Smoke plume from the Pony Complex, Sunday, August 11, 2013. ©Ken Cole

Smoke plume from the Pony Complex, Sunday, August 11, 2013. ©Ken Cole

A lightning storm that passed through the foothills of southern Idaho ignited a series of fires that have burned 298,384 acres of forest and sagebrush steppe.  The McCan (23,860 acres), Beaver Creek (32,211 acres), Pony Complex (143,900 acres), and Elk Complex (98,413 acres) fires all started on Thursday, August 8 and quickly grew.  They burned structures, closed Highway 20 for a time, and filled the Treasure Valley, Wood River Valley, and Camas Prairie with smoke.  The towns of Prairie and Featherville have been evacuated and large portions of the Boise National Forest and Sawtooth National Forest have been closed to entry.

More than anything, the size of these fires has been dictated by dry conditions and winds.  In the western portion of the Pony Complex there is a fair amount of cheatgrass that is fueling some of the spread of the fires.  There is an area just north of Mountain Home, Idaho along Highway 20, where cheatgrass dominates the landscape and a few homes barely dodged the fire.  These homes have had numerous close calls in recent years and a large propane tank sits along the highway nearby.

Habitat designated as priority and general sage grouse habitat has burned in the fires as well.  This is unfortunate not just because of habitat loss but because this habitat is on the fringe of sage grouse habitat in Idaho.

August 2013 Fires

Fire locations and sage grouse habitat. (click for larger view)

FEMA has agreed to help with costs of these fires due to their size and proximity to small towns.

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About The Author

Ken Cole

Ken Cole, Western Watershed Project’s Idaho Director, is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is also serves as a member of the board of directors for Buffalo Field Campaign.

34 Responses to Lightning Storm in Southern Idaho Ignites Fires that Burn Nearly 300,000 acres in Just 5 Days

  1. avatar Ellen says:

    not to belittle the human costs of these fires – but can we hope this ‘might’ mean no killing of wolves for at least this year?

    • avatar Elk275 says:

      How do fires in Southern Idaho have to do with the killing of wolves for at least this year. There are very few wolves in Southern Idaho. this fire and wolf hunting have nothing to do with each other.

      • avatar timz says:

        most of these fires are in fact burning in wolf territory.

        • avatar Elk275 says:

          Isn’t fire part of the natural ecosystem. Elk, deer and moose have adapted to fire why can not wolves.

          • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

            I am currently in Wyoming camping,hiking, etc. I am glad I’m not in Idaho in the horrible smoke. The fires will only effect the wolves inasmuch as it alters, harms or helps wolf prey. I wonder if there is any roast beef out there smouldering?

            • avatar timz says:

              I saw on the news last night one ranch lost 100 cattle. that’s one hell of a BBQ

              • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

                Timz, In such a dry year the BLM and the Forest Service should have had an emergency grazing closure to prevent roast beef and mutton and to protect the vegetation. This was all so predictable, except for the particular areas that would burn.

          • avatar timz says:

            I’m sure they can, I was simply repsonding to “There are very few wolves in Southern Idaho “

          • avatar Ellen says:

            fire may be part of the natural life cycle but it devastates areas of both prey and predators. and yes they do adapt. however, they are ALL displaced making it somewhat easier for the hunters to line their sights up on coverless wolves.

            • avatar cobackcountry says:

              I don’t know about that. The darker colored burned trees provide excellent cover. It also makes it harder to traverse for humans. The fallen trees can be a great obstacle to agile bipeds.

              We won’t know the data for a long while. I just hope we have a healthy enough population to study for the foreseeable future.

  2. avatar Ralph Maughan says:

    I see two major causes of these fires. Years of drought and public lands cattle which are the major cause of the gasoline flammable cheat grass the covers so much of the area. The cattle also grazed, trampled, and wallowed out the numerous seeps and small springs the kept hollows green into August.

  3. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Timz, In such a dry year the BLM and the Forest Service should have had an emergency grazing closure. This was all so predictable, except for the particular areas that would burn.

    It’s so sad – I sure don’t feel good about a horrible loss of life like this. It isn’t the cattle’s fault how they are raised and where they graze, but the ranchers and the government, and our screwed up overpopulated, modern way of life. Cattle are living things too. These agencies need a complete housecleaning because they are not doing their jobs.

  4. avatar cobackcountry says:

    Ralph and/or Ken,
    I think the fires may alter home ranges to an extent. IN which case, they will also alter wolf numbers per hunting area. I may cause fewer to be available to be hunted, or it may cause more in an area where only a few tags are?

    At any rate, studies I have read dealing with Colorado’s fires indicate that elk numbers and natality increase in the first few years following fires. It is believed to be attributed to chutes and ground cover flourishing in the soil.

