Letters from the West

Idaho wildfire season begins to build momentum

The Idaho fire season picked up momentum Wednesday, with the Buck Fire more than doubling and prompting the Forest Service to call in a national team to manage the blaze eight miles east of the Deadwood Reservoir.

The Type 2 incident management team includes specialists in all facets of firefighting. It allows the Forest Service to focus on initial attack and other fires on the Boise National Forest, where fire danger is high.

Last week’s 2,500-acre Table Rock Fire in the East Boise Foothills got state and federal land managers out, telling the public about rising risks for everything from fireworks to campfires as the region moves into the fire season when forests join rangelands in dry conditions. A changing climate has resulted in fire seasons that are longer and hotter, forcing agencies to prep earlier.

The Idaho Department of Lands, which set records for firefighting costs in 2015, has pre-placed fire equipment around the state. State Forester David Groeschl assured the Idaho Land Board last month his agency won’t hold back on the 6.3 million acres of state, private and federal lands it protects statewide.

“Our goal is to take strong aggressive action with new fire starts and keep fires to less than 10 acres on state-protected lands,” Groeschl said.

Idaho’s biggest fire last year, the Soda Fire in Owyhee County, burned 280,000 acres in Idaho and Oregon in August, including high-value sage grouse habitat. In Nevada last weekend, the Hot Pot Fire almost burned through the tiny Elko County community of Midas and has now grown to 123,000 acres.

Witnesses said they were amazed by the speed of the fire, as were Harris Ranch residents who described the June 31 Table Rock Fire.

Idaho saw forest fires beginning last month, including the 125-acre Banks Fire that was contained June 27.

Fires continue to burn in the Frank River of No Return Wilderness and near North Fork by Salmon. But the Buck Fire at 780 acres, is the biggest forest fire so far. The Forest Service has 150 firefighters, including five crews and six engines and the Boise Hotshots, fighting the fire. Several helicopters and air tankers are dropping retardant and evaluating the fire’s perimeter and containment.

The Forest Service has ordered more firefighters and equipment and issued a closure in the area. So far, no lives or property are threatened.

A firefighter who was flown to Boise after he was injured by a falling snag was released from the hospital after receiving medical treatment for minor injuries.

Meanwhile Congress continues to fight over how to fund wildfire costs. Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, have sponsored legislation to treat large wildfires like disasters, funding them separately so the Forest Service doesn’t have to use fire-prevention funds to fight fires. Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson has pushed similar legislation since 2012.

Others, including Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, want to fund fires at the 10-year average, which has risen from $1.4 billion annually in the 1990s to nearly $4 billion today. She wants any leftover money from light fire years to go into fire-prevention projects like logging and thinning.

The House approved $3.9 billion in its appropriations budget, which Simpson said he supported. The Forest Service said it needs $490 million more.

“I have long advocated for treating catastrophic wildfires as we would any other natural disaster, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes,” Simpson said in June. “However, until those important reforms are made, we must ensure we have the proper funding to protect our precious lands and provide agencies access to the tools necessary to effectively mitigate and reduce the impact of destructive wildfires.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker