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Fire collaboration

Dry Creek Fire blazes at Park Creek Elk Meadow west of Stanley on Hwy. 21 in 2016.

STANLEY — The next big wildfire lurks in the sea of dead lodgepole pine surrounding Stanley Basin and the Sawtooth Valley.

And for the past four years a group of stakeholders that include federal, city and county government, private land owners and businesses have been meeting to devise a plan to extinguish potential catastrophic fires in the area.

The Sawtooth Valley Wildland Fire Collaborative met on April 26 to unveil their plans to thin 6,000 acres of forest. The meetings have been held quarterly with a dozen to 50 people attending. About 43 people attended The April 26 meeting. The collaborative was formed after the Halstead Fire burned 179,000-acres in 2012. It is co-chaired by Steve Botti, president of the Stanley City Council and Gary O’Malley, executive director of the Sawtooth Society. Preliminary work will begin this summer with the majority of the work starting next year.

For now, all anyone can do is wait and hope a huge fire doesn’t break out.

“There’s no guarantee,” Botti said. “That’s what we’ve been saying for years. In another year a big fire could roll into the Sawtooth Valley. We are just hoping we have enough of these project implemented before that day comes.”

After the Halstead Fire, O’Malley said, the Sawtooth Society saw an urgent need to get involved and stop a big fire from happening. The Sawtooth Society is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization formed in 1997 to help protect the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area. O’Malley said the area of most concern is Banner Creek to west of Stanley across Stanley Lake to Redfish Lake.

“It has taken us longer to get here than one would have hoped,” O’Malley said. “But to bring consensus, and work constructively with two national forests, it’s really taken until now. The good news is now there are concrete specific plans to make a large enough scale difference. Time is of the essence with this. If you look at fire maps in this area, it is one of very few areas that hasn’t burned in 20 or 30 years. It’s not a question of if it will burn, but can we act quickly enough?”

There have been a handful of fires including last August’s Dry Creek Fire. The fire was started by lightning Saturday and burned more than 700 acres six miles northwest of Stanley.

The Dry Creek Fire burned next to one of the tree thinning projects being proposed.

“If winds have changed that day it might have made these plans moot,” O’Malley said. “We really diverted a disaster. A 1,000 acres fire could have been a 100,000 acre fire.”

Why is this area such a hotbed for fire activity?

It’s a result of the lodgepole pine bark beetle that devastated trees the last five to 10 years.

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“It’s a cyclical phenomenon and hopefully the forest will restore themselves here,” O’Malley said. “There is a lot of dead pine trees in there and that’s true throughout the west. It’s not unique to the Sawtooth NRA area. They’ve run their course largely so now you are dealing with a lot of standing dead trees with the potential for a fire storm to go through there.”

The South 21 project one of two major projects west of Stanley intended to break up the sea of dead lodgepole pine. The South 21 project is comprised of at least a dozen treatment units. It would enable some breaks big enough to get firefighters in to contain a potential fire.

The Sawtooth Valley Wildland Fire Collaborative will hold another meeting this summer, but it not yet scheduled.

Botti said the meeting Wednesday discussed projects they’ve been talking about for several meetings.

“It wasn’t totally new,” Botti said. “It was a chance for the Forest Service to explain in more detail about how they plan to implement the projects.”

They also discussed how homeowners can protect their own structures using Firewise Communities Program planning and action.

“That’s a key element of this, people have to learn how to protect their own investment,” Botti said. “They need to know how to remove vegetation and build Firewise structures. There are a lot of steps that people can take on their own.”


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