Friday, January 13, 2012

Fire agencies: Dry spell doesn’t create fire risk

Wildfire sparks concerns for summer


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

A small wildfire near Bellevue on Tuesday night sparked questions about the impact of the recent dry spell on future and current fire conditions.

"This is a first, a wildfire in the middle of January," said Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman. "[But] it was kind of a nonevent."

Lassman said the Baseline Canal Co. had been burning cottonwood slash with a permit when passersby saw a log flare up and called in the blaze. Wood River fire crews knocked down the blaze and left company crews to control the rest of the burn.

"We put the heavier material out and just called [the company]," Lassman said.

But the fact that the fire was able to spread at all was unusual, and due to the fact that a lack of snow in the area has left the valley high, dry and open to potential fires.

Bill Murphy, North Zone fire management officer with the Ketchum Ranger District, said the dry weather caused late-season fires as recently as mid-October, when a lightning strike on Baldy started a small fire below the Roundhouse restaurant.

"That's pretty late to be having lightning fires," he said. "Most of our lightning fires are in June, July and even August."

According to Inciweb, a website dedicated to documenting wildfires on public land throughout the nation, drier states such as Georgia, Texas and even Montana saw fires throughout December and into January, ranging from almost 4 million acres in Texas to a current 43 acres burning in Georgia.

"Those areas still haven't recovered from the drought [last year]," Murphy said.

Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle said the Wood River Valley is not likely to see this type of winter fire. Any fire would start on a dry south slope, he said, but would stop once it spread to a snow-covered north slope.

"Are we worried about it? Not really," he said, adding that it was far more likely that a fire would start in early spring, before the new growth covers old, dead grass and other fuel.

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"We've had in exceptionally dry years fires in March and April before," he said. "Usually, those are low-snow years. I wouldn't call it a big concern, but there is a possibility for man-made fires."

Murphy said it's too early in the season to be able to tell what the impact will be on this summer's fire starts.

Last year, a January-February six-week dry spell in the Wood River Valley was followed by a cool, wet spring and early summer that cut down on the number of fire starts in the region. This year could be a repeat of 2011, as the La Niña pattern that dominated last winter is still present this year.

La Niña—Spanish for "the girl"—is a weather system that brings varied but fairly predictable effects across the country. It's associated with cooler Pacific Ocean temperatures, stronger easterly trade winds and a slightly increased chance of above-average precipitation for the Wood River Valley.

Lassman said that weather pattern is the reason he isn't seriously concerned yet about a worse-than-average fire season later this year.

"We're hoping we'll have a wet February through April, and maybe May and June," he said. "There could always be a change. I'm not overly concerned."

The National Weather Service has consistently predicted more moisture and a late spring. However, if the dryness continues, Murphy said, the Forest Service has plans and crews in place.

"[If] we haven't had snow and [have] continued dryness, we could have some fire activity," he said. "We'll be watching, and we'll be ready."

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

Stay tuned for snow

After nearly two months with not more than a skiff of snow on the valley floor, the National Weather Service in Pocatello says the region's weather is set for a "major" change. Most of the precipitation has been blocked by a high-pressure ridge that sent storms to the north or south of Ketchum, but the National Weather Service reports that the ridge is set to break down as early as Sunday. That breakdown will usher in moisture-laden Pacific storms and slightly lower temperatures—the perfect recipe for powder—into the region through the next week.




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