Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fire danger heats up in valley

Lightning, vegetation contribute to risk


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

A helicopter douses a lightning-caused fire on a hillside above the Indian Creek residential area, north of Hailey, on Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Willy Cook

Lightning storms caused two small fires over the weekend on the Ketchum Ranger District, kicking off the month that fire managers say is notoriously pyrotechnic.

"August is easily one of our busiest months," said Bill Murphy, district fire manager. "We have our crews staffed and ready. With our current conditions, it wouldn't surprise me if we picked up some new lightning starts."

A third fire started over the weekend, near Galena Lodge, was human caused, and a fourth was caused by a tree that fell on a power line.

All four fires were quickly extinguished.

More storms are predicted for the next few days, and there is no shortage of fuel for fires.

The wet spring was good for grass, Murphy said, but good for grass is also good for fires. The cheat grass grew tall and thick before drying out during rainless weeks.

"We went a good six or seven weeks straight without any precipitation," Murphy said. "The lower elevations were getting pretty dry, and we could get a fairly large fire going if people aren't cautious."

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Hailey Fire Chief Mike Chapman said he changed the Smokey the Bear fire danger sign on state Highway 75 from "moderate" to "very high" last week in response to U.S. Forest Service predictions.

"We thought about raising it to extreme," he said. "Then the storms came in and knocked [the risk] right down."

Storms can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the area in question. Lingering moisture and moisture that accompanies storms like the one this weekend actually reduce fire risks, even if lightning is involved, said Heather Tiel-Nelson, spokeswoman for the BLM in Twin Falls.

The Twin Falls area had an 1,100-acre lightning-start fire near Roseworth over the weekend, the district's largest so far. The fire was contained on Sunday, but Tiel-Nelson said the storms predicted for southern Idaho this week could have undesired consequences.

"If the moisture continues along with these storms, it will probably help us. But if it continues to be dry, that could, of course, ignite more fires," she said.

Lighting fires can start small and slowly build, smoldering slowly in moister and more remote areas for days before detection, Murphy said.

"It can happen during a year like this, when the higher elevations are not as dry as our lower elevations," he said. "It could be three or four days or even a week later before we see it."

All fire officials urged recreationists to take extra precaution while travelling and camping near dry vegetation. Campfires should be extinguished completely, cars and motorcycles should not be parked on dry grass and smokers should use extreme care when lighting up or snuffing out.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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