Idaho’s fire season has been turned on its head this year.
North Idaho, the wettest part of an otherwise dry state, is where the greatest threat of big fires exists. Conditions look hauntingly like those 105 years ago, when a million acres burned in two days across North Idaho and Montana.
That year, there was little spring rain and the snow cover melted early, said Elers Koch, the Forest Service supervisor who wrote the official history of the 1910 fires.
“July followed with intense heat, and drying southwest winds from the Columbia plains,” Koch wrote. “Crops burned up all over the region.”
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Sounds familiar. This June, state forestry officials said they had seen an unusually dry spring and were seeing fire conditions in the north that they usually don’t see until late July or August.
Most of the attention in the 1910 fires was on the area around Wallace and in the St. Joe. But on July 8, 1910, the Pend d’Oreille Review reported a “heavy fire was raging” on Humbird Lumber Co. land near Lake Pend Oreille. The newspaper reported a week later that 200 men of the Pend Oreille Fire Protective Association were battling a blaze near Sandpoint.
So this year’s Cape Horn Fire — which started along Lake Pend Oreille at midday on July 5, forced evacuations in Bayview and continues to burn out of control — fits a pattern that hasn’t been seen in this region for decades. They call it the asbestos forest because much of the area hasn’t burned for nearly a century.
A new paper by two University of Idaho professors published in the journal PLOS ONE said that despite changes in forest management and fire suppression, climate has played the major role in the size and intensity of wildfires.
The increase in wildfires in the past 30 years coincides with an increase in warm, dry summer conditions, according to the study. The same is true for the early 20th century, including 1910. During a cooler, wetter period in the middle of the 20th century, fire activity decreased.
“Climate has enabled fire across the Northern Rockies for the past hundred-plus years, despite the significant role that humans have played in managing our lands,” said John Abatzoglou, University of Idaho associate professor of geography and co-author of the study. “Our results suggest climate variability and change will continue to shape fire activity across the forests of the interior Northwest.”
That means as the climate gets warmer, the runoff comes earlier and the winters leave less and less snowpack, the asbestos forest will turn flammable — maybe for a long time. This season’s fires could be the signal fires for the future.
“The tight link between fire and climate documented by this research suggests the potential for an unusually large fire season across much of the region,” said Philip Higuera, associate professor in the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources and the study’s lead author.
Panhandle National Forest Supervisor Mary Farnsworth has been preparing for this season since last fall, when dry conditions began. She has positioned equipment and given firefighters extra training.
“For me, I have to think in the here and now,” she said. “I’m paying attention to this season.”
Current conditions put the fire danger across Idaho’s usually moist Panhandle at high to extremely high due to the dry fuels in the forests. In other words, they look like forests in Southern Idaho in a dry year.
This could change. In 1910, a cooling trend and some rain gave North Idaho a reprieve in late July. But by then, fires were burning across the region and thousands of firefighters were spread across the landscape. Then August arrived, and it got drier and drier.
The winds came Aug. 20 and blew for two days.
“All along the line, from north of the Canadian boundary south to the Salmon, the gale blew,” Koch wrote. “Little fires picked up into big ones. Fire lines which had been held for days melted away under the fierce blast.
“The sky turned a ghastly yellow, and at four o’clock it was black dark ahead of the advancing flames.”
When it was over, 85 people — including 78 firefighters — were dead. When the season ended, 3 million acres across the region had burned.
Firefighters today have a lot of technology at their fingertips that their counterparts of 1910 didn’t have. The public has many more sources for warnings to get out of the way.
But North Idaho also has thousands more homes and businesses spread across the forests and on the edge of communities such as Bayview, Sandpoint, Coeur d’Alene, Kellogg and Wallace. Farnsworth and her crews will do all they can, but human safety will be the top priority.
How many of those homes will survive if the winds kick up and the sky turns ghastly yellow again?