Posts tagged: wildfire
Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s visit by the secretaries of the departments of Interior and Agriculture to NIFC, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where the two said sequestration and other federal budget cuts will hit hard just as a “difficult” fire season looms for the nation.
New Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called on citizens and communities to be “fire-wise” and take steps to protect their homes, particularly those in or near the woods or wildlands, from burning in a wildfire. “We as private citizens … play an important role,” she said, “especially in these areas where we want to live, have our cabins up in the mountains, and they are oftentimes in harm’s way.” Jewell said people need to create defensible space around homes or cabins, clear brush, trees and flammable materials, and help their neighbors do the same. “I really encourage you to do that,” she said.
This year’s fire season already has seen 13,000 fires start, but that’s actually a low number – the lowest in the last 10 years. That’s mainly because there’s been ample rain and snow across the eastern United States, limiting the fires that otherwise would normally have ignited by now in the Southeast.
But this year is expected to see above-normal risk in parts of the west, particularly the southwest, due to precipitation that’s run far below normal. Southern California has gotten only a quarter of its normal precipitation so far this year. NIFC officials said the wildfire season in West Coast states is expected to start a month earlier than normal this year as a result; fires already have been burning in southern California and even in southern Idaho.
With a “difficult” fire season looming, firefighters are facing budget cuts that will result in 500 fewer firefighters for the Forest Service alone and 50 fewer engines available, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said this morning in a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “We’re going to be faced obviously with a difficult fire season, make no mistake about that,” he said. “The resources are limited. Our budgets have obviously been constrained.”
Other agencies also are facing cuts. New Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who toured NIFC yesterday and today, said, “We will fight the fires and we will do them safely, but the resources will go to suppression, which is not ideal. … What you’re not doing is putting the resources in place to thoughtfully manage the landscapes for the future.” That means things like replanting and efforts to reduce hazardous fuels will suffer. “If we have a really tough season, we … may bring in more contract resources,” Jewell said. “We’ll have to take it out of other parts of our budget which are also struggling. We may be making decisions in the short run to take care of fires but in the long run not setting ourselves up for success.”
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said if catastrophic fires are burning in August and sufficient resources aren’t available, he believes Congress would come through with emergency funding. Vilsack responded with a chuckle, “You get that down? Can you send that to me?
Vilsack said in addition to the 5 percent sequestration cut that the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture took, “Congress added on that another 2 percent.” Making those cuts this far into the fiscal year, he said, means they cut “in essence 15 percent of your remaining money.”
A pair of small but unseasonably early fires burning in California's wine country likely is a harbinger of a nasty summer fire season across the West, reports John Miller of the Associated Press. The first summer fire outlook for the upcoming season from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, issued today, suggests that a dry winter and predicted warming trend mean the potential for significant fire activity will be above normal in the West Coast states, the Southwest, and portions of Idaho and Montana. In the Northern Rockies including Idaho and Montana, fire danger is forecast at near normal through May and June, before escalating in July and August to above-normal potential. Click below for Miller's full report.
Even as Gov. Butch Otter pushes to help create new state-funded rancher groups to fight wildfires in this year's legislative session, one such existing group in Idaho is under scrutiny by federal safety investigators following a fatal firefighting accident last summer, Associated Press reporter John Miller reports. Today, the House Resources Committee approved a measure governing how these new rancher-led organizations are established. Idaho's new associations will be volunteer, formed by ranchers who have long sought permission to use their farm equipment to help corral range fires, Miller reports; in some instances, ranchers say they can act more quickly than BLM crews can respond. The legislation sets standards for the groups including requiring state review of their training plans and liability insurance; click below for Miller's full report.
A fire management organization has been cited by OSHA and fined $14,000 for serious safety violations that inspectors say led to the death of U.S. Forest Service firefighter Anne Veseth last summer, the AP reports. Click below for the full report; the citation, dated Feb. 7, said the initial attack team of the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association on the Steep Corner Fire near Orofino last August violated eight of 10 standing firefighting orders on the fire.
In this year's wildfire season, about 1.75 million acres burned in Idaho, while about 9.1 million acres burned nationwide. “That puts us close to 20 percent of the acres nationally that burned, occurred in this state,” Idaho state Lands Director Tom Schultz told the Land Board this morning. However, on the 6 million acres of state lands and those for which the Lands Department provides fire protection, only 4,674 acres burned this year. That's only half of the historic average of just over 9,000 acres. The state spent $22.7 million on firefighting and was reimbursed $8 million, for a net firefighting expenditure of $14.5 million.
