The Boundary Fire, first detected Aug. 10, 2021, burned in steep, inaccessible terrain in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. It burned more than 87,000 acres about 24 miles north of Stanley, Idaho. (Courtesy of the Salmon-Challis National Forest)
Idaho’s potential for significant wildfires will increase in July and August, state fire officials told Gov. Brad Little and the other members of the State Board of Land Commissioners on Tuesday.
When fire season picks up, half of the seasonal firefighters will be brand new — as turnover leaves Idaho equipped to meet only the minimum standard of fire protection.
The Idaho Department of Lands Fire Management — which is responsible for fire suppression on more than 2.4 million acres of state endowment lands as well additional private forests and rangelands — will be experiencing turnover among firefighters and shortages in fireline leadership personnel, Idaho Department of Lands Fire Chief Josh Harvey said.
Harvey told the Land Board that it has been difficult to retain experienced firefighters, and this season 50% of the department’s seasonal firefighting force is new.
Harvey said the department will need to pursue alternative strategies to properly maintain the fireline leadership, such as rotating engine captains out from districts that are more heavily staffed and placing them in fire districts that lack personnel with leadership qualifications.
“Based on how we have looked in years past, I would say this year we will be meeting a minimum standard for fire readiness,” Harvey said.
Firefighter pay is one reason for turnover
During the 2022 session, the Idaho Legislature approved a 24% increase in state funding for the Idaho Department of Lands 2023 budget in order to have more firefighters and resources available. That led the department to bring on 170 firefighters, up from 140 in previous years, the Idaho Capital Sun previously reported.
Department officials said the budget increase would allow them to increase starting pay for seasonal firefighters to $15 an hour, but state human resources officials have previously told legislators that it is tough for state wages to compete against similar or higher wages offered by fast food restaurants, retail stores and e-commerce firms.
The workforce of seasonal wildland firefighters working for federal agencies has also been destabilized by burnout and a failure to keep pace with wage inflation, as the Idaho Capital Sun and States Newsroom have reported.
Congress approved a pay increase in 2021 for entry-level federal wildland firefighting jobs, up to $15 an hour. One year ago, U.S. Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland announced the Biden administration’s plan to build a health and wellbeing program for wildland firefighters and boost spending on firefighting efforts.
But it will take congressional action to sustain the current wage rates.
“The temporary pay increases for firefighters authorized under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will continue through the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30),” U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera wrote in an update Tuesday on wildland firefighter pay. “We are doing everything we can to inform and educate members of Congress on the potential consequences of the pay cliff.”
Unusual rainfall left fuel in southern Idaho, while North Idaho snowpacks melted
Thanks to a record snowpack in late winter and early spring, most of Idaho has had a slow start to the fire season.
But there are two big causes of concern for July and August, Nick Nauslar, a Bureau of Land Management fire meteorologist, told the Land Board during its meeting at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise.
The gradual snowpack runoff and a wet early spring in southern Idaho has allowed grasses and shrubs to grow, which will dry out and increase the fire risk.
“One thing that does come with all that rainfall and precipitation is grasses grow, shrubs grow and we get more fuels on the landscape, especially in the rangeland,” Nauslar said.
“Due to this above normal fuel loading, we are anticipating that it will dry out some time this summer and will likely increase significant fire potential, especially in the next couple of months,” Nauslar added.
Another area of concern is in North Idaho and the panhandle region, Nauslar said. Those areas had a smaller snowpack, which melted off much more readily and gave way to dry conditions and drought.
“This is a concern for us with the timber in North Idaho and obviously higher elevations up there too, that they will have a longer time to dry out and be available for ignition and fire spread,” Nauslar said.
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