaho has had more fires in recent years than it ever has, it’ll soon have even more.

The fire problem

BLM firefighter Lou Prill, out of Alaska, mops up parts of the Cave Canyon Fire in the South Hills back in 2012. 

“We’re going to see a likelihood of increasing fire risk and increasing large fires as we see a change in climate,” he said. “It’s more likely there’s going to be more area burning, and larger areas burning because of the connectivity of fuels in these landscapes.”

There are ways to slow the increase of large fires. The data suggests that humans can slow climate change by releasing less carbon into the atmosphere.

Forestry managers can do more prescribed fires, which effectively mimic the milder, natural burn patterns Western ecosystems need. Those deliberate burns reduce fuels in forests, spur new healthy growth and minimize the likelihood of megafires.

Thinning or logging forests, if done properly, can help remove fuel and slow fires, too. Both prescribed burns and thinning can be expensive, though. Tyler noted that the Forest Service simply doesn’t have the financial resources to do as much prescribed burning and thinning as it’d like.

A ramp up of forest management may be worth the price. Fighting wildfires has cost an average of $1.8 billion per year in the last decade — in the late 1980s firefighting cost $402 million annually. Fighting the Badger Fire cost $15.8 million.

Other costs can’t be tallied as easily. More species are going extinct. Ash and soil erosion caused by wildfires degrade water quality. Loss of snowpack can devastate agricultural operations. Smoke lowers air quality and chronic exposure can cause significant health problems. Those are only some of the more tangible impacts.

Incredibly devastating California fires have captured the nation’s attention during recent summers, but Abatzoglou said prior to the last couple of years, Idaho had as much fire as the Golden State. Wildfire is an enormous issue for the Magic Valley.

“I do hope people realize it’s a local problem,” Tyler said.

For now, no matter what governments do about CO2 emissions, active forest management and other efforts, fires are going to keep causing more damage, including damage close to home.

Rickert said the Sawtooth National Forest — which includes the South Hills — is experiencing way more fire now.

“We burned more acres in the last decade than we saw in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s combined,” he said. “The trend just jumps off the page at you.”

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