“We took significant assignments out of state,” Schultz reported. “We still do have some staff helping in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on some of those issues.” He said, “It was a substantial fire season, very long, it went into October, and we had a lot of folks that gave a lot. We did have the one fatality, Anne Veseth, on the Steep Corner fire.”
Gov. Butch Otter, who chairs the Land Board, said, “I notice that the number of fires, 182, 101 of them were human-caused. Is there recovery there above and beyond the $8 million?” Schultz said the state hasn't projected amounts for that, but said, “We do pursue those with our counsel. … So we are involved in some of those investigations.”
The Idaho Statesman reported today that on the Boise National Forest this year, half the fires were human-caused, which is way up from historical levels; that included the destructive Trinity Ridge fire.
The Trinity Ridge fire, which threatened the towns of Pine and Featherville and blazed across more than 146,000 acres for more than two months, has now been fully contained. After that official designation came on Monday, an inch of rain fell on it Monday and Tuesday, helping further dampen the still-smoldering blaze. Meanwhile, at least eight active wildfires still are burning in Idaho, most of them smoldering or creeping, though their growth has been dampened by the change in weather. Several fires continue to burn in north-central Idaho.
The Halstead fire 18 miles northwest of Stanley is 65 percent contained; the Wesley fire 12 miles northwest of New Meadows is 50 percent contained with an estimated containment of Nov. 1; and the giant Mustang Complex fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, which covers 340,659 acres, is 59 percent contained with an estimated containment date of Oct. 30.
Some closures continue in the fire areas, and hazards include falling and rolling trees and snags, fire officials report. Rehab work already has started in the Trinity Ridge area, including erosion control work aimed at limiting damage when the post-fire spring runoff hits. That fire started Aug. 3.
Whoosh - and just like that, the season has changed. Rain came cascading down in Boise, and a big wind gust just knocked half the golden leaves off this tree. Best of all, some significant rain has been reported in the mountains across the state - raising hopes of a long-awaited end to this year's destructive wildfire season.
Gov. Butch Otter said today he's asked the Idaho Department of Fish & Game and the state Department of Environmental Quality to work up estimates of damage from this year's extensive forest fires, particularly the Mustang Complex and Halstead fires, which he noted have heavily impacted the Salmon River drainage, “where we've spent a lot of money on salmon restoration.” Otter said he wants to get a handle on how ash and erosion from the fires are likely to damage salmon habitat once spring runoff hits. He also said he's gotten an initial estimate from DEQ that this year's wildfires put 1.7 million tons or more of pollutants into Idaho's air, and reactivated 2.5 million tons of mercury, releasing it back into the air.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has sent out a guest opinion to Idaho newspapers this afternoon, blaming federal land management policies for this year's destructive wildfires and calling for change. Otter says the answer is more logging and grazing to reduce flammable fuels on federal lands. “Despite the best efforts of our congressional delegation, Idahoans and all Americans will continue paying in many ways for the lack of direction – or misguided direction – that federal laws and policies provide public land managers,” he writes. “And while our exceptional firefighters put their lives on the line, the challenges they face on the ground are aggravated by litigious single-interest environmental groups devoted to economically undermining such traditional industries as ranching and forest products.”
Click below to read Otter's full article, which concludes: “It’s time for a new dialogue and a new approach to federal land management.”
Yuck. The sunrise was bright orange again, and now the sky is brown. Wildfire smoke is settling densely over the Treasure Valley, pushing air pollution levels up. Today's air quality is predicted to be in the “upper moderate” range, a range that stretches from 50 to 100 AQI, up from yesterday's AQI of 64. Moderate, or yellow, air quality falls short of the next range, orange, or “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” This morning's 9 a.m. readings included 113.6 at Boise Fire Station No. 5; 84 in Meridian; and 84 in Nampa. Dave Luft of the Idaho DEQ said, “We're hovering right between the yellow and the orange right now. … The prognosis going forward is that we may get a break come Saturday, but that's kind of iffy.” Personally, I've had a bad scratchy throat since yesterday morning, and I'm not even in any sensitive groups. Time to pray for rain…
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Officials in Boise County say they've arrested an 18-year-old volunteer firefighter suspected of igniting a blaze that destroyed one home and is threatening about 100 other residences. Authorities identified the suspect Tuesday as Nathanial Fay Bartholomew. He was arrested on a felony arson charge for allegedly causing the Karney Fire that has so far burned 250 acres in the Robie Creek area of the Boise National Forest. Forest spokesman David Olson says the fire started late Monday afternoon. About a dozen residences were evacuated Monday night while additional homes received evacuation orders Tuesday morning. Sheriff's officials said Bartholomew lives in the area. Investigators say it appears the fire was set some in pine cones and other fuel at the side of a road then spread to a nearby home.
Meanwhile, KTVB-TV is reporting that Bartholomew was arrested while actively fighting the fire; that under questioning, authorities said he confessed to intentionally starting it; and that the apparent motive was to get the attention of his father, a firefighter; you can read their full report here.
Well, the Treasure Valley's break from the wildfire smoke lasted exactly 11 days, and then yesterday, smoke came pouring back in, this time from the opposite direction, the northwest. Air quality broke out of the “good” category into the “moderate” range yesterday, and that's where it remains this morning. “There are a whole bunch of fires,” said Mike Toole, regional airshed coordinator for the Idaho DEQ. “There are three wildfires up kind of by McCall. And then Washington over the weekend got a thunderstorm and there's a bunch of fires up in Washington now. So with the winds coming out of the northwest, it was blowing all that smoke toward us.”
Things could improve a bit today. “We have some smoke in the valley now,” Toole said. “'Based on what we're seeing … this afternoon after the morning inversion breaks, we'll hopefully get some more clearing.” Winds have switched to a southeasterly direction, he noted.
“The forecast for tomorrow looks like we're still going to have the southeasterly wind component, so tomorrow it looks like it clears up fairly good. But Saturday switches back to northwesterly wind,” Toole said. “That could push the smoke right back into us.” He added, “We did have a nice couple-week break, but there's a lot of new fires going on.”
Air quality in Lemhi and Custer counties has hit the “very unhealthy” category, prompting warnings from the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare to stay indoors as much as possible; older adults, young children and those with medical conditions will be most affected, but it's bad enough that everyone is being advised to avoid heavy work or exercise outdoors in the affected areas. “Salmon's getting inundated with smoke,” said Mike Toole of the Idaho DEQ. “They're in the 'very unhealthy' category continually.”
Meanwhile, the Treasure Valley's air has improved so much that it's actually inched into the green or “good” category, though the forecast was for it to stay in the yellow or “moderate” range. Current pollution is in the 40s on the air quality index, at the high end of the “good” category that ends at 50. “The forecasts we made were actually high,” Toole said. “It's fantastic. … We've actually experienced a lot better air quality than we anticipated.” Favorable wind and weather conditions have cleared the valley's air so well that even when changing conditions bring smoke back in, it's likely not to get as bad as it's been in recent weeks, Toole said.
Because wildfire smoke is such a highly visible pollutant, people who live in areas without air monitors can tell how bad it gets just by looking. “If visibility is reduced to less than eight miles, sensitive groups should limit activity,” Health & Welfare advises in a statement today. “If visibility is reduced to less than three miles, air quality is considered unhealthy for everyone. Visibility of less than one mile is considered hazardous and everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.” People in Salmon who lack air conditioning are being advised to visit the Salmon Public Library or Salmon Valley Baptist Church for relief from the smoke; click below for Health & Welfare's full advisory.
Firefighters are reporting some progress against major Idaho wildfires, though there are currently nine major fires burning and several are proving difficult to bring under control. The evacuation of Featherville due to the giant Trinity Ridge fire was lifted on Sunday for residents, and that blaze is now 43 percent contained; Boise's skies have noticeably cleared of smoke over the past two days, though air quality was predicted to remain in the moderate range. (An earlier official report that the fire was 68 percent contained turned out to be a calculation error; it was adjusted downward to 43 percent today to correct that.) Full containment on the Trinity Ridge fire still isn't expected until Oct. 1.
Meanwhile, the Halstead fire is just 3 miles north of Stanley and is only 7 percent contained, and the Mustang Complex fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest is 16 percent contained with an estimated containment date of Sept. 30. Both those fires were started by lightning, while the Trinity Ridge fire is classified as human-caused, having started when an ATV caught fire Aug. 3. Idaho also has five active wildfires burning in the Nez Perce National Forest and one in the Clearwater, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Click below for a fire update from the AP.
