A Forest Born of Fire
The Clearwater national forest is a product of fire. But unlike some forests, the Clearwater is a product of large fires, like the Fire of 1910 that swept through north central Idaho, devastating three million acres in just two days! Those big fires don't happen often in this moist forest, but when they do, there's no stopping them, says Forest Supervisor Larry Dawson. They essentially start the forest over.
"The large fires of the past will come. They were wind driven; they occurred at the end of droughts. There was little that man could do then or man can do now to suppress those types of fires. Fires that occur every 300 years, we are arrogant if we believe we can stop those. Those fires advance by spotting, sometimes miles out in front of the fire front. We're very humbled in our ability to control the large fires."
Dawson is attempting to re-introduce the small, mixed severity fires in the Clearwater, a place where the Forest Service perfected the art of fire fighting. In the last forty years, smoke jumpers and ground pounders have extinguished thousands of wildfires on the Clearwater forest.
Bud Moore remembers the early years in the forest service, when putting out fires was Job One. "Major Kelly's one line mission when they sent him from Washington, D.C., out here as regional forester, was to stop the big fires. That's how important the fires were in those days."
Moore, the eighty five year old former forest ranger, spent his early years putting out fires. Later, however, he came to believe in the value of fire and argued in favor of letting some fires burn naturally.
In 1954, while Bud Moore was the forest ranger, a young Tom Kovalicky began fighting fires on the Clearwater. "It was wet a lot of the time," recalls Kovalicky. "Wet, yet it burned like hell! On any given fire storm, it was quite possible to have 500 fires start from one series of storms."
Kovalicky says the entire Forest Service had the "Smoky Bear" mentality."We were taught that in school, and anybody who even thought that a fire might be beneficial would have been booed out of camp; they wouldn't have lasted too long."
The Forest Service was certainly successful in its war on fire. In the first half of the 20th century, most of the Clearwater forest had burned. But in the last half of the 20th century, after fire fighters began putting out the blazes, less than four percent of the forest has burned.
But fewer fires has meant a denser forest, one with more shade. As the forests close in, that impacts valuable plants like red stemmed ceonothus, which elk love to eat. According to wildlife professor Jim Peek, "Over the last century, what we have seen is dramatic change in the Clearwater. The change from shrub fields to pole-sized timber is dramatic. There are thousands and thousands of acres that have changed."
"Some of the most palatable species like red stemmed ceonophus are highly intolerant to shade. Any shading at all starts to cause them to lose their productivity. Just a little shade on these sites from the conifers starts to cause a deterioration in the elk food."
Supervisor Larry Dawson believes there is now growing support for an active fall burning program on the Clearwater. Prescribed burns that mimic lightning strikes would consume underbrush and some live trees. The fires would reduce the buildup of fuels and also create clearings and rejuvenate brush that the elk eat.
But some wildlife experts believe the Forest Service would have to burn 70,000 acres a year to make a difference for wildlife. And few people believe the Forest Service has the will or the budget to do that.