Friday, May 29, 2009

Fire season prediction: 'average'

Dry weather in early June could quickly change positive wildfire outlook

Express Staff Writer

A BLM airplane drops a load of fire retardant on the Nature Fire, which burned more than 10,000 acres of mixed public and private land in the Silver Creek area last August. Photo by David N. Seelig

By all appearances, the coming wildfire season in the Wood River and Sawtooth valleys is shaping up to be an average one, local fire officials say.

It could also be busier-than-average season, they admit. In the end, it will come down to the kind of weather the area receives in coming weeks, how active this summer's lightning storms are and how careful local residents are in preventing human-caused fires.

It's enough to give a wildfire manager a headache.

Regional fire managers have already had their hands full with a prescribed burn that jumped containment lines last week near Challis. The blaze took off early in the afternoon on May 19 in the Garden Creek drainage east of the central Idaho city.

Additional fire crews and engines were called in to contain the blaze.

According to Matt Filbert, north zone fuels manager for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and the Sawtooth National Forest's Ketchum Ranger District, local fire managers are currently expecting something of an average fire season. But they are preparing for the worst, as they always do, he said.

"We're always planning for a bad year," Filbert said.

For now, conditions on the ground have benefited from a near-average snowpack, some rain in the last two months and generally moderate temperatures, Filbert said. That said, things could change very quickly in the coming weeks if no new rainfall comes, he said.

"There's only one time when you can say what the fire season was like and that is in November," he said.

Filbert is sure of one thing that should set a lot of locals a little more at ease: This year should be nothing like 2007, when a dry winter and spring combined with above-average temperatures through the summer. A single lightning strike in late August ignited the 48,520-acre Castle Rock Fire near Ketchum.

This summer, the Ketchum Ranger District and SNRA will have four permanent fire engines, a helicopter based at the airport in Hailey and 28 firefighters stationed and ready to respond to any fire. Public fire managers also rely on city and county firefighters based in the Wood River Valley.

To the south, Bureau of Land Management fire officials are also gearing up for the coming wildfire season. According to a news release from the Twin Falls District of the BLM, the agency will have 112 firefighters staffing 18 wildland fire engines this season. Those fire resources will be stationed at the district's three main offices in Shoshone, Burley and Twin Falls.

According to Bill Murphy, fire management officer for the Ketchum Ranger District and the SNRA, how safely people act in the backcountry as well as closer to home will have a huge bearing on the severity of the coming fire season.

"Are people going to be smart or are they going to do stupid things?" he said.

Murphy reminded people that fireworks are always illegal on public lands, no matter the time of year.

Jason Kauffman:

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