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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.

Practicing for fire season

Inslee deploys a fire shelter during a practice session near the Capitol.

OLYMPIA — With wildfire season approaching, Gov. Jay Inslee used an annual exercise to push for more controls on carbon emissions, saying forest fires will get worse in Washington if the nation doesn't cut greenhouse gases.

The state is facing what Inslee called “the three horses of the fire Apocalypse” – drought, heat and beetle infestation killing trees – and doubled its wildfire fighting budget this year. The number of wildfires in Washington could quadruple by 2030 if steps aren’t taken to reduce carbon pollution and slow climate change, he said. . . 

To read the rest of this item, or to comment, click here to continue inside the blog.

State braces for ‘above normal’ fire season

Idaho’s gearing up for an above-normal fire season on state land, state forester David Groeschl told the state Land Board this morning, after Secretary of State Ben Ysursa inquired. “We’ve got some awful dry conditions,” Ysursa said. “What’s your crystal ball on the fire season coming up?” Groeschl said long-range predictions call for warmer than average temperatures and below-normal precipitation over much of the state. “And right now, the fuel moistures are lower than we normally see this time of year,” he said. “So if weather conditions do not change, I would expect a very active fire season.”

He added, “We are preparing for an above-normal fire season.”

Preparing for fire season

Inslee deploys a fire shelter.

OLYMPIA — Jay Inslee completed one of the annual spring rituals for a Washington governor this morning: passing the test for minimum wildfire training in the advance of the state's fire season.

To do this, one must walk a mile in no more than 16 minutes. He managed it in just over 13, strolling with Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark staff and assorted media, on a course laid out by the Department of Natural Resources at Capitol Lake. Possibly most impressive, he did it in his dress shoes.

One must also demonstrate the ability to unpack and crawl into a fire shelter in 26 seconds. He had a few seconds to spare.

“I'm trying to get a budget through the Washington Legislature. Geting into a fire shelter is nothing,” he told reporters afterwards.

This doesn't qualify one to fight wildfires in the forests or ranges. That's a much tougher test. This is the minimum for going up to the fire line.

Summers are getting warmer, drier and longer with each passing decade, and tree kills by beetles more frequent, Inslee said, which means fire seasons in most years are getting more longer and more intense.

One might assume that if the governor showed up at a wildfire, they'd let him go to the fireline if he wanted, but governors usually take the test to show support for the DNR.

With budget cuts hitting firefighting efforts, Jewell calls on folks to get ‘fire-wise’

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.

Budget cuts hit as ‘difficult’ fire season looms

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.”

First NIFC outlook for upcoming wildfire season predicts above-normal risk

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.

Idaho had 20% of nation’s wildfires for year, but state lands had half the usual

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.

Fire season has begun

Okay, everybody, based on the scanner traffic today people don't seem to understand that it's fire season now. We've had several days of very warm weather and wind and any firefighter will tell you that those conditions dry out grasses and other fuels very quickly. I've heard brush fire calls all over Spokane County today. Remember that burn bans are now in place on all Department of Natural Resources lands and residents in Spokane Valley are also banned from lighting anything other than an approved camp fire. Everyone be careful out there and remember not to toss burning cigarettes out your car window.

Fire danger light this season

Gov. Chris Gregoire opens a fire shelter during the annual training and test required for being on site at a wildfire or forest fire.

OLYMPIA — With snow still on the mountains and plenty of rain this spring in the lowlands, the danger of wildfires is light, at least for the first part of summer.

That's the word from state officials today as Gov. Chris Gregoire, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste and others took their annual Department of Natural Resources fitness and fire shelter test at Chehalis Western Trail at Woodard Bay.

The test isn't too strenuous: Cover a mile on foot in 15 minutes, which is a brisk walk, or as Gregoire complained at one point “barely a saunter.” Then open a portable fire shelter, get in it and lie on the ground in the right direction for an approaching fire within 25 seconds. (Tip: The right direction is feet toward the fire, under the theory that your head is the more valuable thing to protect.)

The training is necessary for going to the fire line should a wildfire break out. Even the governor and the WSP chief have to qualify.

Everybody passed, although it's probably not something that will be needed in most of the state this summer, except maybe in parts of the Columbia Basin.

Fire season outlook: Not bad here, not good down south…

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Robert Abbey joined Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson today for a tour of the National Interagency Fire Center, from which nationwide wildland firefighting operations are coordinated, and a briefing on this year's fire season. The verdict so far: It's looking grim for the southern tier of the United States, but not bad at all in the northern tier, where huge amounts of moisture promise to delay the start of the wildfire season well beyond normal.

In the Northwest, Salazar said, “We may not have as many fire threats as we have in other places.” However, Abbey cautioned, “It's one thing to make predictions in April. … A lot can change in a very short period of time.” Among the possibilities: The very moisture that's dampening fire risk now could promote so much growth in grasses and brush that come August or September, when that foliage dries out, fire risk could jump. “It's still important for individual homeowners to take responsibility for defensible space around their own homes,” Abbey said. “All of us have a responsibility.”

The nation already is seeing significant fire danger - and some major, active fires, including destructive and spreading blazes in Texas - in New Mexico, Texas, southern Colorado, Oklahoma, and southern Florida, Salazar said. Within 30 days, Abbey said, the risk will spread to Arizona, southern California and Nevada. Salazar called NIFC in Boise “the heartbeat of how we deal with fires” throughout the nation, and said Idaho's lucky to have it here. The multi-agency facility coordinates fire operations from smokejumper crews to aircraft to weather-forecasting services. “This truly is an example of how government should work,” Simpson said. “Many different agencies come together here and work in coordination.” Click below for a Department of Interior press release on the visit.

Wildfire contained after dramatic fight

That was a pretty dramatic fight against the Eagle wildfire last night, with planes dropping fire retardant, helicopters dipping and dumping water buckets, crews working on the ground, smoke billowing and winds shifting and gusting. The fire was fully contained by mid-evening after nearly 5,000 acres burned; four homes were lost, but there were no injuries. The smoke even cleared out over Boise as evening settled in. But it’s a sign of what’s to come as the fire season gets under way; lightning touched off the blaze, which went whipping through dry sage and brush that’s extra-thick after this year’s cool, wet spring.

When fire season, back-to-school collide…

It’s nothing new for the University of Idaho to have some students arrive late for school in the fall because it’s still fire season, and they’re off fighting wildfires - 11 students delayed their return to classes last year for that reason. With classes starting Aug. 24, the UI announced today that student firefighters have options there. “We are supportive of their efforts, and encourage the student firefighters, or a family member, to contact us so we know they do plan on returning,” said Nancy Krogh, UI registrar. The firefighting students can either start late, or if they decide not to return for the semester, their tuition and fees are refunded. For more information, call (208) 885-6731.