Information provided by USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Interagency Fire Center, and the U.S. Forest Service.
May is National Wildfire Awareness Month. Did you know that, on average, human-caused wildfires make up 87% of all wildfire occurrences annually? Many of these wildfires occur in proximity to roadways, communities and recreational areas, posing considerable threat to public safety. Fortunately, more than 95% of wildfires are contained in the first 24 hours of initial response, meaning tens of thousands of fires are extinguished before becoming large wildfires.
Wildfire activity is lasting longer and becoming more extreme – a trend resulting in the term “fire year,” which is used to define it as a year-round occurrence. Across the western United States, wildfire activity is starting earlier in the spring and lasting well into the fall; fire activity now typically lasts 75 days longer than 40 years ago. In 2021, the nation spent a record-breaking high 99 days at Preparedness Levels 4 and 5 – the highest levels of wildfire preparedness.
Wildfire suppression costs are increasing. For example, suppression costs nationally stayed below $1 billion before the year 2000. Since 2010, wildfire suppression costs have risen beyond the $1 billion mark consistently each year, with a record of more than $3 billion set in 2018. While the number of wildfires and acres burned can vary, fire years are, on average, becoming longer, costlier and more complicated.
Fuels management can save lives, property and natural resources. Firefighters and land managers use prescribed fire, mechanical thinning, biological treatments and chemical spraying to reduce vegetation buildup. These proactive management tools are used to reduce the impact of wildfires to lives and structures as well as natural resources.
The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)can provide qualifying agricultural producers with technical and financial assistance before and after wildfires strike.
Before the Fire
NRCS has a number of practices under its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to assist with wildfire impact reduction. These include:
- Fuel Break
- Brush management
- Forest Stand Improvement
After the Fire
In the aftermath of a fire, an investigation can be done to determine if agricultural landowners can receive assistance through the Emergency Watershed Program (EWP). This program is designed to remove threats to life and property that could be caused by soil erosion following a wildfire, blocked water ways and several other triggering conditions.
But EWP is not the only help NRCS can provide. Fires can cause the soil in your area to become very
unstable and prone to erosion. Soil erosion can cause a significant increase in sediment and debris delivery to streams. This can lead to flooding. NRCS has several practices and treatments that can help to keep soil in place, including:
- Straw Waddles
- Log Erosion Barriers
- Sandbags Barriers
- Straw Bale Sediment and Dikes
- Rock Check Structures
- Maintaining natural duff, litter and debris on site
Loss of vegetation and forest cover reduces grazing for livestock and wildlife, degrades habitat, increases risk of soil erosion and increases the risk of weed infestations. If possible, these areas should be assessed to determine if they should be reseeded or mulched. Seeding should occur late fall, preferably in November.
It may be difficult to visualize the rebirth of a forest or rangeland following a wildfire. However, nature is well equipped for regenerating some fire-resistant species such as ponderosa pine trees and shrub-steppe species. Some grasses and plants quickly appear on the landscape post-fire. Revegetation of burned areas is also imperative for restoring the health of the ecosystem.
Some possible treatments include:
- Grass seeding a pasture mix for livestock forage or a native mix for wildlife or livestock forage (May need to defer grazing for up to 2 years).
- Forest tree planting (primarily ponderosa pine) May potentially need hand scalping for site preparation to get through the ash down to mineral soil.
- Riparian plantings along stream corridors.
NRCS is available to assist with site specific questions and provide assistance for landowners as they begin to restore the landscape following the fire. To locate a USDA Service Center near you, visit the Idaho NRCS website at www.id.nrcs.usda.gov and click on the “Contact Us” tab.