Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Learn about the big burn

SNRA program reveals Valley Road Fire benefited the forest

Express Staff Writer

Express photo by Jennifer Tuohy Wildlife biologist Bobbi Filbert points out the abundance of aspen trees sprouting along the Fourth of July Creek Road in the Sawtooth Valley. In 2005, the Valley Road Fire burned this area, as well as more than 40,000 acres of surrounding forest. Filbert is heading up a series of educational Fire Ecology Walks this summer designed to inform the public of the many benefits of wildfire.

Walk with fire

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area presents a series of educational walks through the Valley Road Fire's burn scar. The walks take place every Saturday from June 23 to Sept. 1. The walks are open to all ages, last two hours and involve easy to moderate hiking. Meet at 9:30 a.m., at the Fourth of July Creek Road turnoff (nine miles south of Stanley on Highway 75). For further details on the topics of future walks, call 727-5013 or 774-3000.

As the summer of 2005 came to an end, a spark from a burn barrel ignited a forest fire that consumed more than 40,000 acres of White Cloud mountain country.

The Valley Road Fire was the largest wildfire in the recorded history of the Sawtooth National Forest. Nearly $9 million was spent on efforts to extinguish the fire and rehabilitate the affected area. It was viewed by many as a catastrophe.

Now Forest Service officials are trying to let the public know that the fire was a good thing.

"Most people get their message about fire from the news, which is always focused on the negative aspects," said Bobbi Filbert, a wildlife biologist with the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. "Even though this fire was human caused, from a resource perspective it was not a catastrophic event. In fact, it was beneficial. A lodgepole pine forest is supposed to burn."

That sentiment is the primary message behind a series of Fire Ecology Walks developed by Filbert and Susan Kranz, an SNRA interpretive specialist. Starting this Saturday, June 23, at 9:30 a.m., and continuing every Saturday through Sept. 1, the series provides an avenue for the public to explore the effects of the Valley Road Fire.

"We realized that we had a great opportunity here to use this fire as an educational tool," Filbert said. "We want to help people understand the vital role of fire in the forest's development."

A trip into the Valley Road Fire's burn scar is a spectacular experience. Charred skeletons of thousands of trees loom high, but in their ravaged state they radiate an unexpected beauty. And, beneath them a new forest is growing.

Twenty-one months after temperatures averaging 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit ravaged the land, life is returning in abundance.

"It is amazing the difference up here from last year," Filbert said. "Right after the fire it was all black and charred—now look at it."

In many places the forest floor is calf-deep with thick, green vegetation.

"We are seeing a lot of aspens sprouting, many more than were there before the fire," Filbert said. "We also have willows coming back in abundance, and lots of herbaceous plants. The fire created room for them to prosper."

Creating space and sunlight for the forest floor to regenerate by removing the conifer canopy is only one of many reasons fire is beneficial to the forest.

The area affected by the Valley Road Fire had been infested by the mountain pine beetle; the fire stopped that in its tracks, allowing a healthier forest to grow in its place, said Filbert.

There are also many fire-dependent species, such as morel mushrooms, lodgepole and whitebark pine that cannot prosper without wildfire. In the first growing season after the Valley Road Fire, a bumper crop of morels sprung up in the fire scar.

Aspen require a dramatic change in the forest landscape, such as fire, to encourage their growth, Filbert said. Within 10 years, Fourth of July Creek Road, previously converged upon by a thick pine forest, will be graced with copious aspen groves. The pine trees will come back, however, and eventually the forest will look like it did before that spark from a burn barrel.

Filbert said wildlife also prosper after a fire. Small mammals, deer and elk now have a host of fresh, young greenery to nibble on. As well, the fire-ravaged trees provide habitat for many species, from bugs to birds. For example, the mountain bluebird creates its nests in the holes woodpeckers easily make in burned trees.

The aim of the Fire Ecology Walks is to highlight those benefits, as well as get out a positive message about fire in general.

"We want to get a discussion going that makes people challenge the way they look at fire," Filbert said. "Eventually we would like to get to the point where we can let a fire go. Obviously, in this area, we have a lot of communities at risk, and we focus a lot of our fuel-reduction programs on these 'values at risk' (such as homes and vacation cabins). But is a lodgepole pine community a 'value at risk'? Do we need to 'save' the forest?' I don't believe so."

"Fire is going to happen, regardless," added her husband, Matt Filbert, fuels planner for the Sawtooth National Forest. "If we keep suppressing fire, eventually, when there is one we can't control, it will really go and it will be very bad for the forest.

"We are looking for national policy changes. This type of educational experience is the first step. Unless we have public support, we won't be able to move toward managing fire instead of suppressing it."

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