The nation's top official responsible for disaster response visited Boise Tuesday and said it's time for Westerners to brace for a long, hot wildfire season.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spent Tuesday afternoon at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where the nation's leading fire commanders and scientists briefed her and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on the conditions that have led to one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in years. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter joined the briefing.
"We were looking at the extensive amount of interagency cooperation that goes into planning for fire season, making decisions about the allocation of resources like hotshot crews, identifying places that we need to look forward to fire on, where we can prevent a very small fire from being a large fire and just seeing how it plugs together," she said.
Before the briefing, Napolitano sat down for an exclusive interview with the Idaho Mountain Express.
"When we talk about disaster preparedness, we always say prepare for the worst and hope for the best," she said. "I would suggest that, for people living in this area, now is the time. Now is a really good time, if you haven't done it, to get prepared."
As fire season moves north into Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho this July and August, it's advice that she hopes Westerners will take seriously. According to NIFC Public Affairs Officer Ken Frederick, so far this spring and summer 1,054 homes have been lost to wildfires, most of them in the West. Colorado has lost 622 homes in three big fires. New Mexico lost 254. Another 66 homes burned last week in the Charlotte Fire in Pocatello. And it's only early July, the traditional beginning of fire season in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest.
Except for the huge loss of property—and two lives in Colorado—this year's fire statistics are actually close to long-term averages year-to-date, Napolitano said.
"Though the number of fires across the country is actually less than last year, and the acreage burned is less than last year, the number of structures and infrastructure burned is significantly higher, and that's in part because of where the fires have been, and the growth of the wildland-urban interface," she said.
For those living in the interface—places like the Wood River Valley where public lands and communities converge—Napolitano recommends creating defensible space by removing flammable materials close to homes or businesses and using fire-resistant building materials and treatments.
"There is a certain amount of unpredictability with fire," she said. "But we are looking at a long, hot summer. We're looking at many areas of the American West that didn't get the amount of rain or snowpack they normally get. We are looking at a lot of bark beetle death in the forest and a lot of excess fuel in the forest, so the conditions are ripe for fire.
"That means we are really leaning forward in terms of how FEMA can intersect with the Forest Service, the BLM and others who have the lead in terms of fighting the fires themselves."
Napolitano is no stranger to fire in the West. Raised in Albuquerque, N.M., she is a former attorney general and governor of Arizona. She's been living with fire for decades.
"It's part of the environment. It's part of the ecology of forests and of the West," she said. "One of the things that has changed in the past few years is the population growth in the West. Before, it was California that was the state that had a lot of people living right in that wildland-urban interface. Now you have it all throughout the West, and that means a fire like the Waldo Canyon Fire can hop down right into one of the upper subdivisions of Colorado Springs.
"With respect to what we can do more broad-brush moving forward, I really think we can work on pre-disaster mitigation. But in plain English, what that would be is for a real campaign for homeowners and businesses to build defensible space, and to maintain defensible space so that if there should be a fire, our firefighters have a chance to get in there."
At a press conference later Tuesday afternoon, Vilsack pointed out that 97 to 98 percent of wildfires are contained without much loss. But in Colorado this season, the combination of fuel load, pine beetle infestation, fierce winds, low humidity and high temperatures was a recipe for destructive fires.
"It's a formula for very intense fires," he said.
He expressed sympathy for families who have lost homes, but he also credited fire crews for their outstanding work.
"Eighty-one percent of the homes in Colorado Springs that were at risk were saved," he said.
Idaho fire season should be normal
Though much of the West has experienced unprecedented destruction of private property due to wildfires this summer, Idaho's wildfire forecast is looking fairly normal.
"We're in a better situation than other parts of the West," said Jeremy Sullens, wildfire analyst for the National Interagency Fire Center's Prediction Services. "In Idaho, we've been sort of lucky this year—cool and moist in the spring and a fairly normal winter."
In Sullens' words, Idaho is forecast to have "normal significant fire potential."
"But you need to remember that means we're expecting fires to occur," he said. "Normal indicates a number of significant fires. Even areas we're forecasting for below normal, we're expecting to have fires."
Is climate change a factor?
Climate scientists and meteorologists say it's difficult to quantify the extent to which climate change is impacting wildfire seasons in the American West, but it's clear that it's having an influence.
"It's tough to say from year to year, but the trend overall is that we're seeing an increasing length of the fire season," said Ed Delgado, a meteorologist for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. "In the Southwest we're starting to see fires in March, and we're beginning to see them year-round in the Southeast."
In the West, however, there are many factors at work that make pinpointing any single factor difficult.
"We've been seeing fire seasons going longer, starting earlier, ending later," he said. "But year to year, fire seasons are really determined by climate conditions and fuel conditions."