The summer of 2012 started out pretty well for the forests in the Pacific Northwest. A moist spring kept Idaho mountains green while states like Colorado battled dry conditions and devastating wildfires.
By August, thanks to one of the hottest and driest summers on record, Idaho forests were ready to burn. The state ended up with 1.713 million acres of forest and grasslands burnt and charred by the time fire season ended in October — the worst such year since 2007. The state had 384,000 acres burn in 2011.
The kicker is that 2012 could have been worse. The weather might have dried out the forest, but people did most of the damage.
“For lightning, it was a super-dry year. We didn’t have the thunderstorms that usually come through (southwest and central Idaho),” Boise National Forest Fire Management Officer Bob Shindelar said last week.
“By the end of the summer, our conditions were just as dry this year as they were in 2007. It could have been much, much worse if we had a typical amount of lightning,” added Dave Olson, Boise National Forest spokesman. “We caught a break. Our biggest problems, by far, were human-caused.”
Idaho had 384,103 acres charred by wildfire in 2011 — with an almost identical number of fire starts — 1,092 in 2012 and 1,094 in 2011.
In the Boise National Forest, there were 21 human-caused fires vs. 42 lightning- caused fires in 2012, burning a total of 154,000 acres. The 10-year average for the forest is 14 human-caused vs 72 lightning-caused a year, which burn an average of 32,000 acres.
The math doesn’t reflect well on us humans.
Fire managers know lightning storms are inevitable and that wildfire is part of forest ecology. What is not part of the natural cycle are hot mufflers, cigarette butts and smoldering remains of campfires.
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
It appears as if a burning utility vehicle (similar to a golf cart) on a remote forest road started the Trinity Ridge Fire on Aug. 3. The blaze eventually burned 146,000 acres of Boise National Forest, led to the evacuation of Featherville and led to the closure of 300,000 acres of popular forest recreation area. Fire crews battled that fire until Oct. 15.
At one point, there were more than 1,400 firefighters working on the blaze, with two separate fire management teams on opposite sides of the fire because it was so big and moving towards the wildland-urban interface. Camping, hiking and angling were barred on the Middle Fork of the Boise River drainage around the wildfire for more than a month.
By the time it was over, fire officials had spent $45 million fighting the blaze.
Shindelar says fire investigators know who owned the vehicle and have talked to that person but are still trying to figure out whether a criminal case exists or whether there is evidence of negligence. It could be up to the U.S. attorney’s office to try to recover costs associated with the blaze.
The cause of the 6,150-acre Springs Fire in the mountains between Idaho 55 and the Banks-to-Lowman Highway is still under investigation, but officials do know it started right next to Skinnydipper Hot Springs, on an often slippery hillside that is too steep for any mechanical vehicles. There was no lightning that day.
Shindelar declined to say whether any suspects have been identified or if investigators know exactly what started it. But he did say they know there were people near the hot springs at the time the fire started, just after 10:30 p.m. Aug. 5, and that investigators have done several interviews in connection with the case. The final cost for the Springs Fire was about $7 million.
The fire for which an attempt to get restitution seems most likely to be successful would be the 440- acre Karney Fire, which burned one home and threatened more than 100 others in the Robie Creek and Wilderness Ranch areas off Idaho 21 in September.
Nathaniel Bartholomew, an 18-year-old volunteer firefighter, is awaiting a jury trial after pleading not guilty to a felony third-degree arson charge. Boise County sheriff’s officials say it appears Bartholomew set the fire to get the attention of his father, also a firefighter.
The Karney Fire was a major priority for fire crews in mid-September. At one point, more than 300 firefighters on the ground were assisted by tanker planes and helicopters as they worked to keep the fire from getting into the Wilderness Ranch subdivision. The final costs for fighting the Karney Fire were just under $2.3 million, according to Idaho Department of Lands reports.
Restitution will be an issue in the criminal case. If there is an acquittal, federal prosecutors could opt later to pursue a civil suit.
Most people don’t have the millions of dollars that it can cost to put out a wildfire. Federal officials can seek compensation though insurance companies, depending on how the fires are lit. Individuals who are found to be negligent may be required to pay a portion of the costs, Hargrove said.
It can be difficult to prove who started most human-caused fires. The people responsible rarely stick around to tell what happened, officials said.
If investigators can figure that out and prove negligence, the first move is to see whether criminal charges are possible, as with the Karney Fire.
Recovering costs gets harder when fires are considered accidental.
If fire officials conclude their investigation and find negligence, but no obvious criminal activity in a human-caused blaze, it’s up to federal prosecutors to determine whether a lawsuit is possible, said Syrena Hargrove, the civil and appellate chief for the U.S. attorney for Idaho.
That doesn’t happen very often, considering the number of human-caused fires logged every year.
But the federal government does try to get back whatever costs it can. Hargrove said her division can investigate as many as five cases a year. Many of those are resolved before a lawsuit is filed, she said.
For instance, in January the federal government retrieved $207,000 for the cost of fighting the 13,000-acre Middle Butte fire in 2010 from the Sunroc Construction Co. of Idaho Falls.
The fire started when an overheated piece of metal fell from one of Sunroc’s dump trucks and rolled off U.S. 26 near Atomic City. The $207,000 didn’t cover all the costs, but it was a significant amount, Hargrove said.
Over the past several years, those cases that become lawsuits are settled before they get to trial, Hargrove said.
For example, the federal government sued the Gem County Rod and Gun Club in 2011 for $423,531 to recoup costs for fighting the Sand Hollow wildfire northwest of Boise in 2009.
That fire, started by bullets, moved from the gun club to Bureau of Land Management land, where it burned more than 800 acres before fire crews put it out.
That case was resolved before it went to trial, but it is unclear how much money the government got back. The amount of compensation was sealed as part of the settlement.
One case that has yet to be resolved is the USA vs. the Lloyd H. Facer Trucking Co.
Federal prosecutors are asking for $151,702 compensation in connection with the 2009 Cub River fire in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in Franklin County in Southeast Idaho.
That fire was ignited by a spark when a metal backhoe hit a boulder.
The backhoe operator tried to put out the fire with water but wasn’t able to do so, according to court records.
Patrick Orr: 377-6219, Twitter: @IDS_Orr