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Otter to tour wildfires today; his cabin is among structures in communities at risk…

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.

USFS crew refused to work on Steep Corner fire day before Veseth’s death, due to hazards

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.

Boise air tanker base sets record for fire retardant dumps in big wildfire year

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.

Otter declares statewide disaster due to wildfires, National Guard mobilizing

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has issued a statewide disaster declaration due to wildfires, allowing Idaho National Guard troops to be mobilized to help fight fires burning across the state. The declaration, signed yesterday, is for the next 30 days, but notes that it could be extended. “There is an imminent threat to life and property as a result of wildfires within the state of Idaho,” the governor's declaration states. “Dry fuels, lightning, high winds and smoke have created this perilous situation.”

Rob Feeley, public affairs officer for the Idaho state Bureau of Homeland Security, said the declaration is allowing National Guard troops and equipment to be mobilized starting today. They're headed to the Trinity Ridge, Halstead and Mustang Complex fires, including ground transportation to help move supplies and personnel, traffic control crews, and standby helicopters for medical evacuation.

“This is because the fires around Idaho are having trouble securing the resources that they need to be able to fight the fires,” Feeley said, “because there are so many fires going on across the nation, across the western United States, that some of the things they need they just can't get, for example helicopters. Every helicopter that meets their safety inspection requirements is already contracted.”

Otter also signed a separate disaster declaration yesterday for Elmore County at that county's request, to allow the county to receive FEMA funds for structure protection at Pine and Featherville from the Trinity Ridge fire. The federal fire management assistance grant is for “when the situation is dire enough there are houses, businesses at risk,” Feeley said. The federal grant will pay 75 percent of the costs for structure protection there; the resources targeted on that fire now are for wildland firefighting. Several city fire departments from throughout the state of Idaho are now mobilizing and heading there to protect the towns.

Fires intensify, rafters shuttled out from Middle Fork of Salmon River

Here's how bad western wildfires are getting: Not only are dozens of homes burning in central Washington near Cle Elum and two towns preparing for evacuation in Idaho, but 250 rafters were stranded for up to two days on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, after authorities closed a backcountry access road due to falling boulders and debris caused by wildfire. Authorities shuttled the stranded floaters out this morning with pilot cars, but this afternoon, more debris came down and the road closed again. That means as more rafters head down the Middle Fork to the Main Salmon, the point where they typically board buses for the trip out after a six-day rafting trip, they, too, could face delays.

There was a steady stream of traffic leaving Pine and Featherville today as the residents of the two small communities were advised to pack up their belongs as the Trinity Ridge fire approaches, reports AP reporter Jessie Bonner; that blaze has burned more than 100 square miles in the past two weeks and is headed for the outskirts of Featherville. “It's not a question of if, but when,” Boise National Forest spokesman Dave Olson told the AP; click below for the full report. National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said fires have intensified in recent days in Washington, northern California and Nevada. “Nevada has been hammered,” she said, “and Idaho has some big ones that are going to burn until the snow falls.”

Evacuation planned for Pine, Featherville

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Fire managers are trying to gather residents of two small central Idaho towns to discuss evacuation plans as the Trinity Ridge wildfire grows closer. The Great Basin National Incident Management Team announced that a meeting would be held at 10:30 Wednesday morning at the Pine Senior Center to discuss evacuation plans for Featherville and Pine with residents. The Trinity Ridge fire is burning on about 100 square miles just 7 miles from Featherville, and it's showing extreme fire behavior, with embers lighting new blazes far from the main body of the flames. Campers in the area have already been evacuated, and officials are warning residents of Atlanta to evacuate if they have respiratory health problems.

Moscow firefighter’s death highlights dangerous job crews face on fire lines

The death of 20-year-old U.S. Forest Service firefighter Anne Veseth of Moscow while fighting the Steep Corner fire near Orofino is highlighting the dangerous job crews face as at least a dozen blazes continue to burn across the state, the Associated Press reports. Veseth died Sunday when a tree fell and crashed into another tree, causing it to topple on her. “The Forest Service is devastated by the loss of one of our own,” said Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell, adding that his agency is investigating the fatal incident. “We ask the public to join us in keeping the family in their thoughts and prayers.”

Veseth, pictured here, was a student at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, where she was studying auto mechanics; her older brother also is a wildland firefighter in Idaho. You can read more here.

Wildfire smoke prompts Stage 1 air quality alert, all open burning banned in 10 southern Idaho counties

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has issued a Stage 1 Air Quality Alert for 10 southern Idaho counties, including mandatory bans on all open burning. The counties affected are Ada, Boise, Canyon, Elmore, Gem, Owyhee, Payette, Washington, Lemhi and Custer. The DEQ has also issued a caution that unhealthy air quality will continue at least until mid-day tomorrow, and everyone should limit exertion outdoors. The pollution, in the form of PM 2.5 fine particulates, is from smoke from multiple wildfires in northern California, southern Oregon, northern Nevada and, closer to home, southwestern Idaho.

In the good news, the brush fire that kicked up this afternoon off Cartwright Road, the Ourada Fire, has been knocked down at 419 acres, the BLM reports, and crews are mopping up; no structures were damaged. When that fire started around 11:30 this morning, we went outside to take a look, but couldn't see it. The reason? It was already too smoky.

