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Federal officials on fire season: Get ready

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Tuesday; at left is U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. (Betsy Russell)
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Tuesday; at left is U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - The wildfire season has barely begun, and already hundreds of homes have burned in Colorado and 66 homes in southern Idaho were destroyed over the weekend.

The U.S. secretaries of homeland security and agriculture came to Boise on Tuesday to check in with national fire managers, after a stop in Colorado to inspect damage, and they brought a message: Get ready. The fire season spreads from south to north, and the damage already seen in the southern parts of the west will be spreading to the northern parts of the Rocky Mountain west.

“Everyone should be concerned, everybody should be preparing, preparing as best we can,” said Janet Napolitano, homeland security secretary and former governor of Arizona. “It does portend to be a long, hot fire season in the West. We’ve had them before, we’ll have them again. This one has gotten off to a particularly tough start.”

She urged property owners to to clear combustible materials away from structures and create “defensible space” around homes. “What we saw in Colorado was … when defensible space is created, our firefighters have a much better chance of saving a home or a business,” she said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack echoed that. “We did see today a circumstance where a home was completely obliterated, and next to it there were two homes that weren’t touched.”

Said Napolitano, “We have an opportunity now as we start seeing some rains and moisture coming into the southern part of the West, to help those in the northern part get ready.”

This year’s fire season, so far, is actually below both last year and the 10-year average as far as numbers of fires and acres burned. But it’s been a particularly destructive one in numbers of homes destroyed.

“While the number of fires and number of acres are down, it is clear that we have faced some very serious and difficult fires,” Vilsack said.

The two said there are multiple factors creating that situation, from dry, hot weather, low humidity and fierce winds to more and more homes being built in the wildland-urban interface, the space where developed communities and wild lands that are prone to wildfire come together.

“It is a formula for very serious and intense fires,” Vilsack said. “We did work with the community of Colorado Springs in some of the wildland interface, and for that reason, even though we lost a number of homes, 81 percent of the homes that were at risk were saved, and sometimes we have the tendency to forget that.”

He said, “We have expanding populations, and everyone wants the benefit of what you have out here in the western United States, part of which are just unbelievably beautiful landscapes and scenic landscapes. And it’s a challenge.”

Vilsack said federal fire officials are focused on three points: Making forests more resilient to fire, through thinning and restoration; making communities better fire-adapted, through defensible space and other measures; and being “more responsive to fires when they occur.”

That’s where the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center comes in, where fire planning is handled for the entire nation, across multiple agencies including the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, FEMA and more.

NIFC spokesman Ken Frederick, who works for the BLM, noted that fire managers for all the agencies are on-site in Boise during the fire season, including the National Association of State Foresters.

It’s at NIFC that resources are directed around the country to fight the various wildland fires, from air tankers and helicopters to crews.

Ernest Mitchell Jr., FEMA’s national fire administrator, said, “Fire is everyone’s fight. It is urgent that we do things prior to fire for prevention and mitigation purposes. We will continue to have disastrous fires.”

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