Area experts debate wildfire issues

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(Photo by MARY MALONE) A panel of fire, forestry and county officials gathered at the Sandpoint branch of the East Bonner County Library District on Saturday to discuss the the current state of wildfires in North Idaho.

SANDPOINT — Forest management and defensible space were a common theme as a group of area fire, forestry and county experts formed a panel on Saturday to discuss the current state of wildfires in North Idaho and the surrounding region.

“Wildfire has affected everyone in this room, and by all indications, we’ll be facing more summers like this one in the future,” Jean Gerth, event organizer with 350sandpoint.org, told the approximately 50 people who attended the panel discussion.

“Planning now, and building on what we have in place, will help protect firefighters, our property and our health. My hope is that everyone here will leave with an idea of their next step in planning for that future ... We are beyond wanting to just talk about this.”

The discussion, “Fired Up: Planning for Wildfire in Bonner County,” was hosted by 350sandpoint.org in the Sandpoint branch of the East Bonner County Library District. Panelists included Nate Rogers, Idaho Department of Lands fire marshal; Matt Butler, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service in the Idaho Panhandle; Bob Howard, director of Bonner County Emergency Management; Vernon Roof, Northside Fire commissioner; Jeff Connelly, Bonner County commissioner; Milton Ollerton, Bonner County planner; and Erin Mader, communications for Idaho Forest Group.

Each panelist was tasked with answering specific questions, including what their role is in fire response, how they coordinate with other agencies and whether their agency has the resources to respond adequately to wildfire.

One of the biggest advantages for fire departments and other agencies, as noted by several of the panelists, is agreements and memorandums of understanding with other agencies outside of their jurisdiction to come in and help when needed. While many departments are equipped to deal with small fires, none are equipped to deal with the fires that spread to hundreds or thousands of acres. IDL and USFS, for example, assist local agencies with fire response and resources.

“The problem we run into is when the whole United States gets extremely busy … then there is a lack of resources nationally, and that is what we are starting to see,” Butler said.

As a local district, Roof said Northside firefighters are the first responders when a fire happens within Northside’s jurisdiction. Because it is a small department, he said they have “very good” mutual aid agreements with other local agencies, such as Selkirk Fire, Sam Owen and Clark Fork.

“We try to have a mutual aid matrix in place because we realize we just do not have the people to handle every single circumstance,” Roof said.

He also reiterated, a few times, that the department can always use volunteers.

It is not only the fire departments and agencies who respond to fires that work together during wildfires. Howard said Bonner County Emergency Management plays a support role to all fire agencies, local, federal and state. For example, he said, they are the “eyes and ears” for the county commissioners and the community. They also get disaster declaration approval when needed, and apply for grants for fire management assistance if needed, he said.

“We coordinate with all public safety agencies — state, federal, the entire spectrum,” Howard said.

Mader noted that, while IFG does not play a role in fire response, it does play a role in fire prevention.

Mader said there is about four times the amount of trees per acre than there was historically, because fire is prevented from moving through the acreage to clean out the smaller trees and allow the bigger trees room to get the light and water they need to survive. Between that and insects, the forests are not healthy, she said.

“As time moves on, we are seeing more and more forests, more trees, dying, and less healthy growth,” Mader said. “There is all kinds of side effects of that, and one of them is you are kind of setting up a situation where things are going to burn easier and faster … managing your forest is one way to get around that.”

As for defensible space for property owners, Connelly said the county’s BONFire program has done “a lot of work in Bonner County” and continues to be very successful at reducing fuel hazards around homes. The program aims to help property owners create defensible space and provide them with information and educational tools to protect their home or business from wildfire.

“You are not always going to make yourself fire safe,” Connelly said. “The conditions will control that … Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking we can completely cure this; we can help prevent it, that’s what we can do.

Ollerton said there is “a lot of benefit” that can come from conversations such as the one on Saturday, especially as the county works with the community to create plans for fire protection. For instance, he said, there are grants available for property owners to create defensible space around their homes.

“There are lots of opportunities to address this, we just need to start having the conversation,” Ollerton said.

Homes with a defensible space are also safer for firefighters in the event of a fire, and will be the first homes the firefighters will attempt to save, agreed Butler and Rogers.

“We are not going to put our folks in areas where they are going to fail,” Rogers said.

As the panel discussion came to a close, Gerth said 350sandpoint.org plans to host similar discussions in the future, in an attempt to get people to take action.

Mary Malone can be reached by email at mmalone@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.

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