Firefighters Taber Fire

Firefighters work to contain the Taber Fire.

At the beginning of an Idaho fire season that’s starting about a month early and appears poised to be severe, federal fire officials anticipate major problems with wildfires caused by unattended campfires.

Sarah Wheeler, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service and the Eastern Idaho Interagency Fire Center, explained that the nation’s national forests and public lands have experienced a dramatic increase in use since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of those users are new to the outdoors and lack fire awareness, she said.

“We saw a lot of unattended campfires last year. We were fortunate that they didn’t get out of control,” Wheeler said.

Fire crews responded to 150 fires in Southeast Idaho during 2020, which is a larger than average number of starts, though they burned fewer acres than normal. Wheeler said 86 percent of those starts were human caused.

“Our abandoned campfires were ridiculous,” Wheeler said. “There was one weekend where we responded to seven, but we were able to get on them and get them out while they were small.”

An abandoned campfire was responsible for sparking the Taber Fire on June 1, officials said. The fire, which started about a mile northwest of the city of Taber in Bingham County, burned 338 acres before it was contained later that night, officials said. Four engines, a bulldozer and a 20-person hand crew were sent to fight it.

“Having a fire grow to over 300 acres the first of June is not normal for this area,” Joel Gosswiller, Idaho Falls District fire management officer, said in a press release. “Current fire predictions, and what we are seeing on the ground, suggest this area might be busier than normal due to the anticipated hot and dry summer.”

Gosswiller reminded the public that a fire is too hot to leave if it is too hot to touch.

Wheeler said fire crews in East Idaho typically start to get busy around July 4. June is usually a time for training new crews and sending experienced crews to help with fires in southern Utah and New Mexico. This June, however, they may be needed locally.

Already this season, the Lavaside Fire, started on April 21 near Firth, burned 1,192 acres, destroying one home and significantly damaging another home.

“What we’re seeing on the ground is they’re spreading rather fast and everything so far is human caused,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said extremely dry weather is a major cause for concern. She said snowpacks have melted prematurely and streams are already running dry. The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook for May 20 through Aug. 31 places most of southern and eastern Idaho as being in persistent drought, with parts of Bingham, Bonneville and Owyhee counties faring slightly better, classified as “drought development likely.”

A map by National Interagency Fire Center Predictive Services shows the July outlook for all but the southwest corner of Idaho as being above normal for significant wildland fire potential. Furthermore, record-breaking temperatures are in the forecast for East Idaho.

“Fuels remain very dry across large swaths of the Southwest, Great Basin and California with much of the West two to four weeks ahead of schedule,” the report reads. “More than 87 percent of the West is now categorized in drought and over half the West is in the highest two categories of drought.”

Wheeler said the outlook maps show a drought “bull’s eye” over Southeast Idaho.

“This is the first year in a while we can remember where Southeast Idaho is showing up on this significant wildfire potential radar,” Wheeler said.

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