Friday, July 18, 2008

Idaho fire season off to ‘normal’ start

Slow start to fire season doesn’t mean state won’t see large blazes, officials say

Express Staff Writer

A heavy smoky haze hangs over the snowfree ski runs on Bald Mountain Wednesday afternoon. The haze is being caused by the thousands of acres of wildfire still burning across northern California. Photo by David N. Seelig

What a difference a year can make.

By this time last year, Idaho had seen about 544 wildfires that had burned across a total of 152,000 acres of forest and range statewide.

This year, those numbers are noticeably less, with the state seeing just 363 wildfires and a total of 21,000 acres burned statewide.

"What really stands out is the burned acreage," said Don Smurthwaite, communications manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Perhaps even more telling is the total acreage burned in Idaho by year's end in 2007. In all, about 1.9 million acres were burned, Smurthwaite said.

The 2007 Idaho fire season, one of the worst in recent memory, really got going around the middle of July, he said. That's when blazes like the 600,000-acre Murphy Complex Fire and the massive Cascade Complex east of McCall got their start, he said.

And, of course, any Blaine County resident will recall that it was only several weeks later in mid-August when a single bolt of lightning ignited what in 2.5 weeks would become the 48,520-acre Castle Rock Fire off Ketchum's western doorstep.

So, what's the major difference between this year and last year? First off, last summer followed a particularly poor winter of very little snowfall, Smurthwaite noted. By the beginning of July 2007, conditions in Idaho were more like they are in August in typical years, he said.

This summer, Idaho is feeling the combined effects of a cold, wet winter, and a cool, wet spring, he said.

"That really has served as a bank account against an early fire season in Idaho," he said.

Smurthwaite said the state has also, at least until now, benefited from a general lack of large, dry thunderstorms.

"So it's greener and we haven't had the source of ignition," he explained.

But don't expect Idaho to escape 2008 without having a fire season of some sort. Smurthwaite said the lower rangelands in southern Idaho have already begun to dry out. So far, rangeland fires have grown from 30 to 40 acres to about 100 acres in size on average, he said.

Within three to four weeks, "they'll probably be a 1,000 or 2,000 acres," he said. "We're just seeing the steady, gradual growth."

And by August—the typical height of the state's fire season—that drying out will begin to extend up into Idaho's higher elevation forests, he said.

"That means we'll be more prone to fire," he said. "It's just how Idaho burns in the summer."

Echoing Smurthwaite's comments Thursday was Bill Murphy, the Sawtooth National Forest's north zone fire management officer.

Most importantly, local residents shouldn't look to the surrounding hills and think that just because they're still green that the area can't see another blaze this summer, Murphy said. He noted that the area hasn't received any measurable precipitation in at least three weeks.

"It's probably been even longer than that," he said.

This summer, the state of California is essentially witnessing the same conditions Idaho saw last year, Murphy said. So far this year, about 562,800 acres have burned in northern California alone, he said.

Winds blowing over those fires and then on to the northeast are the reason southern Idaho is seeing so much smoky haze, he said.

"They're really busy," he said.

Long term projections predict that south central Idaho will likely see below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures through the remainder of the summer season, Murphy said. He said it's way too early to declare the region past the most critical fire period.

"August is pretty much our busiest month. We're just approaching the half-way mark."

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