By Caitlyn Wanner
With more massive wildfires making the news each summer and filling the air with smoke, public concern is growing over the risk of wildfires in Island Park. That is why Henrys Fork Wildlife Alliance, in partnership with the Island Park Sustainable Fire Community, organized a public fieldtrip last Saturday to learn more about the Forest Service’s approach to fire in Island Park. Jonathon White, district fuels specialist for the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, led the fieldtrip, which was free and open to the public. Stops along the hike included the scene of the Lyle springs fire that threatened the Pinehaven neighborhood in 2018. There, the group learned about the tools are and resources that go into fighting wildfires. However, White also stressed the importance of fire to the health of the forest. Four years after the Lyle springs fire, the burn location was providing rich, young forage for wildlife, as evidenced by a large herd of elk and calves that ran through the clearing during the visit. White also pointed out lodgepole pine saplings throughout the burn that had been stimulated by the fire.
The group also visited an aspen stand that was being overshadowed by taller pine trees. White explained that while timber harvest can relieve aspens from competition with conifers, fire is much more effective at stimulating aspen growth. Healthy aspen stands are important wildlife habitat and provide poor fuel for fires, which lowers the severity and spread of wildfires. The gradual loss of aspen stands in Island Park is an ongoing concern for the Forest Service. Two tools the Forest Service use to improve aspen stands and lower the risk of wildfires are mechanical tree thinning and “prescribed fire”. Prescribed fires are designed to mimic low-intensity fires that used to occur naturally and create forest conditions that actually decrease the likelihood of large, destructive wildfires. Before approval, every prescribed fire requires a detailed action plan involving the weather conditions required to maximize control, exact acres to be burned, and crews of personnel to monitor and manage the fire.
The responses of participants on the fieldtrip were overwhelmingly positive. About the field trip, Jonathan White commented, “I think anytime that the public can get into the woods and learn more about the fire ecology of their surroundings is a win for them as well as the local ecosystem. We all need to learn how to live with fire as being a natural part of the landscape.” One participant, Tracy River, described the trip as “a nice day and very informative.” He said he is looking forward to future fieldtrips from Henrys Fork Wildlife Alliance.
HFWA and IPSFC will continue to assist the Forest Service in making information about prescribed fires more accessible and helping landowners make improvements that will protect their properties from the risk of wildfires. More information about upcoming events can be found at henrysforkwildlifealliance.org and islandparkfirecommunity.com.