BOISE – Idaho still has the most wildfires in the nation, but Montana is catching up quickly. And all of North Idaho – the Panhandle so far has been spared from most of the major wildfire activity this year – goes under Stage 2 fire restrictions Thursday night at midnight.
“Our conditions are only going to get worse as we move into August,” said John Specht, fire operations and safety specialist for the Idaho Department of Lands.
The region already has been under Stage 1 fire restrictions, which ban outdoor smoking and campfires with only narrow exceptions, including official fire structures in some developed campgrounds. The next stage adds a ban on operating motorized vehicles off designated roads and trails; and blasting, welding or operating chain saws or other equipment from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. The restrictions apply outside city limits throughout North Idaho, and most cities and fire districts are enacting similar bans.
The National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that Idaho had 17 major wildland fires burning on 908,406 acres. Montana had 15 major fires blazing on 76,337 acres, and many were growing quickly. Washington was far down the list with just two fires on 6,190 acres.
“This is the time of year when the Northern Rockies tend to have fires, so it’s not unusual,” said Tim Swedburg, communication director for the Joint Fire Science Program and a fire information officer for the National Interagency Fire Center.
So far this year, the nation has seen 57,000 wildfires burn 5 million acres. That’s above the 10-year average for this date of 50,930 fires and 3.5 million acres, but still less than last year’s figure of 70,608 fires and 5.6 million acres.
“Last year was the biggest fire year we’ve had,” Swedburg said. But it’s still not clear whether this year will match last year’s levels, he said. “It can change quickly – a storm can come in all of a sudden, an early-season snow can happen.”
Nearly three-quarters of Idaho’s acreage total this year was at a single fire, the Murphy Complex on the Idaho-Nevada border. The nation’s largest wildfire of the season, that blaze blackened a vast swath of sagebrush-covered land, destroyed three outbuildings, killed an undetermined number of cattle and took out 200 power poles, leaving the Duck Valley Indian Reservation without power for nearly a week in scorching heat. But moderating weather conditions helped firefighters bring that blaze under control; it was 98 percent contained on Tuesday.
Southwestern and central Idaho have been under the strict Stage 2 fire restrictions for nearly a week. Active fires threatened structures and forced road closures and evacuations from near Lewiston to near Lowman.
In Montana, wind-whipped wildfires forced evacuations, road restrictions on Interstate 90 southeast of Missoula and the closure of U.S. Highway 2 at East Glacier. Some campgrounds and trails were closed Tuesday.
“We have dodged the bullet for one reason – we haven’t had the lightning activity and the starts,” Specht said Tuesday. “Yesterday Montana had winds, and we did not get the winds that they got, and that pushed some of their fires pretty hard.”
After a hot, dry July, Specht said dead foliage in North Idaho’s wild lands is about as dry now as it can get. “But what we call the live fuel component, the brush and the conifers, they’re going to continue to lose moisture,” he said. “They’re going to become more receptive for burning.”
Dean Marcus, fire marshal for the Northern Lakes Fire Protection District, said his district is following all the wildland fire restrictions and applying them within cities as well, including Hayden, Hayden Lake and Rathdrum. They’ve even banned public fireworks displays from barges on the water; two have been canceled.
“It’s really dry out there,” Marcus said. “Just any little thing can start a fire right now, so people really need to be careful.”
Jim Lyon, public information officer for the Kootenai County Fire and Rescue District, which includes the cities of Post Falls and Dalton Gardens, said his district also is following the restrictions. “We’ve basically closed all open burning – any kind of burning that has an open flame, outside,” except for gas-powered barbecues, he said. “It’s just getting so dangerous out there – we’re getting kind of nervous.”