Sheep Fire

The Sheep Fire burns near Idaho National Laboratory on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. A lightning strike on July 22 started the blaze.

A year after the largest fire in its history, Idaho National Laboratory is emphasizing fire prevention as it heads into the summer.

Last year’s Sheep Fire was the largest wildfire in recorded history for the area surrounding the lab, burning 112,000 acres over more than a week. An after-action review of the fire response by the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies highlighted the successes of the fire response, which led to no fatalities and minimal damage to lab property or utilities.

INL Fire Chief Eric Gosswiller said Thursday that the Sheep Fire “bore the brunt” of what was otherwise a less intense fire season last year. A higher-risk summer for fires and the continued spread of the coronavirus mean that this year Gossweiler and his firefighters have an increased focus on preventing fires from starting.

“The more often our crew has to come together to fight fires, the more we put them at risk of coming down with COVID,” Gosswiller said.

Fire crews have spent the spring working to encourage regrowth on the land affected by the Sheep Fire and reduce the overall fire risk. Some stretches along U.S. Highway 26 between the lab and Idaho Falls have already started returning to normal, while more remote patches of sagebrush could take up to three more years to fully recover.

INL firefighters have been taking part in fuel management projects this spring, such as removing noxious weeds and rebuilding fire containment lines.

The areas still recovering from the last wildfire have a lower risk of burning again this year. But Gosswiller said there are several other risk factors in the region this year: rising average summer temperatures, a winter snowpack that was below average, and two years of wet spring weather in Idaho and the rest of the Great Basin states.

“This weather may help delay the start of the fire season a bit, which doesn’t hurt our feelings at all, but come July and August it will be back to normal,” Gosswiller said.

Some changes are being put in place to the fire response this year because of the coronavirus. A Harvard study conducted in April found that increased air pollution from wildfires or other sources of smoke could lead to more fatal infections from the virus. Luke Montrose, an assistant professor at Boise State University, wrote about steps that could be taken to reduce the risk for firefighters in The Conversation.

“The safety of rural western communities depends on the wildland firefighters and their ability to respond to emergencies. Protecting their health helps protect public health, too,” Montrose wrote.

Gosswiller said the major concern for preventing spread of the virus is trying to detect and isolate sick firefighters as quickly as possible. Temperature checks and screenings will be put in place when the fire crew responds to events this summer, and some level of social distancing could be put in place at their fire camps. The lab has also been in talks with the East Idaho Fire Chiefs Association to help coordinate their plans to contain large fires and the virus.

The lab’s fire team includes 22 firefighters who are on-site at all times, dozens more employees who can be called in, and mutual aid agreements with local fire departments and the Bureau of Land Management.

Brennen is the main education reporter for the Post Register. Contact him with news tips at 208-542-6711.