Fire officials warn of above average potential for large wildfires in Idaho through September
Dry conditions and extreme heat are two of the major concerns this fire season
In this file photo, crews battle the Howe Peak Fire, a human-caused fire that started July 2, 2020, outside of Howe, Idaho. (Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management / National Interagency Fire Center)
Wildland fire officials from multiple government agencies warned Thursday the potential for significant fires is above normal for Idaho for July through September due to drought and extreme heat.
And with the Independence Day weekend ahead, fire officials urged Idahoans to seriously consider not using fireworks to reduce the risk of human-caused fires.
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There are several reasons fire officials are concerned this year. There has been a warm, dry spring for much of the region. More than 90% of the West is experiencing drought conditions, with more than half of the West in the highest categories of extreme or exceptional drought.
There is an increase in the number of people using public lands and parks and recreating outdoors.
Multiple years of similar conditions are building upon each other.
When fire officials warn about the potential for significant fires, they are talking about large fires that require resources from outside the local area, such as an incident management team, to suppress the fire.
“What we are trying to do today is open a dialogue and try to get some messaging out and some understanding, so we as fire professionals and the public can make sure we are working together to address the extraordinary circumstances we are facing this year,” Dennis Strange, state fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho, said during a online news conference Thursday.
Fire officials said they are not only bracing for the potential for significant fires, they are bracing for them to begin earlier.
“We are generally about a month to two months ahead of schedule (in terms of dryness), essentially seeing near or peak values for fire danger right now,” Nick Nausler, a meteorologist at National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, said.
With conditions right for large fires, officials asked the public to be vigilant.
Human-caused fires common throughout the West
Nearly nine out of 10 wildfires are human caused, said Ben Newburn, director of fire and aviation management for the intermountain region of the U.S. Forest Service.
Over the past three years, more than 1,900 human-caused wildfires burned more than 500,000 acres in Idaho, according to the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center. In the past 10 years, wildfires burned about 675 homes and structures across the Gem State.
Some of the causes include failing to extinguish campfires, shooting guns, vehicles and fireworks.
Last year in the Sawtooth National Forest, officials observed 342 abandoned campfires, Newburn said. In the Boise National Forest, they observed 384 last year.
“Last season we saw a dramatic increase in visitation to our public lands, resulting in a significant increase in human-caused fires, including abandoned and escaped campfires,” Newburn said. “These fires are 100% preventable.”
Effective Friday, state and federal officials implemented Stage 1 fire restrictions for public lands, trails and forests Blaine, Camas and Custer counties.
Stage 1 fire restrictions include prohibiting “building, maintaining, attending or using a fire, campfire, or stove fire except within a designated recreation site, within a fire structure provided by the administrative agency, or on their own land and only within an owner-provided fire structure.” The restrictions also prohibit smoking except in enclosed vehicles, developed recreation sites and certain other areas.
On Wednesday, Gov. Brad Little was left out of a meeting President Joe Biden had with Western governors, despite Idaho having among the worst wildfires in the nation.
Anyone heading out camping for the holiday weekend can check www.idahofireinfo.com for a list and definition of restrictions in place.
Fire official ask Idahoans to not use fireworks due to “tinderbox conditions”
Josh Harvey, fire management chief for the Idaho Department of Lands, urged extreme caution as Idahoans prepare to celebrate Independence Day.
“Normally I purchase a healthy supply of fireworks for my family’s enjoyment and celebrations,” Harvey said during Friday’s news conference. “This year is different. The extreme heat, the lack of early spring moisture and the stress that the grass and brush and our forests are feeling right now has caused some tinderbox conditions out there in the wildlands.”
Harvey said he is doing his part to reduce the risk for wildfires by not using fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July. That doesn’t mean Idahoans have to skip the celebrations, though.
“If you are in an area that is currently allowing fireworks and fireworks celebrations, I would strongly encourage you to not have an independent celebration but to go to your local public display provided by a county or provided by your local city or municipality,” Harvey said.
For people who still decide to use fireworks, Harvey said they should have plenty of friends and family members bring extra water on site and only use large gravel areas or parking lots located far from flammable materials.
Fire officials stressed that fires caused by fireworks can be especially bad because they tend to happen close to houses and structures where people are.
The 2016 Table Rock Fire that burned more than 2,500 across in the Boise foothills and destroyed one home was started by fireworks.
Fireworks laws and restrictions vary across the state. In some places, it is legal for stands to sell them but not for residents to use fireworks. But some local municipalities in Idaho are so concerned with residents using fireworks due to current conditions that they’ve been banned this year.
In Lewiston, Fire Department Chief Travis Myklebust banned fireworks and open burns within the city, while the Nez Perce County Commission declared a state of emergency that bans fireworks in the county, the Lewiston Tribune reported.
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