Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Forecasters predict normal fire season

El Niņo is quiet, but drought persists

Express Staff Writer

    In an outlook released July 1, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise is forecasting normal wildfire potential for July in central Idaho and above-normal conditions for August.
    In June, Blaine County experienced about normal temperatures and less than normal precipitation.
    “Sea surface temperatures over the equatorial Pacific continued slightly cooler than normal but maintained a neutral El Niño-Southern Oscillation pattern, offering no clear signal for long-term climate trends,” the fire center’s website reports. “Other global circulations also provide no clear indicators.”
    However, drought conditions are predicted to persist throughout the West.
    “Hot weather in early July, coupled with long-term drought, is projected to rapidly dry fuels and increase fire danger,” the fire center reports.
    Bill Murphy, North Zone fire management officer for the Ketchum Ranger District, said crews on the district and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area are prepared for a normal hot and dry summer. He said an engine with a five-person crew is stationed in Ketchum, Stanley and Fairfield, along with a five-person hand crew in Ketchum, a four-person crew in Stanley and a 10-person crew in Fairfield. A helicopter and crew are stationed at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey.
    Murphy said that with no local wildfire activity during the past two weeks, most of those crew members have been helping fight fires in Utah and Colorado.
    “We keep an ample amount of folks here to do initial attack based on the conditions,” he said.
    In a letter dated June 28, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, joined Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and two other senators in asking Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to spend more money on fire-prevention efforts. The senators said that increasing wildfire activity has resulted in the departments’ diverting money from fire-prevention activities, including hazardous-fuels reduction, and cost-sharing with local agencies to buy equipment, to fire suppression. They pointed out that 10 years ago the Forest Service spent 13 percent of its budget on fighting fires, while last year it spent more than 40 percent.
    “This approach to paying for firefighting is nonsensical and further increases wildland fire costs,” the letter states.
    But Murphy said fire-prevention activities have been ongoing in the Ketchum Ranger District and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Between 2003 and 2009, a forest-thinning project cleared brush and small trees from national forest land adjacent to private property in the SNRA. A prescribed-burn project over the past four years in the Little Wood River drainage has thinned between 800 and 1,200 acres per year. Murphy said those projects won’t prevent fires but will reduce their intensity when they burn near houses and other structures.
    However, Murphy said that despite the agency’s best efforts, the task of reducing wildfire damage can’t succeed without cooperation from the public. He said 40 percent of wildfire starts on the SNRA and Ketchum Ranger District have been human-caused.
    “We’re counting on the public to be careful when they’re out recreating this summer,” he said. “Be cautious with any heat source.”
    He said that includes thoroughly extinguishing campfires and avoiding driving motor vehicles over dry grass. He pointed out that all fireworks are illegal on all public lands.

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