LITTLE ANDERSON CREEK, IDAHO -- The towering evergreen trees that once covered the nearby mountainsides like a thick green beard are gone. Now there are mostly shrubs and grass -- scraggly growth like an adolescent's first facial hair.
The trees were zapped with razor-fast speed last year after lightning strikes started fires in the Boise National Forest, 60 miles northwest of the desert city after which it was named.
Fire charred nearly 28,000 acres of forest here, leaving only charcoal skeletons of trees standing in 30 percent of the area.
The stubble that since has risen from the mountains of black dirt is the first sign of the U.S. Forest Service's effort to help restore the area to its previous state.
The process is called "reforestation," and it will be done elsewhere in Idaho, and in California and Oregon, two other western states that have been especially hard hit by fires this year.
Since Aug. 30, about 51,000 blazes have been reported to the Boise Interagency Fire Center, a logistical fire support facility run by the Bureau of Land Management.
Fire center spokesman Arnold F. Hartigan said the fires have claimed five lives and scorched an estimated 2 million acres in five western states over the past three weeks. About 150 fires continue to burn, although the center reports that most of those blazes have been contained.
"The fire season is not over," said Hartigan, "but we're getting a handle on it. Things should start to wind down over the next three or four weeks."
Although flames are still consuming trees in the West, the Forest Service is already planning to replant some of those areas.
The Senate interior and related agencies subcommittee recommended Friday that $5.7 million in reforestation and timber management funds be used to replant at least 45,000 acres of forest burned this year. David Hessel, director of timber management for the Forest Service, said the cost of this year's fires will continue to show up in future budgets as the full extent of the damage becomes known.
The forest would eventually return without taxpayers' help, but it could take more than 400 years, said Bert Strom, fire management officer for the northern zone of the Boise National Forest. In geologic terms, that's not long. But concerns about future timber supplies and water quality have prompted the Forest Service to help speed up the process in devastated areas.
With replanting, said Strom, "the trees will be ready to harvest again in about 80 years." The reforestation efforts here started long before the fire occurred. The Forest Service regularly harvests seeds from the trees in order to have a stock of seedlings for its ongoing replanting efforts.
The seedlings, which take two years to grow to planting size, are stored and grown like other crops at a nearby nursery. Immediately after the fire, grass seed was spread over the area to prevent the soil from washing off the mountain and into nearby streams. The area was then opened to timber companies, which salvaged enough timber from the burned-out areas to build 7,400 two-bedroom homes. Dave DeMasters, a culturalist with the Boise district, said the $1.5 million earned from the timber salvage was earmarked for replanting.
Four months ago, the Forest Service began what is expected to be a five-year effort to replant about 4,000 of the 28,000 acres destroyed in the Boise National Forest. The final bill for the project should run about $900,000, said DeMasters.
After the trees are planted, "it will take 10 years before the trees are absorbing water and 20 years before they will be a benefit to the slope," said Lyn Hunter Reinig, a hydrologist who worked on the Boise rehabilitation plan.
Evidence of the Forest Service's success in rejuvenating forests rests atop Alder Peak, 25 miles down a bumpy dirt road from Little Anderson Creek. Twenty years ago, fires raced across the area and left the mountains bare. One slope that has been left to nature contains only dense shrub growth. Another that has been replanted is heavily forested with trees.
"It's taken a long time for these babies to get this far," said DeMasters. "In about 60 years, we may be able to get in there and harvest."