The bear cub with burned paws who was rescued from Idaho's Mustang Complex fire is not the only baby critter in that fix; fire crews rescued this baby bobcat, nicknamed “Chips,” from the Chips fire in California on Saturday. The tiny female kitten, about the size of a domestic kitten, had burns on all four paws and an eye infection, and is being treated at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, where she is expected to make a full recovery, and after being sheltered with other bobcats through the winter, will be released back into the wild. You can read more here.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― State wildlife officials say a black bear cub rescued from a wildfire burning the backcountry in eastern Idaho will need daily medical care for burns on all four paws. The 25-pound bear nicknamed “Boo Boo” was discovered Sunday night all alone and clinging to a tree in an area recently scorched by fires associated with the Mustang Complex Fire. Efforts to find the mother were unsuccessful. Officials also say the cub likely had not eaten for at least four days. A veterinarian with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game said Boo Boo has second-degree burns on each paw, needs daily bandage changes and six weeks to heal. Officials wanted to rehabilitate the bear at a wildlife sanctuary in McCall, but the extent of the burns requires more intensive care.
Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker analyzes the evolution of Gov. Butch Otter's position on firefighting efforts in a column today; you can read it here. Baker reports that when Otter took office in 2007, it was the toughest fire season in Idaho since 1910, and he sharply differed with federal authorities' firefighting approach, calling the rules regulating firefighting “The Don’t Book.” Now, Otter is strongly supporting federal firefighting commanders’ plans for protecting his state in this year's tough fire season. “His support for the plans - putting resources in front of communities, while allowing the fires to burn into wilderness and where past fires have reduced fuels - shows that the West is evolving to accept the new realities of fire,” Barker writes.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter will join National Guard and state Homeland Security officials on a helicopter tour of wildfires burning in the Pine and Stanley areas today, along with some on-the-ground stops; he'll then meet with reporters and share what he's seen. It's an issue that's personal for Otter, who many years ago was a wildland firefighter himself, and who spent last Thursday, Friday and Saturday at his log cabin in Pine, clearing pine needles, downed branches and other flammables away and removing keepsakes from the cabin as the huge Trinity Ridge fire burned toward the small communities of Featherville and Pine.
Otter's had the riverfront cabin since April of 2001; it was a favorite getaway during his three terms in Congress and a jumping-off point for hunting trips; he has fond memories of family Thanksgivings there in years past, though he's had little chance to get there in recent years. “I'm ashamed to say that it has been a good two years, except for this last weekend,” he said today. While Otter and First Lady Lori Otter were at the cabin, they removed keepsakes including a letter from then-President Ronald Reagan that Otter had framed and kept on the wall. “We were able to get all the pine needles and pine cones, all that kind of stuff cleared out,” he said.
While he was there, he also attended three public meetings at a local senior center. “The crews just came in and did a tremendous job of planning, explaining to us … why we should leave,” Otter said. “When we left, we told them, 'We're gone,' so they didn't have to worry about us being there.”
It's a log cabin, but Otter said he's glad it has a metal roof, given the fire danger. Asked how smoky the air was during his visit, Otter said, “Oh, it was awful, it was awful.”
While he was working around the cabin, a news crew from KTVB-TV caught up with him; he said with a chuckle that after footage aired of him operating a chainsaw, he got a call from Valley Tool, where he buys and repairs his saws, saying, “Hey, get in here and get a pair of safety goggles!” Otter said sheepishly that he had the goggles; he just hadn't put them on.
The Lewiston Tribune is reporting that a day before 20-year-old U.S. Forest Service firefighter Anne Veseth was killed on the Steep Corner Fire, a specialized Forest Service fire crew refused to work on the fire due to hazards including multiple cedar snags burning from halfway up down to the base. Veseth, of Moscow, was killed the next day when a tree fell and crashed into another, which fell on her. You can read the Trib's report here. Click below for more on this from the Associated Press; you can read the full SAFENET report here on the hazard concerns; hat tip to Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker for the link to the report.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Federal officials say the air tanker base in Boise has so far dumped more than 1 million gallons of fire retardant on wildfires burning across Idaho this year. That surpasses totals recorded for the past 11 years dating to 2001 and the first eclipse of the 1-million gallon mark since 2007. This fire season, pilots have dumped 1.2 million gallons of the red retardant on wildfires, topping the previous record of 1.19 million gallons in 2006. Officials at the U.S. Forest Service Air Tanker Base say the annual average during the last 11 years is 611,000 gallons. Nearly a third of the 2011 dump has targeted fires on the Boise National Forest. More than 245,000 gallons were dropped on the initial attack on the Trinity Ridge Fire burning near Featherville.