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Posts tagged: wildfire

Firefighting costs continue to eat into Forest Service management budget, while disaster funding bill languishes…

A new report out today from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that costs allocated to fighting wildfires have grown from 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s overall budget in 1995 to 42 percent today. “This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement today as he released the report.

Those percentage figures don’t include so-called “fire borrowing,” he noted, in which the Forest Service borrows from other areas of its budget once it’s used up its allocated amount for firefighting but blazes are still going. Vilsack renewed his request to Congress to allow an existing disaster funds to cover firefighting costs in years when they exceed allocated amounts.

A year ago, Idaho GOP Sen. Mike Crapo and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, along with Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, gathered at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise to kick off a push to end the borrowing and instead tap disaster funds when firefighting costs balloon over allocated amounts. Their bipartisan legislation had been picking up support in both houses – Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson is among the House sponsors, along with Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon – but paradoxically suffered a setback earlier this year after President Barack Obama not only endorsed it but included it in his budget.

“That spurred some folks to be cautious about it,” said Lindsay Nothern, Crapo’s press secretary. “Honestly, it’s been kind of bottled up. It’s been affected by politics.” The House version of the bill has 131 co-sponsors, including Idaho 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador. The Senate version has 18 co-sponsors including Risch.

In the House, “Some folks are concerned about changing the spending matrix, primarily Paul Ryan, head of the budget committee,” Nothern said. “We did go out and get a CBO report that showed it is budget neutral, because we already spend disaster money on disasters such as this.”

He added, “There is support for it among leadership in both the Senate and the House, on both sides of the aisle.” But on its first attempt at passage, Nothern said, the proposal got lumped in with other issues including the president’s border proposal, and it didn’t pass. “We are hoping for a stand-alone bill, and then the only opposition we have is Ryan.” He said backers of the measure are hoping they can persuade Ryan to drop his opposition by showing it won’t spend new money.

Vilsack strongly agreed. “Bipartisan proposals to fund catastrophic fire like other natural disasters could help ensure that efforts to make forests more healthy and resilient and support local tourism economies aren’t impacted as significantly as they have been in recent years,” the secretary said. “These proposals don’t increase the deficit, they just budget smarter by allowing existing natural disaster funding to be used in cases of catastrophic wildfires.”

Nothern said there’s a slim chance the bill could be brought up in the September session, but it’s more likely that it won’t get considered until the “lame-duck” session that follows the November election. He’s confident, though, that it will pass. “It’s a question of when,” Nothern said. “We’re out of money again this year. It shows the need to do this.”

The new USDA report shows that staffing for managing national Forest Service lands has dropped by 35 percent since 1998, while fire staffing has increased 110 percent. Even before fire borrowing is taken into account, funding to support recreation has dropped 13 percent; funding for wildlife and fisheries habitat management is down 17 percent; and research funding is down by more than $36 million. Funding for maintenance and capital improvements has been cut by two-thirds since 2001, showing the impact of the shift of resources to wildfire suppression. The full report is online here.

NIFC warns folks to keep unauthorized drones away from wildfires

The National Interagency Fire Center says folks flying unauthorized drones near wildfires are getting in firefighters’ way, and they’re asking the drone operators to cut it out. Unauthorized drones “could cause serious injury or death to firefighters on the ground,” NIFC warns today. “They could also have midair collisions with airtankers, helicopters, and other aircraft engaged in wildfire suppression missions.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

There have been at least three instances this year of unauthorized drone flights near a wildfire zone in violation of temporary flight restrictions, which typically are imposed around wildfires and require permission from fire managers to enter the airspace. Some apparently were taking video or collecting data on the fires. But Aitor Bidaburu, chair of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group at NIFC, said people shouldn’t fly drones near wildfires whether or not formal flight restrictions have been declared in effect. The presence of an unauthorized drone could prompt fire managers to suspend aerial suppression efforts until they’re sure it’s gone, disrupting firefighting, he said.

Anyone determined to have interfered with wildfire suppression efforts could be subject to civil penalties and potentially criminal prosecution.

100 homes burn in north-central Washington wildfire near Leavenworth

As wildfires continue to burn in Idaho, sending smoke everywhere from Boise to the North Idaho Panhandle – where burning has been banned in all five northernmost counties due to wildfire smoke - an estimated 100 homes have burned in the Carlton Complex Fire in north-central Washington. That blaze is burning in the scenic Methow Valley near Leavenworth; it had blackened 260 square miles by this morning, up dramatically from the last estimate of 28 square miles. You can read a full report here at spokesman.com. 

