Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Fire season arriving early this year

Current fire danger normally not seen until mid-July


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

As last weekend's 300-acre Trail Creek Fire so clearly illustrates, the Wood River Valley and the rest of central Idaho have entered this year's wildfire season weeks ahead of schedule.

Specifically, the region has entered the annual fire season between three to four weeks before it normally does, said Matt Filbert, fuels planner for the north zone of the Sawtooth National Forest.

Factors contributing to the early emergence of the fire season include the previous winter's poor snowpack, the early melt-off of the local snowpack and above-average temperatures the region experienced during the months of April and May.

The warmer weather caused grasses to begin growing much earlier than they normally would have, Filbert said. And because grass only stays green so long, hillsides that would usually still be verdant have already dried out.

So, unless wet weather arrives in the coming weeks, the region will likely experience a longer fire season than normal.

"We're looking at tacking on three to four weeks to our fire season," Filbert said.

Also aiding the early emergence of the fire season are the ongoing effects of an extended drought the region has been experiencing with only several minor breaks since about 2000, Filbert said.

The drought has left local fuels, which include any combustible materials on the forest floor and in open areas, extremely dry. Even the after effects resulting from the above average 2005-2006 winter have been erased as the region has experienced below average snowfall and rainfall during the past 10 months, he said.

Also adding to regional fire manager's list of worries are the three consecutive days of red flag warnings issued recently by the National Weather Service for the local area.

Filbert said that is "extremely uncommon" for this time of year.

Filbert said red flag warnings are issued when critically dry fuels exist alongside low relative humidities and strong winds.

Any decision on whether campfire and other fire restrictions are warranted given the high fire danger will be an interagency decision involving various state and federal land management agencies, Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said Tuesday.

"I would anticipate we'll have this conversation sometime in the middle of July," Nelson said.

However, depending on how the weather plays out over the coming weeks, such a discussion could happen even earlier.

Either way, Nelson described the chances the area will fall under some level of fire restrictions this summer as "likely."

"It's pretty common to go into them (fire restrictions) in late July or August," he said.

While investigators haven't conclusively determined whether a campfire was the cause of the Trail Creek Fire, Forest Service fire managers have listed precautions people should take when starting campfires:

· Never leave campfires unattended. Conditions can change quite quickly, bringing high winds and other weather factors that can cause a campfire to expand.

· In general, keep campfires small, especially in areas where there are flammable materials such as dry grass and other forest undergrowth nearby.

· Make sure campfires are completely out before leaving. The best way to do this is to alternate between pouring water and stirring the fire until it feels completely cool to the back of the hand.




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