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Prescribed burning becomes more common in north Idaho

Courtesy of Idaho Panhandle National Forest
Forest Service teams burned about 1,300 acres last week in the St. Joe Ranger District.

The Forest Service has doubled the amount of acreage burned on federal land in the Panhandle.

It has been a more-or-less average summer for wildfires. There have been some big ones, but none that burned hundreds of thousand acres or were deadly for firefighters.

Land management agencies are racing to change the landscape to reduce the risk of megafires. They are using fire as a tool and employing it more often than they have during the last generation.

A few years ago, teams from the Idaho Panhandle National Forest annually burned about seven thousand acres of slash piles and grass within the forest boundaries. This year, the goal is about 13,000. Within a few years, that goal is expected to be doubled again.

“We have targets that we are really trying to increase because we recognize that it’s really a needed thing for us to reduce fuels across the landscape. So we’ve been directed from both the national and the regional levels to increase our fuels treatment across the landscape," said Sara Jerome, the deputy fire staff member for the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

Even with the increasing goals, Jerome says it likely won’t be enough to significantly reduce the risk of wildfire in most areas.

“We have a lot of catch up to do because we put fires out for a long time when the climate was easy for us to do that and, in hindsight, we probably should have been allowing more fires to burn or using more prescribed fire in those more moderate weather conditions that we had in the 1980s and 1990s,” she said.

Now, with climate change, she says there are far more fuels that need attention. Burning is a good tool, but it has its own challenges, including the need to control the resultant smoke to keep it away from people, where it can cause health issues.

Jerome says climate change has even changed the process of prescribed burning.

“In the last 20 or 30 years that I have been working in the Forest Service and working in fire management, fires in the Panhandle have entirely changed, how they behave, how much acreage we have covered. I think we’re just in a time where Mother Nature is actually catching up with that deficit and it’s really a challenge to try to stay ahead of that," he said.

She says the region no longer has the choice of fire or no fire. The question is who is best able to manage it.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.