Friday, July 22, 2005

BLM says wildfire hazard is extreme

Spring rains could fan summer flames

Express Staff Writer

Idaho residents enjoyed a moist, cool, relatively wildfire-free spring, but that could all change in a big, furious hurry.

The Idaho director of the Bureau of Land Management this week issued a statement cautioning that this year's spring rains have produced extremely dangerous wildfire conditions.

"A thick blanket of continuous, tinder-dry grass now covers millions of acres of public land across southern Idaho with fine fuels, the likes of which has rarely been seen in recent history," reads a July 20 press release from the Idaho BLM. "As temperatures warm up and conditions worsen, wildland firefighters are bracing themselves for the worst."

It appears that when it rains in Idaho, it pours; and when it's sunny, it pours, too. The BLM's announcement is ironic because similar statements emerge during years when there is little precipitation, and tinder-dry conditions persist throughout the summer season.

But that might be an overly crude characterization, said Bill Murphy, the north zone fire management officer for the Sawtooth National Forest.

"It's all relative to the weather," he said. "Now that we're in the warm, dry weather, that precipitates higher fire hazard. It's true: We live in a dry area. People need to be careful. It's the nature of our climate."

Even though Idahoans should be prepared for wildfires every summer, the reality this year is that BLM managers and firefighters are chewing their nails. The desert is overflowing with drying fuel.

Idaho BLM State Director Lynn Bennett has alerted all Idaho BLM field offices to be on high fire alert and is cautioning Idaho residents to be extremely cautious and safe with fire this year.

"Our public land managers and firefighters are faced with serious concerns over increasingly dangerous fire conditions as the summer turns hotter and dryer," Bennett said. "Southern Idaho, like many areas throughout the Great Basin, is experiencing growth of grasses and brushy vegetation on a scale that many of us, and even some like me, who have been around awhile, have never seen in our careers."

With the worsening fire conditions, Bennett last week convened a statewide teleconference, briefing Idaho BLM managers and fire officers on the potential severity of the wildfire conditions.

With record amounts of spring rain across much of southern Idaho, there is as much as three times the normal vegetation. The unusually dense buildup of plants, coupled with dry, warming summer temperatures, is creating extreme fire danger, which is only expected to worsen as the season continues.

In May and early June, a series of wet weather systems moved across southern Idaho, bringing above-average precipitation. The early moisture, coupled with mild temperatures, promoted an extremely heavy crop of grass, a prime carrier of wildfire.

It's not necessarily an example of a natural ecosystem at work, even though the Great Basin evolved with fire as an integral component.

Cheatgrass, an invasive species from Asia, accounts for the lion's share of the increased hazard.

Cheatgrass growth in many areas is estimated at more than 3,000 pounds per acre. The annual average production has only been 600 to 800 pounds per acre in recent years.

"If normal summer precipitation patterns and high temperatures continue, wildfires are going to be hard to knock down, and we can expect to see increases in the number of wildfires that get large fast," Bennett said.

Murphy said higher elevation areas are still green but could dry out as the summer heat continues.

"All the lower elevations are starting to dry out, and the grass is taller this year, with all the moisture we had this spring," he concurred.

A summer fire in Owyhee County provided an indicator of the intense, erratic fire behavior that could haunt the southern part of the state this year.

"In anticipation of the lightning-caused fire start on July 15, we had BLM initial attack crews pre-positioned. They were within 15 minutes of the Clover Fire start, but not even that was close enough."

Within minutes of a lightning strike, the desert was engulfed in "erratic, soaring flames, fanned by gusty winds." The fire quickly grew to 193,000 acres.

Because of the unusually severe conditions, an interagency fire prevention team was assigned to assist state and federal agencies. The prevention team, which began July 15, is developing fire prevention messages, press releases, public service announcements and other public outreach materials.

"Lightning fires are going to keep us busy," Bennett said. "We do not need to add human-caused wildfires to the equation."

In Idaho, the most common causes of human-caused wildfires are fireworks, campfires, agricultural fires, motor vehicles on dry grass and sparks from pulling trailers.

"Please be cautious with fire, and pass along this year's wildland fire caution to your neighbors," Bennett said. "Together, we can help keep the number of wildfires down and make Idaho a safer place this summer."

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