Wildfire smoke arrives in Boise, likely to stick around for ‘a couple of weeks’

The familiar scent of wildfire smoke began wafting into town yesterday, and today it’s noticeably smoky in Boise. Smoke from the Whiskey Complex of fires in the Garden Valley area, along with some from fires in Oregon, filtered into the Treasure Valley overnight, and higher-level air flows are bringing in smoke from fires in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Canada. “We seem to be getting a significant amount more smoke in the valley than we anticipated,” said Mike Toole, regional airshed coordinator for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

And here’s the bad news: Tomorrow likely will be worse, and it’ll stick around. “We’re definitely going to have these smoke impacts lingering for the foreseeable future,” Toole said. “It could be a couple of weeks. … Just with the sheer amount of fires and where they’re located, we could be seeing smoke impacts for quite a while.”

Idaho City and Garden Valley hit red alert levels for air quality due to wildfire smoke today; that’s defined as unhealthy for everyone. Boise’s air quality was registering in the good-to-moderate range at mid-day; Idaho City was in the red zone. See real-time air monitoring online here from the Idaho DEQ; and smoke forecasts here. Tomorrow is predicted to be in the moderate range in Boise; the forecast warns that high-level smoke likely will settle in the Treasure Valley this evening after the sun sets. “We’re going to kind of see the same thing for a while,” Toole said.

NIFC firefighter in Boise commended for saving life during Beaver Creek Fire last August

A wildland firefighter and medical unit leader trainee on last year’s Beaver Creek Fire near Hailey has been awarded a Citation for Exemplary Action for saving the life of a crew member. “He joins a small and select group within the fire community ever to receive this award,” said John Segar, left, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Fire Management Branch chief.

Larry “Kaili” McCray, right, who works at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise as wildland fire medical standards program manager, was assigned to the fire last August when a fire camp crew member suffered a cardiac arrest. He administered chest compressions, applied an automated external defibrillator or AED, and ordered oxygen, coordinating his efforts with two other staffers at the scene from other agencies. Doctors who later cared for the victim said the moves saved the crew member’s life.

Since 1990, cardiac arrest has been the third-leading cause of wildland firefighter deaths, behind aircraft and vehicle accidents. In 2013, there were nine cardiac cases reported on wildland fires, six of them fatal. The three saves were attributed to the speedy and proper use of AED’s.

June rain, mountain snow promise to delay, shorten upcoming wildfire season

The rain that’s falling this morning in Boise – and the unseasonable June snow in the mountains – is actually very, very good news for Idaho’s upcoming fire season, according to a briefing the state Land Board received yesterday. “You shorten the window that’s available for your fire season,” Jeremy Sullens, wildland fire analyst for the National Interagency Fire Center, told the board. “So precipitation events in June … are a significant factor in decreasing the fire season.” Other good news: Cool temperatures have kept much of the state’s snowpack in place, and it’s “coming off the landscape more slowly … in large portions of Idaho. That’s going to provide a lot of moisture for fuels to take up. … Snowpack across the state looks very good at this point.” That combination means longer waits before higher-elevation timber wildfires can break out between now and the advent of wet weather in the fall, Sullens said, and is good news all around.

Plenty of precipitation earlier wasn’t necessarily as promising, because when it occurs during the seasonal “green-up,” it can spur more growth of grasses and other material that can later dry out and serve as fuels for wildfires. Forecasts call for Idaho to see slightly above-normal temperatures along with above-normal precipitation as it moves into summer, Sullens said. “So really, Idaho’s not looking too bad from a forecast perspective.” There are two exceptions, he noted: Areas with sage grouse habitat in southwestern Idaho, and areas in eastern Idaho that saw heavy fire activity last year, including the Hailey area. Those two spots are seeing more drought-like conditions than the rest of the state. Sullens said a “finger of drought runs up through there,” tied to the dryness that’s been experienced across Nevada and Utah.

Meanwhile, 250 ranchers across the state are now trained to help fight fires, as a result of the formation of five Rangland Fire Protective Associations. The ranchers get training and help with equipment to enable them to quickly jump on wildfires that start near them, before state or federal firefighters can get to the scene.

Gov. Butch Otter, who chairs the state Land Board, said at a recent Western Governors Association meeting he attended, other western governors expressed interest in the idea and want to emulate Idaho’s move.

