Fire risk rises as Idaho summer heats up

Experts foresee 'volatile' conditions and urge Idahoans to be extra careful this weekend.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comJuly 4, 2014

The Beaver Creek Fire explodes near Hailey last August. Fire officials are concerned that devastating blazes are on the horizon for Idaho again this summer, because it's hot and it's dry. In other words, it's summer.



    Officials are asking people to take precautions to prevent wildfires as the fire danger rises this holiday weekend:

    • Carrying, discharging or using fireworks is banned on most public lands, as is the use of incendiary/tracer ammunition and exploding targets.

    • Be sure vehicles and trailers do not have dragging chains, that their wheel bearings are well-greased and that their tires are properly inflated.

    • Make sure campfires are fully extinguished.

The wildfire season in Idaho and the rest of the West has been relatively quiet, but that's expected to change quickly.

High temperatures and unusually dry fuels have Idaho public lands managers bracing for the kind of explosive conditions that pushed fires in 2013 to burn hundreds of thousands of acres of Idaho in a matter of days.

"We will see those same conditions in the next two weeks," said Bob Shindelar, fire management officer for the Boise National Forest.

Last year, lightning ignited the Elk and Pony Complex fires east of Boise and the Beaver Creek Fire near Fairfield Aug. 8. By Aug. 10, the first two fires had grown to more than 100,000 acres and the Beaver Creek fire was racing toward Hailey where firefighters finally stopped it on the edge of Wood River Valley communities.

This year, eastern Idaho, the Boise and Payette river valleys and most of the state north of Stanley had good late-season snows that filled reservoirs and gave farmers and boaters the flows they need for summer. But since the snowpack came late, the forests continued to dry out well into winter.

That has even the larger timber - the so-called "thousand-hour fuels" - bone dry. Add the lush grasses that have grown up with during this relatively wet spring in many areas and conditions are ripe for extreme fire conditions.

"If we get fire starts, we will likely have some volatile fire behavior if hot, dry weather continues," said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management.

That's why public land managers are urging Idahoans to be extra careful when they head into woods and rangeland this weekend. In addition to ensuring campfires are out, Shindelar warned people to be careful with fireworks and to watch where they park their cars to ensure they don't ignite tall grass with exhaust systems. Fireworks of all kinds are banned on most public lands.

"It's very important the public is paying attention to their surroundings," Shindelar said.

Some parts of the state are far drier than others, especially from Owyhee County up to Galena Pass, the Lost River Range and Pioneer mountains. A June 2 fire about 10 miles south of Stanley in the Sawtooths burned 80 acres of lodgepole pine before it was brought under control June 7.

Reservoirs in the Wood River and Lost River drainages are expected to run out before the end of July leaving a few farmers short, said Ron Abramovich, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The swath of dry area across South Idaho is due to the lack of storms tracking from California. Even as Boise to the west and the Tetons to the east had good snowpacks, the center of the state remained in the same drought as California.

"The farmers and skiers know it, too," Abramovich said.

Idaho's fire season has grown by 32 days since 1984 and continues to get longer, said Penny Morgan, a University of Idaho fire ecology professor. This year, the fire season may last well into the fall.

Nearly half of the Boise National Forest and even more of the Payette have burned since 1984. Morgan and her colleagues are studying how long past fires help reduce the threat of future fires in light of the gradually warming temperatures they have measured.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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