Fire danger expected to be high this summer

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJune 12, 2014 

Don't let the green cast of the Boise Foothills fool you.

Lurking beneath that picturesque facade are tall grasses turning brown that will likely fuel wildfires beginning in the next few weeks.

"It's more grass than we've had in many years. It's dried out and ready to burn," Andy Delmas, fire management officer with the Boise District of the federal Bureau of Land Management said Thursday during a press conference at a U.S. Forest Service helicopter base east of Lucky Peak Reservoir.

Delmas and other local fire managers predicted the fire season will be the worst in several years. The past two years have been drier than normal and last fall and winter provided scant relief, they said. Only during late winter and early spring did precipitation increase, leading to additional grass growth.

"We're much drier than people would expect this time of year," said Bob Shindelar, fire management officer for the Boise National Forest. "We're likely to see major fires at all elevations."

Eighty percent of the grass fires that burn in the Treasure Valley are man-caused, Delmas said. Being extra cautious could help prevent many of those fires.

While lightning is the top cause of fires in the Boise National Forest, carelessness by forest visitors is also a leading factor.

"Every year on the Boise National Forest, we find more than 400 unattended campfires that are still smoldering," Shindelar said. "Each one of those has the potential to cause a fire."

The Idaho Department of Lands has increased its efforts for ranchers to serve as first responders for range fires. The training program encourages ranchers to look for fires and to report them as soon as they can and provide the initial attack, said Emily Callihan, agency spokeswoman.

Last year, ranchers assisted with 30 fires in Southern Idaho, Callihan said. Their efforts kept the fires smaller and allowed them to be put out much quicker than if they had waited for professional firefighters to arrive.

"That allowed the firefighters to focus their attention on larger fires," she said.

A total of 250 people have been trained through the program, including 100 new participants in the Emmett area. They will help keep an eye on 675,000 acres of private rangeland and 2.9 million acres of state and federal land in Southern Idaho.

Fire officials urged people whose homes are surrounded by grasslands and forests take precautions to protect their families and homes. Switching from flammable plants to low-growing varieties that resist starting on fire is a good suggestion, Delmas said. Weeds and other dry vegetation should be removed within 30 feet of structures.

Avoid wood shingles and highly combustible fencing. Don't drive or park cars on dry grass and avoid planting juniper shrubs. Junipers contain a flammable oil and easily start on fire. Also keep tree limbs pruned back from rooftops.

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