Crews battling central Idaho wildfire

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: STANLEY, Idaho (AP) — Ground and air crews are battling a 60-acre wildfire burning through sagebrush about 10 miles south of Stanley in central Idaho. U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Julie Thomas says the goal on Wednesday is to put out the Gold fire before it has a chance to spread. She says the fire grew to 60 acres in a matter of hours after starting Tuesday afternoon and is being fought by two hotshot crews, two helicopters and five engine crews. She says an air tanker made a retardant drop Tuesday and could be called in again if needed. Thomas says fire officials want to get the fire put out because the area is heavily traveled by tourists starting this time of year. The cause of the fire is being investigated.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Keith Ridler.

Forest Service bans exploding targets in Idaho, Montana, Dakotas, due to wildfire risk

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service has banned exploding targets in northern Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and portions of South Dakota due to wildfire and public safety concerns. Northern Region Forester Faye Krueger announced Tuesday the regional closure that immediately prohibits exploding targets on national forest lands. Some target shooters use the exploding targets because they contain chemical components that mix when struck by a bullet and create a fireball. The Forest Service says exploding targets the past two years have started at least 16 wildfires in western states that cost $33 million to fight. The order includes all 12 national forests and grasslands in the Northern Region. The fine for using the banned targets is up to $5,000 and six months in jail.

Target shooter whose exploding target ignited wildfire to pay $168K for suppression costs

An Illinois man who ignited a 440-acre wildfire in central Idaho in 2012 while shooting at an exploding target will pay $168,500 toward fire suppression costs, under a settlement announced today by the U.S. Attorney's Office for Idaho. State law prohibits exploding targets on public lands from May 10 to Oct.10, but Jeffrey Kerner was target shooting on private land on July 18, 2012, near Salmon in Lemhi County, when his target blew apart and ignited the blaze that later spread to adjacent federal land. It was 95 degrees at the time. The AP reports that no lawsuit was filed, but federal officials negotiated with an insurance company representing Kerner to reach the settlement; click below for the full AP report.

Simpson announces he got wildfire suppression funding restored in shutdown-ending bill

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson announced today that he successfully got “critical wildfire suppression funding” included in the legislation that ended the government shutdown and avoided default on the nation’s debts; Simpson, who chairs the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, has been pushing for the funding since last summer to restore wildfire suppression accounts that were empted during this year’s destructive fire season. The bill, H.R. 2775, includes $600 million for the Forest Service and $36 million for the Department of the Interior to restore the firefighting funds.

“Funding to restore budgets that have been drained through fire borrowing is a critical piece of this legislation,” Simpson said in a news release.  “Not only does this bill reopen all operations at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise and ensure that land managers can contain catastrophic fires that would otherwise put lives and property in peril, but it means that they can do the restoration work and hazardous fuels removal needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires next year.”

Simpson was the only member of Idaho’s congressional delegation to vote in favor of the shutdown-ending deal, which passed both houses with large majorities and was signed into law by the president last night, clearing the way for the government to reopen this morning, from NIFC to the national parks.

Rains trigger mudslides at Sun Valley burn areas

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: HAILEY, Idaho (AP) — Crews in Blaine County are cleaning up clumps and mud and debris that have been washed down hillsides scorched and left bare by recent wildfires. The Times-News reports (http://bit.ly/17ponqP ) that up to 18 inches of mud covered at least one public road outside of Hailey. Heavy rains that passed through the area Monday and Tuesday flushed mud and debris into several other roads that access subdivisions threatened by the Beaver Creek Fire. So far, Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsay says no homes are threatened by the mudslides. But some homeowners are hiring private contractors to help clean up driveways and private roads. Fire officials declared the 170-square-mile fire contained Monday.

Flash flood watch issued in wake of fires

A flash flood watch has been issued for Boise National Forest areas burned by the massive Elk, Pony and Little Queens fires, the AP reports, as well as for the Payette National Forest, where the Weiser Complex Fire has burned about 40 square miles along the Snake River near Brownlee Reservoir. “Travelers should be cautious if high water is encountered at creek crossings and avoid those areas,” said Boise National Forest spokesman David Olson. “In addition, minimizing travel on roads in burned areas is suggested until the flood watch elapses due to the risk of rocks falling onto a road.” Scattered showers and thunderstorms are in the forecast all week; click below for an AP report on the situation.

