Printed on: September 21, 2012

Radiation threat is latest fire concern

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON -- State environmental officials began taking air samples near North Fork on Thursday after learning that sites contaminated by radiation either were burned over or still threatened by the Mustang Complex fire.

But Erick Neher, regional administrator of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said the potential health threat is believed to be minimal.

A more significant and known risk to area residents, Neher said, is the dense smoke that has cloaked Salmon and surrounding communities since the fire erupted July 30.

"There may be some minor increase in background levels of radioactivity --which we're exposed to every day -- but that is nothing compared to fine particulates from smoke," he said.

Earlier this week, residents near North Fork raised concerns about the sites contaminated by uranium or thorium, both radioactive elements.

Cindy Hallen, who lives just miles from a former uranium mine that underwent an EPA cleanup, said she is running an air purifier and staying indoors.

"I don't want to be sounding alarms, but we're dealing with radioactive materials," she said.

Air-quality specialists at Idaho National Laboratory said the risk of radiation exposure from wildfires burning over previously contaminated soils is low because the soil itself doesn't burn. As a result, the radiation cannot escape into the air.

Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor Frank Guzman did not return a telephone call Thursday seeking comment.

A Forest Service spokeswoman said she was unable to provide information on the radiological deposits or their status.

News about the radioactive materials in the fire zone came as an evacuation order was lifted for residences north of Salmon once believed to be threatened by the fire.

In a sign that tempers are fraying in the fire zone, the informal and friendly atmosphere of earlier public meetings has faded.

At a Tuesday night public meeting, there was a visible law enforcement presence and fire officials required those with questions to wait until the end of the meeting to line up and ask questions one at a time.

Jon Cummings, co-owner of 100 Acre Wood Lodge near North Fork, was among those who elected not to wait.

Instead, Cummings joined a letter-writing campaign directed at Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and other state leaders.

"We need to see this wrapped up," he said. "People aren't going to take much more of it."

Cummings and other residents are frustrated by the fire's long duration, all the smoke and the disruption to daily life.

Those frustrations seemed to peak Saturday when a spot fire burned more than 150 acres on the east side of U.S. Highway 93 -- once a fire line -- opposite 100 Acre Wood Lodge.

Mike Tibbetts, who lives 35 miles downriver of North Fork, said people are weary of the fire, which has damaged recreation areas, destroyed habitat and killed wildlife.

"It's been terrible," he said.

Earlier this week, Salmon-Challis Forest officials said the cause of the Highway 93 blaze, which since has been extinguished, was due to spotting -- burning embers spewed from the fire's main body.

Deputy District Ranger Ingrid Drieling said Wednesday that officials could not say with certainty whether the spot fire resulted from embers from the fire's main body or burn-out operations conducted in the area last week.

"We'll never really know the answer to that, but we do know it was not (arson)," she said.

Drieling acknowledged that tensions are rising in the fire zone and attributed the phenomenon to smoke.

"People are tired of the smoke," she said. "It's oppressive -- more oppressive than anyone could have imagined -- and people are feeling the effects of it."