Federal fire system stretched as more wind, lightning head to Idaho

Firefighters across the region are bracing for a cold front Friday that will bring more wind and lightning to areas already burning from Southeast Oregon to North Idaho.

Late Wednesday, federal officials raised the fire preparedness level to 5, its highest level, telling state and region fire managers they will have to fend for themselves for firefighters, aircraft and heavy equipment. More than 60 large fires are burning across 13 states, with more than 19,000 firefighters on the lines.

“The entire national system is now stretched,” said Ron Dunton, Bureau of Land Management deputy for fire and aviation at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “We don’t have much left we can add in.”

The Soda Fire has already burned more than 200,000 acres from Jordan Valley, Ore., to southwest of Homedale in Idaho. It and fires near Vale, Ore., are burning through prime sage grouse habitat as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is deciding what protection the bird needs across 11 western states under the federal Endangered Species Act.

In North Idaho, lightning started hundreds of fires in private forest lands around Kamiah, including the Lawyer Complex of eight fires. Residents of Kamiah have been told to prepare for evacuation, and others fires have firefighters scrambling across the forest lands north to the Canadian border. Fire officials have observed unusually dry conditions across Idaho north of the Salmon River since spring.

Meteorologists expect thunderstorms will develop again Friday in the Great Basin, Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains, with gusty winds and lightning but no widespread rainfall, said Coleen Haskell, assistant NIFC predictive services program manager. After the cold front comes through, officials expect more wind and dry conditions.

“It’s going to be one of those days when we need to eat our Wheaties,” Haskell told NIFC fire managers.

Compared to dry North Idaho, southeast and south-central Idaho conditions have been wetter. Twin Falls got a half inch of rain in an hour Thursday.


The Soda Fire has become emblematic of the challenge that fire managers face since U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell declared that protecting sage grouse habitat was her department’s highest resource priority. Protecting lives and safety remains the top overall priority, meaning that firefighters are protecting homes near Homedale, Adrian, Ore., and Nyssa, Ore., in the path of the rapidly growing fire.

Extreme weather conditions and thousands of acres of cured, dry, hot-burning cheatgrass have fueled the Soda Fire’s rise from a few hundred acres to more than 200,000. The same happened to sagebrush fires near Vale.

“Monday I told the director we had burned 47,000 acres of sage grouse habitat across the whole Great Basin so far,” Dunton said. “That shows how fast things change.” That much habitat and more has likely burned since Monday in the Soda Fire.

Not all of the range that is burning is sage grouse habitat, Dunton said. The big, fast runs the Soda fire made Wednesday were mostly through cheatgrass. BLM experts will examine how much sagebrush has burned so they can prepare for the restoration effort to follow.

Range fires can be controlled relatively quickly when conditions improve. But Dunton said fires in big timber, like those around Kamiah and those that lightning may start in the coming days, will likely last through the end of the fire season.

Fire officials predict more trouble with fire, from northern California to the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies. Another cold front is forecast for Tuesday, with more wind and lightning expected in Idaho from Hells Canyon north.

How well the BLM would be able to maintain enough resources to quickly attack new range fires has been the concern since Jewell announced her sage grouse fire policy. Dunton said that has not been an issue, pointing to the heavy tankers belonging to the Forest Service used on the Soda Fire as proof.

“The Forest Service has been supportive of our efforts,” he said.


Fire managers briefed Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden Wednesday about the increased preparedness level and the impacts on costs. Wyden and Crapo this year reintroduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, a bill to change the way fire suppression costs are paid. The bill, now with 16 bipartisan cosponsors, aims to keep the agencies from having to rob other programs to pay for fires.

A recent Forest Service report showed its fire budget has tripled since 1995 and will continue to rise. In 1995, the Forest Service spent 16 percent of its budget on fire suppression; it’s 52 percent today, and in 10 years it will be 67 percent, the report said.

“That means that annually, over time, the agency will be shifting $700 million from programs that support recreation, wildlife, water quality, forest jobs, to fire suppression,” said Will Whalen of The Nature Conservancy of Idaho.