Lightning touches off three new fires, even as wildfire season starts to wind down

Lightning touched off three new, large fires in Idaho, a reminder wildfire season is continuing even as crews finally get some help from shorter days, lower temperatures and higher humidity that accompany fall's arrival, the AP reports. Meanwhile, massive blazes that earlier burned in south-central Idaho are nearly contained, and the nation's 2013 fire season is slowly grinding to a halt, with favorable weather across Idaho and the West helping keep flames in check.

The new fires include the 3,000-acre Hells Canyon fire 15 miles northwest of Weiser; the nearby 1,500-acre Raft Fire; and the 993-acre Kelley Fire seven miles southeast of Featherville. Meanwhile, the huge Beaver Creek fire that earlier threatened Sun Valley and Ketchum is now 95 percent contained; and the LIttle Queens fire that threatened Atlanta is 20 percent contained. 

The nation actually is on track to have the second-lowest number of square miles burned by wildfires in a decade, AP reporter John Miller reports, largely because rain in states like Florida, Oklahoma and Nebraska kept big, early-season grass fires to a minimum. So far, only 3.7 million acres had burned across the United States through Friday, about 60 percent of average. In the West, however, fire activity has been average or above-average. Click below for his full report.

Outdoors adventures away from the smoke for holiday weekend…

Looking for some outdoor adventure over the holiday weekend, but want to avoid the wildfire smoke? Longtime Idaho outdoors writer Steve Steubner has some suggestions here at his blog, Stueby’s Outdoor Journal. Among them: Five easy-to-access kid-friendly lakes in the McCall area; camping near Cascade and McCall; and Salmon River beaches upstream of Riggins.

Stuebner also has posted a really enlightening NASA image that shows where the smoke plume from California’s Rim Fire near Yosemite flows in Idaho.

Sun Valley back open for business after wildfire, governor urges visitors to return

Baldy reopens at Sun Valley today, with gondola rides from 10-5 daily through Sept. 8 and the Roundhouse and Lookout restaurants open. This comes as the resort community pulls out of the unexpected high-season slump brought by the huge Beaver Creek wildfire, which is now 93 percent contained. The focus there is turning to rehab after the wildfire, and the community’s big Wagon Days event is on for this weekend.

Gov. Butch Otter yesterday urged people to return to the Sun Valley-Ketchum area. “If you get a chance to go to Wagon Days, if you get a chance to let those folks know that we’re thinking about them, go to Sun Valley, spend a little money – please do,” he told more than 600 people at a Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce luncheon yesterday. “Because they’ll appreciate it, because they recognize that we are all one family and we care about them.”

Otter said he’s had lots of calls asking if the Governor’s Cup golf tournament fundraiser, scheduled for Sept. 5-7 in Sun Valley, would be canceled. “No, we’re not going to cancel it,” he said. “I am going to Sun Valley next Wednesday, and fortunately I’ve got about 650 people that are going to come there as well.”

Private ag land owners could get fed help to rehab from wildfires

Special funding is available through the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to help agricultural producers rehab private land burned in the recent wildfires, but they have to apply by Friday. “NRCS can help ranchers and agricultural producers that were significantly impacted by this year’s devastating wildfires,” said Jeff Burwell, Idaho NRCS State Conservationist, for expenses such as fencing, seeding, livestock water development, herbaceous weed control, and erosion control on rangeland, pastureland and non-industrial private forest land; click below for more info.

Fire update: Beaver Creek fire 90% contained, Boise gets smoke from Calif. fire near Yosemite

The huge Beaver Creek fire that threatened Sun Valley and Ketchum is now 90 percent contained, with full containment estimated for Aug. 31. Growth potential has dropped to medium, and all evacuation orders have been lifted, but some Forest Service and BLM area closures remain in effect, including forest lands from Galena Summit south to the SNRA Headquarters on both sides of Hwy 75; that includes Baker Creek and Easley.

The Little Queens fire that’s threatening the tiny town of Atlanta is now 10 percent contained, and 390 firefighters are battling it; five miles of control line have been established from the north side of Atlanta to the west down the Middle Fork of the Boise River drainage. The town remains under an evacuation order. The fire has grown to 20,956 acres.

Meanwhile, the smoke that filled Boise’s skies over the weekend has been coming in from the southwest, from the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, currently the biggest wildfire burning in California. It’s burning on 133,980 acres, is only 7 percent contained, and its growth potential is rated as “extreme.” NIFC reports that rapid fire growth and extreme fire behavior are hampering suppression efforts.

