Gov. Butch Otter rubbed his watery eyes after flying through smoky skies to tour two fires by helicopter.
He said he’s confident that firefighters and equipment are well-positioned to save homes and businesses in Featherville, Idaho City, Sunbeam and other communities across the state.
He also said to prepare for a long season.
“There’s a lot more fire, a lot more smoke and a lot more concern we have to look forward to for the next 60 days,” Otter said.
Federal and state fire authorities have set up a separate Area Command at the SpringHill Marriott Suites on ParkCenter Boulevard in Boise to manage the fires in Southern Idaho, which until Tuesday were the top priority for the nation. Some fierce blazes in California, where the season is starting early, pushed Idaho out of the top position.
Area Commander Jeff Whitney said getting the 6,000-acre Springs Fire near Banks and the 100,000-acre Minidoka Complex Fire near Twin Falls contained allows him to move firefighters and equipment to the Trinity Ridge Fire burning near Featherville in the Boise National Forest; the Halstead Fire around Stanley; and the Mustang Complex Fire in the Salmon River Canyon.
All are about 100,000 acres and growing.
“It helps when we take two fires off the table,” Whitney said.
BLAME THE WEATHER
The Trinity Ridge Fire remains capped by an inversion where cold air lies trapped underneath warmer air. Temperatures on the ground are 20 degrees cooler than above, said Dick Bahr, a National Park Service fire ecologist who is leading a strategic decision-making unit for the Area Command team.
And it’s that cold air that’s bringing smoke from the mountain fires into the homes of urban Idahoans.
“Cold air filters down these river canyons,” Bahr said.
It will take a large storm to break the inversion — and forecasters don’t see anything like that on the horizon.
In fact, the chance of a “season-ending event” — a large storm with enough rain or snow to put out the fires by Oct. 1 — is no better than 50 percent, Bahr said.
WORRYING ABOUT IDAHO CITY
Firefighters have defenses set up around Featherville and are prepared to do a back burn in the event the fire comes close. But their big concern now is heavy timber to the southwest that could carry the fire east, up the home- and campground-laden South Fork of the Boise River.
The other concern is to the north, near Alexander and Barber Flats on the North Fork of the Boise. If the fire moves west from there, it could get into heavy timber south of Idaho City and become a threat.
A successful burnout Monday reduced the potential for fire in an area between old burns where fire could run the 14 miles to Idaho City.
Similar efforts are under way northeast of Stanley on the Halstead Fire to keep it out of the Yankee Fork, off Idaho 75 and out of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
BUILDING FIRE DEFENSES
Instead of trying to wrap a line around fires that are 100 miles wide, firefighters are building protective lines and defenses around areas.
After that, they are allowing the fires to burn into the tens of thousands of acres of forest that have burned in the past two decades — areas where the fires die down quickly.
“We’re trying to have secure lines we can defend, and wait for the fire to come to us,” Bahr said.
Otter expressed confidence in the plans and the work he’s seen. “They know what they’re doing,” he said.
Most of all, he’s confident officials are putting safety of the firefighters and the public first. He expressed condolences for the family of Moscow firefighter Anne Veseth, killed a week ago on a small fire in North Idaho.
“We just don’t want to see that happen again,” Otter said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484