Friday, July 18, 2014

As fires escalate, local agencies face more work

Wildfire seasons getting longer, officials say


An air tanker works to suppress the Beaver Creek Fire in the Wood River Valley last year. Express file photo

     Federal and local firefighting authorities are battling increasingly long and difficult fire seasons.

     The recent Colorado Gulch Fire near Hailey—which offered the Wood River Valley a painful reminder of last year’s Beaver Creek Fire, and a portentous wakeup call that fire season is already upon us—also highlighted a vital relationship between local and federal firefighting agencies, which must work together to fight wildfires that are unlike those of the past.

     “Whether people agree or not, we do have an obvious change in the atmosphere,” said Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle. “We are having more fires, burning hotter and bigger than they used to be.”

     Indeed, despite concerns that Blaine County firefighting agencies have had limited support from federal firefighting authorities, given increased fire activity through the region, both entities are working together to combat fire seasons that are starting earlier each year. Fire seasons are starting as early as June—like the Gold Fire this year in the Sawtooth National Forest—and are burning longer.

     “To have a fire in June in the Sawtooth National Forest, well, it was a first,” said Julie Thomas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service,

     Now, in mid-July, smoke shrouds the Wood River Valley from fires to the north and west. A July 16 news release from the Forest Service noted that large fires are already sweeping through the Northwest. British Columbia, Oregon and Washington had 18 substantial, active fires on Wednesday. In addition, major fires are burning in the Boise and Payette national forests in Idaho.

     As a result of increased fire activity, firefighting resources are spread thin, said both Elle and Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman. However, said Thomas, “The feds have a cooperating agreement with local agencies. The assistance is back and forth.”

     And, Lassman said, local agencies get more help when fires threaten communities and development.

     “Sure, we are competing for federal resources,” he said. “But if there are structures threatened, they are going to make that fire a priority.”

     This cooperative agreement was exemplified by the Colorado Gulch Fire. Federal fire agencies generally fight wildland fires on public lands, but with an increasing interface between private and federal land, agencies have to work together to save structures and prevent widespread burning of public lands.

     “We butt up against a lot of federal land,” Lassman said.


Response to Croy Canyon fire

     As the Colorado Gulch Fire blew up on the evening of Sunday, July 6, in Croy Canyon, local dispatchers notified Wood River Fire & Rescue. The fire was started in an area under its jurisdiction in a subdivision with no structures, but it was moving quickly, Lassman explained. At that time, the fire was a quarter-acre in size.

      “The fire was a ‘running fire,’ fueled by sagebrush and grass,” he said. “It was being driven by wind and pushing up into federal land.”

     Once Lassman arrived at the scene and given that the fire was crossing from private to federal land, his department requested a “wildland response” from the South Central Interagency dispatch center in Shoshone. This dispatch office serves federal firefighting resources, including the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Department of Public Lands.

     “We had to say that this fire was escaping on to federal land,” Lassman said.

     Lassman also requested structure protection from municipal fire departments in Blaine County.

     “We called everyone except the West Magic Fire Department,” he said.

     In terms of federal support, Lassman said that he knew resources were limited.

     “We knew about the Hell Roaring Fire” to the north, he said.

     Nevertheless, he said, “This thing is moving fast, growing quickly. If we don’t stop it, it could threaten structures in Hailey. They need to be contacted so that they could send resources.”

     Within 20 minutes, said Lassman, South Central dispatch sent two heavy engines right away, and local Forest Service fire officials showed up Sunday night to run wildland operations, while local crews ran structure protection. Local agencies placed crews and engines at threatened houses.

     “After an hour, we got an incident commander, Brian O’Donnell from Pocatello, from the BLM,” Lassman said.

     As the evening progressed, federal support included a hotshot crew and one heavy engine from the BLM and another from the Forest Service.

     “The one hotshot crew we had was working through the night with the structure protection crews,” Lassman said.

     At that time, they had no air support.

     “You can’t fly at night,” Lassman said. “Aircraft on other fires were already starting to think about heading home.”

     By the next morning, however, when the fire had burned 600-700 acres, federal and local agencies were working at full throttle, Lassman said.

     “The next day we got the very large air tanker [the DC 10] and a heavy helicopter, which is a dual rotor, with a big basket for water drops.” 

     Federal agencies also sent two medium helicopters, plus two single-engine air tankers. Several more engines were sent from the BLM, plus Type 1 hand crews.

     The fire was largely subdued by Tuesday, July 8.

     Of fighting fires on public land, Elle said, “We try to get out the door and put out these fires when they are really small. In return, [the feds] help us fight fires on private land.”

     The Colorado Gulch Fire is also indicative of how more and more fires are being started by human activity.

     “Across the country, over half the total acres burned are attributed to humans,” the Forest Service news release states.

     “We are seeing an increase in human-caused fires,” Thomas said. “It is very frustrating with the conditions that we are in.” 

     In the southern regions of the Sawtooth National Forest, “47 camp fires were left unattended this year,” she said.

     Campfires should be left cold to the touch, she said.

     Coupled with warmer-than-normal temperatures and drier-than-average fuel conditions, the size and intensity of fires are increasing, fire officials said. Also, as people move into areas bordering public lands, the risk of fire becomes greater, Elle said.

     “We want everyone to be educated on this,” Lassman said. “Take some responsibility for where you live. If you live in a wildland interface area, look at what’s around you. Clean out your gutters. Have some survivable space. Cut your grass.”

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