Storms bring mixed news for firefighters, dampening some blazes, but sparking new ones too

Last night’s drenching rain in Boise apparently bypassed the Sun Valley area, but the Beaver Creek fire was rained on early today, the AP reports, keeping fire activity minimal; crews there are reporting good progress. Click below for a western wildfire update from AP reporter John Miller. As of 10 last night, the fire was 67 percent contained; there are still 1,500 firefighters battling it.

Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker has an interesting report today about how many Sun Valley area residents ignored guidance on how to make their homes and property fire-wise after the 2007 Castle Rock fire, resulting in an extremely difficult fight for firefighters along the Greenhorn Road area north of Hailey, where Barker reports that “wooden houses, some as big as small hotels, with cedar-shake roofs and trees hanging over them,” line the road.  At the height of the firefight on Tuesday, Blaine County sent out this tweet: “Ketchum Fire Chief: ‘We had a lot of roof fires in Greenhorn. Shingles have got to go. They aren't worth it.'

Meanwhile, the Little Queens fire continues to threaten the tiny town of Atlanta, which remains under a mandatory evacuation order; the rain bypassed that blaze. As of this morning, 367 firefighters were battling the wildfire on 12,787 acres, and NIFC reported, “Additional resources that have been requested continue to arrive and be assigned to the fire.”

The Gold Pan Complex of fires in the Bitterroot National Forest 35 miles southwest of Conner, Mont. has forced area closures, including along the Magruder Road corridor, and spread to 34,028 acres; and the Lodgepole Fire 10 miles west of Challis, which has been burning since July 20, is up to 22,856 acres and structure protection efforts are being assessed for historic cabins in the Twin Peaks area, though overall the fire is 75 percent contained.

The storms that rolled over southern and central Idaho overnight brought mixed news for firefighters, with rain dampening some, but lightning touching off numerous new wildfires, including at least 13 in the Boise National Forest.

Fire update: Major progress on Beaver Creek fire; Atlanta evacuated for Little Queens fire

The Beaver Creek fire in the Sun Valley/Ketchum area is now 30 percent contained, a sign of major progress on that huge, erratic blaze; there’s a full update here. More than 1,700 firefighters are still working on it. Meanwhile, the tiny town of Atlanta is under a mandatory evacuation order as the Little Queens fire, now 9,500 acres, burns toward it with no containment. The fire has reached China Basin and is now three miles northwest of Atlanta; 150 firefighters are battling it and structure protection measures are in place.

The Elk Complex fire is now 85 percent contained; and the North Fork Fire 20 miles southeast of Cascade is 50 percent contained at 327 acres.

The Highland Fire, which broke out yesterday and burned 600 acres just east of Boise near Lucky Peak Dam, is in the mop-up stage and has an estimated containment of 9 tonight; six structures have burned. The fire caused a power outage that hit the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, where actors performed the first act of Richard III with no power, lights or amplification last night in a gripping performance, before calling it a night due to increasing darkness.

Senators say nation’s wildfire prevention system needs ‘bold reforms’

Idaho's two GOP senators joined with Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden today to launch a new bipartisan push to use the fall budget negotiations in Congress to reform the way the nation funds wildfire prevention. “In my view, the fires that are ripping their way through Oregon, Idaho, California and much of the West are proof that the federal government’s policy for fire prevention is broken,” Wyden declared in a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. That’s because it taps fire prevention funds to fight raging fires, landing the nation in a vicious circle as it does less prevention, he said.

“And I say that given the heroic efforts that have been made by our firefighters,” Wyden said. “The reality is simple: For western members of Congress in the House and the Senate, there is no higher priority this fall than fixing this broken system.”

Wyden is the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, on which Risch also serves; Crapo and Wyden both serve on the budget committee. Wyden quipped that 3 percent of the U.S. Senate is already on board with the new push – the three of them – and said they’ve also gotten enthusiastic  support from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been working to make sure the Forest Service is first in line for seven tanker plans that should become available from the military this month to boost firefighting efforts.

Wyden said there’s “no better time to bring about these changes than this fall,” as Congress grapples with the budget sequester, the need to raise the debt ceiling and the end of the fiscal year. “This brings front and center the debate about what our priorities are and what our choices are,” he said; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. 

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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