    There aren’t studies much beyond a few years, as it has been fairly recent ‘surge’ of fires (I say that knowing that is has occurred for millennia). All that I have personally seen would indicate that most animals which rebound in fires areas return to regular behaviors after a few years. Mind you, I only go every weekend, and 4-6 days a week during spring and summer. So, my observations are definitely not conclusive or scientific…just a frequent flyer and life time observer giving a view point.

    Those are considerations, in my opinion, of how wolves will be effected.

    The bigger picture is certainly the same in Idaho as country wide, public land grazing should be as historical as homesteading and lynch mobs stealing cowboys from jails.

  5. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    public land grazing should be as historical as homesteading

    That all sounds good, but realistically and practically speaking, where and how are we going to raise animals for our continually growing population of 300 million and counting (not growing as much due to a bad economy but still growing), the majority of whom are meat eaters? Feed lots? Terribly inhumane and a step backward for animal welfare to an even worse production-line mentality towards our farm animals than we have now, and bad for the environment also.

    We’ve certainly dug a hole for ourselves, haven’t we, with decades-long lack of attention to the environment. Now it’s all coming home to roost.

    • avatar Immer Treue says:

      Ida,

      I believe most of them end up on feedlots prior to the last step.

      • avatar Ida Lupine says:

        Yes, but for their entire life cycle? I’m glad I don’t eat red meat and contribute to this monstrosity that is factory farming.

        • avatar Ida Lupine says:

          You can’t raise cattle like chickens. They have to be on rangeland for a good part of their lifecycle? We’re not going to stop doing that for the foreseeable future.

          • avatar JEFF E says:

            Ida,
            Less than %3 of the nations beef production is raised on “rangeland” and even then those numbers are only on “rangeland” for about 3-4 months a year depending on the location; sometimes a bit longer.(ask me why)

            The problem is that where there is “rangeland”, it is not suited to cattle, and even those 3-4 months a year are extremely detrimental.

            Now granted, there are those that maintain that a food supply, regardless of any negative or long term consequences to the native flora or fauna is just hunky dora.

            guess that is an individual concern.

            • avatar Ida Lupine says:

              It’s a fine time to address the long term consequences to the native flora and fauna after centuries of damage, is all I’m saying. A lot like global warming in that it might be too late. And I’m a little skeptical about that 3% figure. But don’t look at me because I haven’t eaten red meat in over ten years.

              • avatar JEFF E says:

                as I have said before to you Ida, with all due respect, research it before running your mouth.

                http://newwest.net/topic/article/is_public_lands_grazing_helpful_or_harmful/C619/L619/

                a good discussion before newwest became irrelevant.

              • avatar Ida Lupine says:

                Thank you for the article. I just think developing the land and covering it up with asphalt for roads is a hell of a lot more damaging. And there’s no way around the fact that we’re overpopulated and demand too much meat, and our economy is built around it.

              • avatar JEFF E says:

                here again ida, what is considered “rangeland” will not be developed.

                In order for land to be “developed” there has to be a job for the consumers of development to go to every day. Just is not reality in “rangeland” country, contrary to the teeth Gnashing and arm flayers.

                My guess is that 95% of “rangeland” that is not the case. Now farmland is a different dynamic and is a concern IMO.

              • avatar Ida Lupine says:

                OK. I guess I include farmland. I don’t know everything, but I’d rather stick to the devil (just a figure of speech) I know, as opposed to the other one who’s even worse (energy companies).

              • avatar JEFF E says:

                Ida,
                When I say teeth gnashing and arm flailing, that was not in reference to you but to the public lands welfare ranchers that use that argument.
                just want to clarify.

              • avatar Ida Lupine says:

                Thanks, Jeff. I do wish ranchers would have a better, more cooperative attitude.

            • avatar cobackcountry says:

              Jeff,

              I was going to say that, lol.

              Truly Ida, we could live without beef. We could switch to bison. We could eat less meat in general and be healthier. We are not dependent on beef, we are addicted to ‘easy’. Easy is not always better.

              • avatar Ida Lupine says:

                I wouldn’t wish that upon our bison! 🙂

                I wish we would eat a lot less of it, and our problems would be somewhat solved. Animals would be treated better too. I wish organic grass-fed farms could be more prevalent, maybe regionally, but it just can’t meet the demand.

              • avatar cobackcountry says:

                The effects of global warming are largely similar to those of smoking on lungs. Also similar, the regeneration begins immediately once the introduction of pollutants ceases. We plant something, the moment it is planted s has an effect, on the soil and erosion, then once it grows on oxygen and carbondioxide.

                We didn’t ruin our planet over night, we won’t fix it that way either. It does heal a little bit every time we do something to promote it’s health.

