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CLEARING THE AIR 6-1-16 LMS

Salmon/Challis National Forest Supervisor Chuck Mark attended the June 1 meeting of the Salmon City Council to explain the timing behind a prescribed burn that took place during the Salmon Valley Select Horse Sale and to answer any questions the council might have.

Mark prefaced his remarks by saying one way or the other it is not a matter of if there will be smoke, it’s a matter of when. He said the Forest Service can either pick the place, time and conditions for a prescribed burn or wait until Mother Nature decides where to put the next blaze.

He described the purpose of any prescribed burn as being to reduce forest fuels in an effort to prevent larger, catastrophic forest fires and said there are many aspects that must be considered in the preplanning which precedes ignition. The list of factors to address includes projected duration, geographic place and terrain, channeled smoke and weather. He said the weather directs where the smoke will go. Time of year also dictates what path the smoke will take. He said late Summer and early fall produce a greater number of temperature inversions which direct where the smoke settles, especially at night.

Mark said the biggest factor is wind and that temperatures and relative humidity determine how well the fuel that is being burned burns. The types of fuel burning dictate burn duration while humidity determines the amount of smoke produced. Wet fuels smolder and produce lingering clouds of smoke while drier fuels burn hotter and faster and produce less smoke.

The best ignition methods are also a consideration. The fires can be started by hand or drop ignition devices from a helicopter. The ignition pattern selected determines intensity, duration and also how much smoke the burn will generate. Mark said the Forest Service must coordinate with state smoke management agencies as well as agencies just over the border in Montana.

The council’s main reason for inviting Mark to the meeting was to find out why the Humbug burn was scheduled during the Horse Sale. The Supervisor stated that if the burn had not taken place in those three days the agency would probably have been unable to do a burn at all this Spring. He said a week later crews tried to conduct another prescribed burn and had to shut down the operation due to the fuels being too dry.

Councilman Rob Jackson asked if the Forest Service takes economic impacts into consideration. He said Salmon is getting the unfortunate reputation of being smoky. Mark affirmed the whole reason for the North Fork prescribed burns is to prepare that area for the next wildland fire no matter the size and, to protect the wildland interface all along the Highway 93 North corridor. He said, “That’s the economic impact I’m thinking about.”

Mark said if prescribed burns can take place during the shoulder seasons when conditions are not as intense as summertime there will be a better chance of protecting homes, the highway and the ski area when Mother Nature lights the next fire and that to him is a consideration of economic impact. He said there is always the weighing and balancing of short term and long term impacts.

Jackson asked if the agency could have waited two days to light the prescribed Humbug fire and Mark answered the burn results would not have been as good or have accomplished as much. He said the Humbug burn covered 2,000 acres whereas, weather-wise, waiting two days might have meant only 500 acres. Mark said at this point the agency is out of its ‘burning window’ until next fall.

The council thanked him for the information.
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