Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fire chief sounds danger alarm

Says weather patterns are reminiscent of 2007

Express Staff Writer

Burned trees still stand on the backside of Bald Mountain, serving as a unique ski spot for some and a reminder for others that wildfire once encroached on Ketchum—and could again, say some fire officials.

"We are basically in the same weather pattern as 2007 before the Castle Rock Fire," Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle said. "It's been warmer than usual for this time of year, and the fuels are there from the wet seasons the past few years."

The Castle Rock Fire burned 48,520 acres starting on Aug. 17, 2007, causing the evacuation of more than 2,500 homes and threatening the Seattle Ridge Lodge as well as other infrastructure on Bald Mountain. The fire was contained on Sept. 4, 2007. Prior to that fire, a blaze northeast of Sun Valley Resort burned 300 acres in June 2007.

National Weather Service meteorologist John Keyes in Pocatello said there have been a few similarities to the 2007 season, though not in all areas of the state. He said the pattern of isolated afternoon and evening thunderstorms has been similar, as has the generally dry, hot weather.

The heat and lack of humidity is causing fuels, such as shrubs and grasses, to dry out, he said—though perhaps not as badly as in previous seasons.

"In some areas, the fuels are running on par with what we saw in 2007," Keyes said. "[But} in terms of things drying out, it seems to not be as bad."

Bill Murphy, the Ketchum Ranger District's North Zone fire management officer, said this year is unlikely to bring a Castle Rock-type blaze.

"With respect to dry conditions, Castle Rock set the bar as far as being a critical dry year," Murphy said. "We were in August conditions in June. This year, for June, our conditions weren't near as bad."


Murphy said Colorado, where wildfires have been raging for months, Utah and New Mexico are experiencing conditions similar to those in the Wood River Valley before the start of Castle Rock. He added that the Wood River Valley, especially north of Ketchum, is still relatively wet.

"We've been fortunate here locally," he said. "We're still drying out."

The BLM and Sawtooth National Forest have issued fire restrictions on all land in Twin Falls, Lincoln, Cassia, Minidoka, Jerome and Gooding counties, as well as all land in southern Blaine County south of Highway 20.

Under those restrictions, building or using a fire, campfire or stove except within a designated recreation site is prohibited. Smoking is also prohibited except within an enclosed vehicle or building, developed recreation site or when stopped in an area at least 3 feet in diameter that has been cleared of all flammable materials.

Elle said the Ketchum Fire Department has suspended all burning within its jurisdiction, and that the department will not issue any more burn permits this year.

The department was dispatched earlier this week to extinguish a campfire that had been left smoldering, he said, and urged all recreationists to carefully extinguish all campfires with water, then stir the coals by hand to ensure the entire area is cool and out.

Murphy said his department would be watching as fuels continue to dry out.

Elle said he hopes the fire season won't produce another Castle Rock-scale blaze.

"I have no desire to sleep on the floor of my office again," he said. "There's always the potential, but we'll see what happens."

Kate Wutz:

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