Printed on: July 24, 2013

E. Idaho fire crews set for season

By KIRSTEN JOHNSON
kjohnson@postregister.com

Fire crews are preparing for a predicted average wildfire season in eastern Idaho.

The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have staffed the same number of seasonal firefighters as in 2012 -- around 200 combined, BLM spokeswoman Sarah Wheeler said.

Eastern Idaho averages around 150 fires each year. In 2012, the region recorded 119 fires, according to previous Post Register reporting.

Facing a 5 percent cut to its $4.2 million fire suppression and preparation budget, the Forest Service plans to fight fires more aggressively this season, using a fire-extinguishing method called initial attack, spokesman Lynn Ballard said.

Initial attack involves suppressing the flames as early as possible, which uses fewer resources and often costs less. The Forest Service started using this approach last year to counteract budget cuts.

"The decision was, let's just put them out," Ballard said. "And then, we won't incur all these costs."

The alternative is allowing a fire to burn in a controlled manner for resource-management purposes, which can reduce vegetation in areas with large amounts of dry fuel.

"If there's a natural fire out there and it's burning in an area that doesn't impact human activities, then we feel there's a benefit to reduce that fuel so that it doesn't build up," Ballard said. "Otherwise, it will continue to build up until the next fire comes."

That method requires more resources, and costs can grow rapidly should the fire get out of hand.

"The longer the fire goes, there's more cost involved," Ballard said. "And there's a chance it could get much larger."

Firefighters began training in May. Today, crews are scattered throughout the region, including Montpelier, Pocatello, Teton Basin, Malad City, Island Park, Dubois and Fort Hall.

Even though last year's fire season recorded fewer fires than average, in terms of overall numbers, several large fires blanketed much of eastern Idaho with smoke for weeks.

Officials expect a similar scenario this year.

So far, the Eastern Idaho Interagency Fire Center dispatch region, which encompasses eastern Idaho, southern Montana, western Wyoming and northern Utah, has seen just a handful of small fires after a lightning storm last week, but nearly all of the fires -- excluding a quarter-acre fire between Grays Lake and the Wyoming border -- have been contained.

"There hasn't been a whole lot," Ballard said. "A blessing we had is we didn't have any wind with the lightning last week, which can spread fires very fast."

Elsewhere in the region, three fires in the Salmon-Challis National Forest -- the Papoose, Bradley and Lodgepole fires -- continued to burn Tuesday. Over the weekend, the fires forced campground and trail closures, as well as a Boy Scout camp, and caused smoky conditions, for a time, in the city of Salmon.

Eastern Idaho's wildfire season typically begins in early to mid-July. BLM fire management manager Rick Belger said roughly 50 percent of eastern Idaho wildfires are started by lightning strikes; the remaining half are human-caused.

Many human-caused wildfires begin with runaway campfires, sparks from off-road vehicles or illegal fireworks on public lands, Belger said.

"I think human-caused fires are probably more destructive," he said. "When lightning comes in, we have some warning and we can prepare. A human-caused fire can happen at anytime."