GIBBONSVILLE, Idaho – Nothing sums up wildland firefighters’ penchant for safety than do their fire-resistant yellow shirts.

So when fire ecologist Lynn Bennett recalled an incident commander on the Mustang Complex fire saying his Hotshot crews felt so secure taking a stand along Hughes Creek “they’d fight with their shirts off,” he couldn’t think of a more emphatic endorsement of a forest health project there.

The Mustang fire was on its way to burning 340,659 acres in the mountains along the Montana-Idaho border just south of Lost Trail Ski Area. When it started the last week of July, a heli-rappel team of firefighters tried to contain it. As one fire manager put it, they got their gear baked as the flames chased them out of the woods.

Through much of August, the fire ran about 18 miles west along the Salmon River. Around the last week of the month, its eastern flank made some huge runs, burning over multiple drainages and scorching 30,000 acres a day. The last defensible spot before it reached the U.S. Highway 93 corridor was in Hughes Creek.

It proved to be a good defense.

In the Hughes Creek drainage, a collection of environmentalists, timber workers, wildlife advocates, landowners and government forest managers had formed the Lemhi County Forest Restoration Group back in 2006. Over the years, they’d put together a 13,000-acre project that thinned some forest acres, removed limbs and slash from others, and started prescribed burns on still more. Most of that was in a four-mile-wide swath of hills between Hughes Creek on the southwest and Gibbonsville along Highway 93 on the northeast.

Last week, members of the group returned to Hughes Creek to see where the firefighters made their stand.

“It’s hard to imagine that anything good came out of this fire,” said Gina Knudson of Salmon Valley Stewardship. “But I think we showed that by doing this, future fires won’t be as costly financially or in loss of resources. We can’t fireproof a forest. But we can make it more resilient.”

***

Making forests resilient has become the rallying cry – from U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell down to grassroots projects like the Lemhi County Forest Restoration Group. It means doing things such as stand thinning, slash clearing, prescribed burns and habitat restoration. The payoff comes in reduced fire danger, easier-to-fight fires, disease-resistant forests, more abundant wildlife and improved watersheds.

There are, however, two concerns. First, that this kind of forest work has little or no economic value. While some logs may go to sawmills and others may feed pulp chippers, most of the wood involved will never pay its way out of the woods.

Second, the scientific community remains divided on the ecological value of many of these efforts. While there’s no doubt that thinning the doghair lodgepole from a ponderosa pine stand will help the bigger trees grow better, many question the need to pay humans to do the work when Mother Nature might do it for free.

“The impact of fuels treatment on the behavior of wildfires is highly speculative,” said University of Montana forestry research professor Carl Seielstad. “There isn’t a lot of evidence I’ve seen to suggest we can say consistently they work or don’t work.”

Not to say that people haven’t tried. Fuels treatment work took much of the blame for 168 burned homes in the 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire in Colorado. But similar projects received credit for big acreages of saved trees and homes in the 2011 Wallow fire in Arizona.

George Nikas of Wilderness Watch doubts the treatments’ validity. He argued small-scale projects like Hughes Creek have little scientific proof that they improved forest health, and stand little chance of surviving at all if a major blowup roared through.

“These forests are shaped by fire,” Nikas said. “It’s a natural part of the system. And when conditions are ripe for a megafire, it’s going to happen. They’re every bit as natural as these other, creeping understory fires they’re talking about. We have to learn how to live with it.”

Nikas argued the national push for “resilient forests” is really an attempt to show decisiveness, “where they feel they have to do something, even if it’s wrong.”

“I think we’re overplaying a hand to say that a lot of these management actions are somehow making these forests more resilient,” Nikas said. “Resilient from what? Resilient from nature?”

Seielstad said the decision to place firefighters in front of Hughes Creek’s thinned stands was significant. A fire incident manager himself, he said that call is one of the toughest to make.

“It’s hard to know, hard to take credit that treatments were responsible for fire behavior changes,” Seielstad said. “But IC’s are pretty damn careful. If they’re saying ‘We can take a stand here because of those treatments’ — if they’re sticking people out on a landscape waiting for a fire, I would trust the conditions of the treatment allowed for an action like that.”

***

Standing atop Butcher Knife Ridge, fire ecologist Bennett surveyed the miles of Mustang Complex burns. To the north, a line of ridgetops marked the Idaho-Montana border. To the south and west, every hillside and drainage showed the mosaic scars of a monthlong fire. Some places remained green. Some were a crisp golden brown. A few spots bore jet-black swaths where 300-foot-long fire fronts had sterilized everything in their path.

“This is where it blew out,” Bennett said, standing on a bare knob above Indian Creek. “They hoped to use these sagebrush meadows as a safety zone because they could burn them out quick if the fire came here. So they brought the Cats (bulldozers) up here and planned on holding the line all along this ridge.”

About 2 a.m. on Aug. 29, the fire raced up 2,500 vertical feet from the Indian Creek bottoms to the ridgetops. It marched within a few hundred yards of the Montana-Idaho border. Fire crews raced to rescue the three bulldozers on their ridgetop line, but couldn’t retrieve a feller-buncher that had engine trouble. They pulled it to a safety zone, but it still suffered heavy heat damage.

Down along Hughes Creek, it’s easy to see where the fire spilled over Butcher Knife Ridge like burned stew boiling over a pot rim. Firefighters braced for action at the bottom of the drainage, burning out the edge of the road to strengthen their defensive line. Behind them rolled four miles of forested hills thinned during by the Hughes Creek project.

Mike Smith was a fire division supervisor in Hughes Creek when the big burn came. He’d also been active in planning the logging and prescribed burning as a Forest Service fuels specialist.

“The crews engaged it on Butcher Knife Ridge, and the long and short of it was they got their butts kicked,” Smith said. “Everyone was pulling back to Highway 93, and I inherited this piece of the fire. But I had homefield advantage.”

If the Mustang got past Hughes Creek, it had a clear shot at the community of Gibbonsville and the slopes of Lost Trail Powder Mountain ski area. To the south, near the North Fork Ranger Station, flames did get across Highway 93.

The fire also reached the westernmost prescribed burn unit of Hughes Creek, which had been torched in 2009. Smith said ordinarily, the forest fire would have swept through the treetops. Instead, it lay down and became a backing fire.

Then the weather shifted, and the fire momentum collapsed. The big test passed, without singeing any more of the treatment acres.

Thus the question: If most of the treatment areas never faced fire, how can we say they worked?

***

Last summer, Seielstad published some of his research on let-burn fires in the Selway-Bitterroot, Frank Church and Bob Marshall wildernesses. His team particularly looked at how new fires behave when they run into the scars of older fires. They found most of the time, new fires overlapped into the old burns, but not in significant amounts.

Fuel treatments may work like burn scars, Seielstad said, although they’re not a direct comparison. But forest treatment projects have some impacts beyond fire behavior. For example, the community collaboration process that develops them can have great social benefits.

In the Hughes Creek case, dozens of area residents got jobs clearing slash, repairing roads and cutting timber. Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake received a lot of sawlogs. And a big group of environmentalists, timber workers, Forest Service staff and landowners found they could work together.

“All these things have value, but it’s hard to put in terms of economic value,” Seielstad said. “We know what it costs to fight the fires. But if we’re not shooting each other, what’s that worth? A million dollars?”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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