The Boise Bureau of Land Management director said the infrastructure spending that directs millions to wildfire prevention will become more critical for Idaho in the coming years as the Bureau of Land Management tries to control the megafires.
Megafires — blazes over 100,000 acres — have scorched a swath of land in southern Idaho in recent decades, including the Soda Fire, which burned more than 280,000 acres southwest of Boise in 2015. Tracy Stone-Manning, who was sworn in as director in October, visited Boise last week to learn about the fuel cuts and tour the National Interagency Fire Center.
“We’ll always have fire,” Stone-Manning told the Idaho Statesman in an interview. “The question is, are we going to have megafires that will fundamentally change the ecosystem? And that’s what we’re fighting against, and that’s why Congress is investing so much money and why the president has asked for it. »
Director visits fuel breaks in the Boise area
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Stone-Manning and several other Bureau of Land Management officials — including new Idaho director Karen Kelleher — toured part of the Paradigm Fuel Break project site between Boise and Mountain Home. Lance Okeson, Boise BLM district fuels program manager, said the roughly 300,000-acre site represents a paradigm shift in how the agency deals with megafires.
“I think we’re at the beginning of a turning point,” Okeson told the Statesman. “Megafires are not something we have to accept.”
Okeson stood in the middle of one of the Paradigm fuel cuts on Ditto Creek and Lehto roads as he spoke. Breaks are strips of dirt on either side of roads that help slow the fire’s momentum, allowing firefighters to gain ground on a burn. The Bureau of Land Management has been working on fuel cuts in the Paradigm Project area since 2016, eliminating invasive and highly flammable cheat weeds, Russian thistle and more.
For now, the break looks like a strip of barren land. The agency planted forage kochia, a Eurasian shrub known for its resistance to fire and its ability to outcompete grass weeds. Small tufts of forage kochia dot the fuel break from previous planting seasons, while smaller seedlings begin to work their way through the soil.
Okeson said similar fuel cuts have proven effective just down the highway near Mountain Home, though the use of forage kochia is somewhat new and controversial, as it’s not native to Australia. Idaho. Breaks can reduce flame height and fire intensity, allowing fire crews to gain control with fewer resources.
“We called them a force multiplier,” Okeson said.
Stone-Manning said about 1.5 million acres of BLM land is to be treated with fuel over the next five years. These will include more fuel cutting, mechanical thinning and prescribed burning.
Mike Williamson, spokesperson for the BLM’s Boise District, said the Idaho Bureau of Land Management received about $21.9 million to process fuels this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. . This is an increase of about a third and will be used to treat approximately 250,000 acres.
“With planned increases to the Fuels Program Base and Bipartisan Infrastructure Act funding from 2023 to 2026, BLM Idaho anticipates approximately $30 million available annually for wildfire resilience infrastructure work. “Williamson told the Statesman in an email.
Fuel breaks create optimism for the future
Okeson said the fuel cuts help create compartments in the landscape that will prove useful as growth, such as the Mayfield Springs subdivision of 2,300 homes nearby, means lives and property are at risk from the fires. of forest.
Additionally, the office hopes Project Paradigm will prevent fires from moving down or taking priority over burns in the Owyhees, where sage-grouse habitat is threatened. The birds, whose population is in decline, have rocked near endangered species protections for years.
Stone-Manning said the hope is that sage grouse and natural sagebrush can return to the area.
“What excites me about investing in infrastructure is being able to show people the powerful restoration of our public lands to make them more resilient,” Stone-Manning said.