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Guest Blog: Gina Knudson of Salmon, ID on the wildfires in her region

Posted by Renee Magyar on September 26, 2012

Gina Knudson shares her thoughts on the wildfires that impacted her community this summer.

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Every year, the fire gods seem to pick on one state, and this year it felt like they picked Idaho. Since late July, those of us who live in Lemhi and Custer Counties in Central Idaho have been sandwiched between the Halstead Fire near Stanley (last calculated at almost 180,000 acres) and the Mustang Complex (336,000 acres and counting). Although thunderstorms were plentiful this summer, real precipitation was not.

Rain, as they say, can wash everything away, and today our first rain showers in weeks are providing much-needed relief. We have our beautiful Beaverhead Mountain range back, and our air quality has moved from the Unhealthy range to Good. Our school children will get to play outside for the first time since school started in late August. I hope that the rain will wash the uncharacteristic grouchiness around town that started multiplying about a month ago. And yes, we are hopeful that a few days of this will mean the end to the fires.

When I moved here in 2002, bitter memories of the 2000 Clear Creek Fire (which also consumed more than 300,000 acres of Salmon-Challis National Forest) were frequently relayed, especially to newcomers. We couldn't imagine the months of smoke, the closure of the famed River of No Return, the impacts to business, the loss of forests that had become old friends. The resentment toward the Forest Service was acrid like the smoke they described.

And now Mustang is bigger. The letters to the editor blaming our federal agencies mismanagement of natural resources and blaming environmentalists for the lack of logging are already being published.

In public lands communities like Salmon, large fires create a justifiable sense of vulnerability. While fire crews did an amazing job of protecting structures and assets like Highway 93, we have friends who were displaced from their homes for weeks. The hazardous air quality will most certainly have long-term health effects for some people. The loss of wildlife and their habitat have not even begun to be calculated.

But I'm hoping our community can move past blame and work toward understanding more about fire and the role it will inevitably continue to play in places like Salmon. We are optimistic, but extremely preliminary reports suggest that the collaborative 13,000-acre Hughes Creek fuels reduction and restoration project slowed the Mustang Fire down and gave firefighters a chance to direct flames away from homes and private property. We need to ask more questions and engage community members in seeing first-hand what the results are. Likewise, I'm hopeful ecologists and scientist who study the aftermath of fires like Mustang and Halstead will consider how the people of these adjacent communities fared through a summer of what seemed like endless blazes. Until we link the two together, our ability to make sense of fire in a forward-looking context will be limited at best.

Gina Knudson is the Executive Director of Salmon Valley Stewardship in Salmon, Idaho.