Friday, July 23, 2010

Forest Service predicts ‘busy’ fire season

Cool conditions helped but area drying out

Express Staff Writer

Blazes popping up near the Idaho National Laboratory and Lucky Peak have kicked off the Idaho fire season. Though June was cold and wet, the Forest Service is preparing for what could be a serious season.

"August and September could be pretty busy if we keep on the weather trends we're getting now," said Bill Murphy, North Zone fire management officer for the Sawtooth National Forest.

Murphy said the cool weather and the moisture in June helped keep the area green and possibly slowed the fire season, but now the area is starting to dry out.

Contributing to the fire risk is last season's meager snowpack, which stood at 62 percent of normal. The snowpack was comparable to the one that preceded the 2007 fire season, when 2 million Idaho acres, including the 48,000-acre Castle Rock Fire in Blaine County, burned thanks to an extremely hot, dry August.

"Things are different than that year," said Murphy. "In 2007, we had August conditions in June. By the time August came around, well, it doesn't get any drier."

This year, the threat posed by the minimal snowpack was mitigated by the Wood River Valley's cool, wet weather well into June. Murphy said current fire conditions are at about average for the month of July.

However, campers still need to be "vigilant," Murphy said.

Brock Astel, public affairs officer for the Idaho Bureau of Land Management, said that of the 32 fires reported in south-central Idaho this year, 17 were human-caused. One of the major causes, he said, is vehicle-based. Sparks from dragging equipment, blown tires or bad wheel bearings can ignite dry grass, and Astel said many fires can be prevented by proper vehicle maintenance.

There have been four fires this season in Ketchum and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, three of which were caused by humans. One small blaze was started on the last day of ski season, when a flare gun was fired to start a ski race. The other two were caused by campers, one of whom emptied charcoal briquettes into a dry area, and one of whom lit a "flash pile" composed of small limbs that are by-products of firewood collecting.

Murphy said the Forest Service urges campers to extinguish campfires carefully and fully. Failure to extinguish a campfire is a federal violation that can result in a hefty fine.

In addition, Astel urges those who will be burning materials to get burn permits.

Katherine Wutz:

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