Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fire season comes in fits and starts

County, city departments respond to a dozen blazes

Express Staff Writer

Flames erupt from burning sagebrush near the Toe of the Hill trail just east of Woodside subdivision in Hailey on Saturday. Courtesy photos by Todd Rubenstein

Low humidity and high temperatures contributed to a rash of small outdoor fires in the valley recently, said county and Hailey fire officials.

The Hailey Fire Department responded to a wildfire at the Toe of the Hill trail, at 3040 Berrycreek Drive near Woodside Boulevard at 10:51 a.m. Saturday, said Capt. Mike Baledge.

Baledge said the fire spread 200 feet within five minutes due to high winds and dry fuel. There are homes nearby, but he said the fire did not spread toward them and therefore they were not considered threatened.

Crews got the blaze under control quickly, he said.

"Once the engine got on scene, the fire was controlled and the flames completely extinguished within three minutes," he said. "About a month later, that would have really taken off."

Baledge said the Toe of the Hill fire was just one of six outdoor fires that the Hailey Fire Department has responded to in the past month. The fires have been mostly minor, but Baledge said their causes or any potential ignition sources were unclear—leading the department to consider them "somewhat suspicious."

"It's starting a little early this year," he said. "It usually rains the whole month of May, and it didn't this year."

Wood River Fire & Rescue Assistant Chief Jeff Nevins said his department has responded to seven fires so far this year, though one of those was a slash fire that got out of control in February.

Nevins, too, blamed May and June's warm, dry weather. However, he said, fire activity this year is unusual only when compared to the past two years, which have been unusually quiet.

"[It] didn't catch us off guard, but it has certainly been different than last June," he said. "Last June was wetter and colder."

Nevins said all the fires in the Wood River Fire Protection District, which encompasses much of the unincorporated county, were human-caused. The most notable was last week's blaze on Broadford Road near Star Bridge, when a camper went to cook dinner and the coals from his fire ignited nearby cotton seed.

"Cottonwood is a huge, huge factor," Nevins said. "It will accumulate in areas and make a blanket that looks like cotton. It's highly combustible, and that's what contributed to the fire on Broadford Road. It was like lighting a fuse."

An open burning ban was lifted on Monday, as the National Weather Service lifted a "red flag" fire warning for the county. Nevins said the open burning ban would likely be reinstated if the county comes under another such warning.

The ban allows fire pits and small campfires, but no agricultural or slash burning. Nevins said that even with small fires, those supervising the fire should have shovels and fire extinguishers nearby, as "fuels"—grass and other combustible materials—have dried out due to high temperatures and a high number of sunny days recently.

"That will contribute to the flame spread and a small fire getting bigger faster," he said.

Baledge also cautioned Fourth of July merry-makers to follow all instructions when shooting off fireworks and to light them in a safe area, such as the end of a driveway. Having an extinguisher on hand is encouraged as well, he said.

"If you get [fires] small, they go out quick," he said.

Kate Wutz:

Deer Creek Fire

The Blaine County Sheriff's Office is investigating a fire that was ignited in a greenhouse on Deer Creek Road on Thursday. The greenhouse, which was under construction, caught fire at about 11 p.m. Wood River Fire & Rescue was paged out at 11:08 p.m. Chief Jeff Nevins said his on-duty captain called for backup from the Hailey Fire Department and the Ketchum Fire Department. "He could see the glow and the column [of flames] and he thought, 'This is a big fire,'" Nevins said. The greenhouse was located near a few wooden sheds, but Nevins said that none of them was lost. The greenhouse, however, was a complete loss and the fire caused a total of $25,000 in damages. Nevins said he considered it a "suspicious" fire and reported it as such to the Blaine County Sheriff's Office. "We are treating it as a suspicious fire until we prove otherwise," he said. "There were no obvious ignition sources." Sheriff Gene Ramsey said during a briefing Monday that his office is investigating the fire.

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