Idaho’s extreme conditions, eclipse traffic have fire officials on edge

Idaho wildfires have burned more than 256,000 acres this season — and we’re facing another five or six weeks of higher than normal fire potential, according to the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center.

Wildfire activity in the West has escalated in recent days because of thunderstorms that have sparked hundreds of new fires, according to NIFC. State and federal fire managers have raised national preparedness to its top level — level five — for only the fifth time since 2007. That means they can call in additional assistance from the military and international sources.

Grasses and brush that greened up after an unusually snowy winter and mild spring are fully dried out following near-record July heat, creating abundant fuel for wildfires.

Those conditions, coupled with the anticipated influx of tens of thousands of out-of-state visitors to recreational areas for the Aug. 21 eclipse, have fire officials concerned.

“It’s the hottest, driest conditions of the year,” said Ed Delgado, predictive services manager at the National Interagency Fire Center. “If by chance we get a good rain-producing system in the next two weeks, before the eclipse, that could mitigate fire conditions.”

Fires could affect viewing of the eclipse, and that’s already a fear because of the smoke from blazes around the Northwest.

Playing outdoors

Wildfires have burned more than 6 million acres in the United States this year, 2.8 million acres more than the annual average over the past decade.

About 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans, many of whom are playing outdoors or on their way to play. That’s another reason fire officials are urging the public to take extra care the next couple of weeks.

One thing campers and boaters can do before they leave home: Make sure tow chains and other metal parts aren’t dragging. That can spark a fire.

At camp sites, never leave fires unattended. When you leave, make sure they are out.

“Most people don’t realize that those campfires need to be so cold that you can actually touch them,” said Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for NIFC. “They think, ‘Oh, throw a bucket or two of water on it and it’s good.’ 

People also need to be careful about driving or parking in tall, dry grass. “If the exhaust pipe is hot, it could start a fire,” Jones said.

Homeowners who live in or adjacent to forests are urged to move flammable materials near houses to at least 50 to 100 feet from structures and take other steps to protect their property. More than 1,200 structures across the country have burned this fire season.

SmokeyBear.com has many helpful tips for preventing wildfires.

Longer fire season?

The number of Idaho wildfires and acres burned varies widely from year to year — from a low of 22,700 acres in 2009 to a high of 1.9 million acres in 2007, according to NIFC data. Last year, more than 360,000 acres burned in 630 fires around the state.

Fire season in Idaho starts as early as May and typically runs through August, though it can extend into the fall, Delgado said. It could go until September this year, he said.

“Usually by mid-August we’re winding down fire season,” he said. “By mid-September, we’ve put down most of the fires we’re going to see. There might be an oddball fire here and there.”

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller

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