Myrtle fire puts logging on hot seat - Group says fire shows thinning boosts fire danger; Forest Service says blaze in drainage inevitable

Susan Drumheller
Spokesman-Review Staff writer


BONNERS FERRY, Idaho _ When it comes to logging to reduce fire danger, the differences between the U.S. Forest Service and environmentalists are as stark as a charred slice of forest and the untouched green canopy.

The Lands Council held out the recent Myrtle Creek fire in Boundary County as evidence that logging increases fire danger because the blaze burned hard in a recently harvested area.

Members of the group contend the Mama Cascade timber sale and subsequent 3,600-acre blaze in the Myrtle Creek drainage -- the city of Bonners Ferry's watershed -- are an example of what would happen under President Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative.

"Unfortunately, an environmental group has taken a strong stance against commercial harvest and is using this tragic event to further its cause," said Ranotta McNair, Panhandle National Forests supervisor.

When the fire blew up the evening of Sept. 5, the mayor of Bonners Ferry declared a state of emergency. Two homes, including one at the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, were evacuated.

The fire quickly grew from 600 acres to more than 3,000 acres. With the record-dry fuels and dry lightning in the forecast, longtime residents here worried that Myrtle Creek would become the next Sundance fire, which burned 50,000 acres and killed two men in 1967.

The lightning and winds didn't materialize. The weather brought cooler temperatures and rain. Now, the fire is fully contained, though still smoldering. And while concerns about the city's water supply persist, the danger of widespread destruction has passed.

Today, the National Incident Management Team from Missoula will leave and turn the mop-up over to the Bonners Ferry Ranger District. The cost to contain the fire was roughly $4.5 million.

And just as the burned mountainsides still send up puffs of smoke here and there, local Forest Service officials are still smoldering over statements made by The Lands Council.

The Spokane-based environmental group said the sale was designed to reduce wildfire danger, but was taking out the larger trees and leaving the smaller ones, creating openings that would further dry out the forest and increase the danger of fire.

"The Forest Service has irresponsibly put this watershed ... and the community of Bonners Ferry at risk," said The Lands Council's Mike Petersen in a recent press release. "If Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative passes Congress, countless communities and their municipal water supplies will face the same fate."

Forest officials and Mayor Darrell Kerby characterized those statements as misleading and opportunistic.

During a tour of the fire site on Monday, Ron Hyizdak, a Forest Service fire behavior specialist, said fire was inevitable in the Myrtle Creek drainage. He said a fire was more than 30 years overdue because of fire-suppression efforts.

"It's sad," Hyizdak said. "If they'd had one more season to get the (logging) project done, we wouldn't even be here."

Thinning, Forest Service officials said, keeps the fire on the ground and hampers its ability to spread. The Myrtle Creek fire burned under extreme conditions, through slash on the ground, and spread into the denser forests where crown fires spread it further.

"We have over the last couple of years managed fires in watersheds where the approach was to keep fires out. You're never able to meet that objective," added Steve Frye, the national incident commander. "You have to decide whether to manage that watershed on your terms, or try to keep fire out."

When planning the 900-acre Mama Cascade timber sale, the focus was to reduce the number of trees per acre, while saving the large-diameter ponderosa pine and Western larch, said agency forester Pat Behrens.

The sale also was designed to reestablish white pine in the area, and make a more diverse forest by creating a mosaic of forest densities, with clumps of more heavily forested habitat interspersed with open spaces. In the long term, the idea was to grow a forest more resistant to bugs and fire.

Where the cut-over areas where heavily logged, Behrens pointed out the many charred stumps and their small diameter in comparison with the towering pines and larch that were left.

Many of the remaining trees in areas hit hardest by the fire, however, will likely die from the intense heat that cooked their roots. Slash that was supposed to be burned in the safety of springtime helped feed the fire in the sale area.

"This was mostly a ground fire" in the sale area, Hyizdak said.

Above, the treetop needles were still in place, albeit mostly brown. In some areas, the trees were completely black and missing needles.

The fire blew out of control when it jumped the fire line and then Myrtle Creek. Trees in the dense north-facing woods that were untouched by the logging project lit up like Roman candles, sending embers into convection columns tossed farther down the watershed. Firefighters, fearing they could get trapped, fled.

"Once you have fire on both sides of the creek, you're out of luck," Hyizdak said. "If the fire's on the ground, it's not going to spot across the creek."

Peterson argues that the Forest Service could conduct prescribed burns in the watershed without thinning to achieve the same effect of restoring the forest and reducing the fire danger.

But Hyizdak said that's not practical.

"I have been burning for over 30 years, and I wouldn't have touched it," he said. "You would have killed the small-diameter trees, and the large trees with it."

Petersen still believes that the Forest Service would be better served thinning around communities, such as Hayden, Idaho.

"To us it didn't seem like restoration, it seemed like another logging project," Petersen said. "This is exactly the type of project that we'll see with the Bush Healthy Forest Initiative."

McNair said the timber sale is nothing like the kind that would get the green light under the initiative, now being debated in the U.S. Senate. Located in a municipal watershed and affecting endangered species, the sale wouldn't fit under the umbrella of fuel-reduction sales envisioned by the act, she said.


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