                Our economy isn’t really centered around meat, it is centered around the power of ranching and the greed of industry (all of them). While we have grown accustom to conveniences like meat in markets, we historically survived on meat we could harvest of our own devices.

                We have an economy here that is artificially sustained, as is our standard of living. Yet, every time we have an electrical outage, we see that we can survive without conveniences. Laziness, ignorance and greed dictate the health of our planet.

                These fires and their fuel base have been effected by those very things. Grazing is detrimental.

              • avatar cobackcountry says:

                Ida,

                All good ideas. It comes down to what people are going to risk? Organic can be healthier, but also less safe in ways. Meat may cost more to us, but might cost less to the planet.

                Bison have a symbiotic relationship with their habitat. While eating them might seem sad, it was also a symbiotic relationship between native peoples and the environment. No waste 🙂

                Thanks Ida, for a positive approach.

              • avatar Ida Lupine says:

                You’re welcome, coback. 🙂

  6. avatar David says:

    Right now, 5 fires are burning in an area that recently had large fires. Last year there was the Trinity Ridge Fire out of Featherville, Pine and Rocky Bar (an historic ghost town). The South Barker Fire in 2008 was huge. I believe fires are natural in normal environments. These fires are large and they are not normal any longer.

    In the short span of five years several fires have subjected the area to erosion (wind and slope) in areas where trees formerly bound the surface, thus minimizing erosion. If fires like this continue at this level for a couple of more decades, they’ll be no resources left for the remaining wildlife.

    Sometimes, I think we narrow our vision to the short term problem without realizing that failure to address a long term problem makes short term issues moot.

    I don’t write lightly on this. My grandmother filed a mining claims in the Sawtooth Mountains (heart of this area) in 1916. My father did the same as soon as legally capable. During the Great Depression, he was a Forest Service Guard in the Sawtooth National Forest. My oldest sister was born here. I began working with Dad in summers up in the Forest in 1960 and stayed through summers and in the winter on a few occasions with lots of times in between. I worked on a hotshot fire crew for the Sawtooth National Forest while attending college (summer).

    I am not here to discuss the faults of mining in the early years. Why speak to the choir? I am deeply concerned about the global issues that is destroying this beautiful forest. With my concern for this singular forest, I am bound to have compassion for a world of environments I know nothing about. One more thing, overgrazing may be an issue but it is a miniscule issue. It can be managed. I remember seeing many sheep herds at 8800 feet grazing in high open fields. Issues? Perhaps. But the vegetation was green and the land remained fertile. Could they be managed better? Yes. But there was something to manage. I have a picture of this same area I spent over a year of life at at 8800 feet and the vegetation is brown in mid to late summer. Beetles have destroyed trees at 8800 feet! This area was supposed to be to cold for the beetles. Not any more. And they continue to survive year after year instead of having the normal deep freezes that kills the population allowing the forest to become healthy again. Those days feel as if they are gone.

    So, forget about the wolves. I love them too. Forget about the cattle. Yes, they can overgraze. Forget about the cheat grass. By the way, cheat grass is one of the most effective consumers of CO2 in our available vegetation.

    We have bigger issues. Global warming sucks and it is destroying the resources we hold dear.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      David, thanks for your comments based on long history and on the ground personal experience.

      I have to disagree with you about cheatgrass,but I certainly agree with you about the dead and dying forests due to beetle kill.

      As I have written myself, I think the climate has now changed. Unfortunately, I think it is to a drier and probably less stable one. By that I mean, drier but the storms that come might be more intense.

      Warmer winters mean the bark beetle larva will not be killed in winter cold, and numbers will continually build up making permanent restoration of the forests after a fire not so likely. I expect a transition to grass and shrubland, and this is where cheatgrass really comes in because that would be the worst possible kind of transition.

      Proper management (a nice phrase which I am not sure of the meaning) might perpetuate the aspen clones and even expand them, but where is where grazing comes in because livestock eat the aspen sprouts until they grow out of reach.

      One thing I have been thinking of is a general, a big effort, to restore beaver to as many creeks, springs, and seep areas as possible to raise the humidity in the bottoms, thus keeping the grass and forbs greener longer in the season. These larger green riparian zones would thus serve as natural firebreaks (much better than bulldozed ones!!).

      One thing about the old photos and the dried out August landscape they show . . . Long before these old photos were taken England, France, and American beaver trappers roamed the country and pretty much trapped all the beaver. We have lived with the result of this for 150 years now. Our prairies, mountains and hills were dried to a considerable degree by human activity even before Euro-American people came to permanently settle the countryside!

    • avatar Ida Lupine says:

      Another great post.

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Quote

‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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