The alarm bells in Sara Arkle’s head usually start to go off this time of year anyway.
Last week, a phone call triggered that alarm before her instincts could.
A mountain biker called the Foothills and open space senior manager for Boise Parks and Recreation to ask if he could build a fire near Stack Rock. Fires are prohibited across the Boise Front, where fire danger is particularly high in the summer.
“There are clearly a lot of people we have not yet reached,” Arkle said. “For every person who calls, there’s probably more.”
At least seven fires have burned in the Foothills over the past two summers, not counting the massive Pioneer Fire that started near Idaho City. The list includes the Table Rock Fire, which burned one home and moved eerily close to many more, and the Mile Marker 14 Fire, which did significant damage to the Boise River Wildlife Management Area east of town.
All of the Foothills fires were human-caused (including one that started with burning toilet paper), which is not unusual. A University of Idaho study showed that half of wildfires in the Northwest — and 84 percent nationwide — are started by humans. City officials say that number is about 85 percent in the Boise Foothills.
“As soon as the cereal rye gets to shoulder height, I start to worry daily about, ‘When is the fire going to happen,’ ” Arkle said. “It’s not if. It’s when. Obviously, I’m concerned about the safety of the people in the Foothills, the people who live near the Foothills, and I also worry about managing this ecosystem to promote native habitat because fire is a disturbance that tends to be followed by non-native-species issues.
“... We have a really awesome access opportunity with 192 miles of trails, which means a lot of people out there. We need to be reminding people every year to be very, very careful.”
The biggest reminder: Fireworks and fires are prohibited in the Foothills.
In fact, Boise city code prohibits the use of even “non-aerial common fireworks” in residential areas defined as within the Foothills. The boundary of the Foothills is spelled out in the code.
Fireworks started the Table Rock Fire.
“People that live in those communities, they’re not allowed to light off any fireworks whatsoever, including what’s considered safe-and-sane fireworks,” said Jerry McAdams, a captain and wildlife mitigation coordinator for the Boise Fire Department.
McAdams hasn’t noticed a trend in the number of wildfires in the Foothills but figures the increased number of people living along the Boise Front will make fire a persistent problem.
“People are going to do things that cause fires and we hope that folks would start to consider how their actions affect the environment and how their actions affect the people who live and recreate in the Boise Front,” McAdams said. “... You’re going to see that risk either escalate or stay the same. Unfortunately, we’re not going to ever not have a wildfire problem because we live in a rangeland area that has that historical wildfire regime.”
Some of the greatest wildfire risks are cutting and grinding tools. McAdams encourages people to use string trimmers and plastic blades in at-risk areas.
For trail users, Boise Fire placed interpretive signs on several popular trails four years ago that provide information on how to react to a wildfire in the area.
“I would encourage folks to take a moment and take a look at those signs and educate themselves,” McAdams said.