Southwest Idaho summer forecast: Smoky

Dry conditions in the Boise National Forest are four to six weeks ahead of normal.

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJune 12, 2013 

Even at midmorning Thursday, some Boise motorists traveling through the smoke on State Street near Downtown kept their lights on.

CHRIS BUTLER — cbutler@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

Officials predict fire restrictions are likely to be imposed earlier than usual, possibly as soon as the Fourth of July.

Bob Shindelar, fire management officer for the federal forest that covers more than 2 million acres northeast of Boise, predicts smoke from his territory will drift into the Treasure Valley and other areas.

"We will have smoke impacts in southwestern Idaho," Shindelar said Tuesday during a press conference at the Idaho Botanical Gardens in Boise.

Last year, crews responded to 63 fires that burned 154,000 acres in the Boise National Forest.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has already responded to more than 25 fires this year on rangelands in southwestern Idaho. Nearly all of them were human-caused, said Andy Delmas, fire management officer for the BLM's Boise District.

"Only one of them was from lightning," Delmas said.

People parking in dry grass that was ignited by hot car parts were responsible for some of those fires. Gun practice targets that explode when struck are increasingly causing fires, he said. And carelessness in putting out campfires and throwing out burning cigarettes is always a concern.

DEFENSIBLE SPACE

Delmas urged people who live in forested areas to clear vegetation away from their homes and to remove other materials that could become fuel in a fire.

"If people can get out their Weed Eaters and clear spaces around their homes, we can mitigate a lot of those man-caused fires," he said.

Two years ago, a fire that raged along Idaho Highway 16 northwest of Eagle circled around neighborhoods that had created defensible space but did not damage homes, said Carrie Bilbao, a BLM fire mitigation specialist.

"It went right around them," Bilbao said.

A total of 157,000 acres of rangelands burned last summer in the Boise District, all but 30,330 acres on BLM lands. Delmas and Ed Delgado, meteorologist for the National Interagency Fire Center, said a long, cool spring kept rangeland grasses from drying out so quickly this year, a big change from last year.

"We're not looking at huge catastrophic fires in those areas this year," Delgado said.

Besides the exploding targets, Delmas said bullets that ricochet against a metal object are causing a larger number of fires. He suggested people look for areas that burned last year and where there is little vegetation to do their target shooting.

Last year, 1.75 million acres of forest and rangelands burned statewide, That's nearly as much as the 2 million acres that went up in smoke in two days during the Big Blowup of 1910 in North Idaho, the state's most infamous blaze. The total included 400,000 acres of state-owned lands from Boise County north to Valley County, said Emily Callihan, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Lands.

SEQUESTER IMPACTS

This year's federal budget sequester, which forced federal agencies to cut 5.1 percent from their budgets, has not caused significant problems for either the Forest Service or the BLM in gearing up for fire season, Shindelar and Delmas said.

The Forest Service has 500 firefighters and 50 engines on tap for the season, Shindelar said.

"We have not done any reductions in our firefighting capabilities," he said.

The BLM lost about 15 positions and will employ smaller helicopters with crews of 10 rather than the medium-sized helicopters with 14-person crews they've used in the past. The agency, which averages 95 fires that consume about 50,000 acres in the Boise District, will have three units with two engines, a command vehicle and eight firefighters apiece based in Boise.

Three single BLM units will stage at the Star Fire Department and in Bruneau and Hammett.

John Sowell: 377-6423

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