Woman fleeing Colo. wildfire crashes in Idaho, ignites new blaze

That 2,000-acre wildfire that was set off this week by a car accident on I-84 south of Boise? Turns out the driver was a 19-year-old woman fleeing the destructive Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, who had loaded her most-valued possessions into her car - including her mother's wedding dress - and headed off for her father's house in Oregon. A mechanical failure caused the young woman to lose control while passing another vehicle, the ISP said, and the Subaru crashed and burned, igniting dry grass along the roadway. The woman, Krista McCann, told KTVB-TV she lost everything in the car in the resulting blaze except her purse; she escaped without injury. “This is everything I own now,” she told the TV station, holding open her purse. Click below for a full report from the Associated Press and KTVB.

A smoky, hazy start to Boise’s day…

It was a smoky, hazy sunrise in Boise today, as seen here looking across Lucky Peak Lake just east of town. That's from the numerous wildfires still burning in the region. The Stone fire, between 8th Street and Rocky Canyon road in the foothills just east of town, was contained last night at 50 acres; no structures were burned, and crews will continue monitoring it today, said Boise BLM spokesman Brandon Hampton. The Avelene fire in Boise County was 50 percent contained last night at 250 acres; more than 100 firefighters were fighting it, including hand crews, engines, helicopters and air tankers. “There are homes within close proximity to the fire, but at this point all the forward progression of the fire has been stopped,” Hampton said.

The smoky sky in Boise, however, isn't from those two nearby fires - it's mainly from the 475,000-acre Long Draw fire about 160 miles southwest of Boise in east-central Oregon, 10 miles west of the town of Basque, Ore. That fire is 30 percent contained, with a Type 1 incident management team on it and about 300 firefighters working to fight the flames; no structures are threatened and it's burning mainly in grass and sage.

There's also the Stout fire 14 miles north of Hammett, about 60 miles east of Boise. “That fire is also impacting Boise with smoke,” Hampton said. “There are just so many fires around Boise geographically that everything is impacting Boise. We just don't have very much air movement, so it's somewhat sitting in the valley here.” Continued relatively stagnant air is forecast in the valley today, but Hampton said firefighters are bracing because more lightning - the cause of most of the wildfires - is predicted for the weekend.

Western governors urge more, speedier fed wildfire aid for states

The Western Governors Association sent a letter to congressional leaders today urging more and speedier federal aid for states hard-hit by wildfires this year, plus more aid for the states to cope with the fallout after the fires, from restoring wildlife habitat to protecting municipal water supplies from erosion.

“We recognize our request comes at a time when there is a broad bipartisan consensus that we must reduce the federal deficit,” the western governors wrote. “However, response and recovery from natural disasters should not require offsets elsewhere in the budget or come at the expense of ongoing forest restoration and wildfire prevention efforts.”

In addition to current WGA Chairman Gary Herbert, governor of Utah, and vice chair John Hickenlooper, governor of Colorado, the letter bears the signatures of both Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, the association's lead governors for forest health; you can read the full letter here.

Boise choking on wildfire smoke…

Boise is choking on smoke this morning from the numerous wildfires, including one in the Boise foothills just east of town near Aldape Summit. The Stone fire ignited this morning between 8th Street and Rocky Canyon road; Shaw Mountain Road is closed due to the fire, as are numerous Boise foothills trails. The city of Boise sent out this trail closure advisory this morning:

A wildfire ignited this morning near Aldape Summit in Rocky Canyon. As such, Rocky Canyon Road is currently closed, and trail users will likely be turned around by fire crews on 3 Bears Trail #26, Femrite's Patrol #6, 8th Street Motorcycle Trail #4 and Watchman Trail #2. Shane's Trail #26A, 5-Mile Gulch Trail #2 and Orchard Gulch Trail #7 will not be accessible from their trailheads on Rocky Canyon Road. Please avoid using this area until further notice.

There are numerous other wildfires burning in southwestern Idaho, including one near the junction of Grimes Creek Road and State Highway 21 in Boise County that's threatening homes; one that closed I-84 south of Boise for hours yesterday and spread to 2,000 acres after it was ignited by a car crash; and the now-contained 25,000-acre Benwalk fire north of Mountain Home that ignited Monday. Click below for a complete update on Southwest idaho fires from the Idaho office of the BLM.

Otter to seek federal aid for victims of Pocatello fire

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: POCATELLO, Idaho (AP) ― Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's office is seeking federal assistance for victims of a southeastern Idaho range fire that destroyed 66 homes and 29 outbuildings. Otter on Tuesday toured ground charred by the now-notorious Charlotte Fire, which left a moonscape of concrete foundations and torched houses when it roared into life near Pocatello June 28. Otter says state, county and city officials are busy exploring options for financial help from Washington, D.C. The Republican governor, who normally eschews too much gratitude to the federal government, promised locals affected by the fire that he'd exhaust every opportunity to secure aid to help the community rebuild. Otter was particularly struck by the 1,040-acre fire's hit-or-miss nature, seemingly to destroy one house at whim while leaving another nearby standing and intact, with no damage.

Top federal officials on fire season: Get ready

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 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.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Rifle practice with illegal exploding targets blamed for four wildfires

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Exploding targets may go off with a satisfying bang, but federal land managers say they're behind a spate of human-caused wildfires in Idaho. The Boise District Bureau of Land Management said on Wednesday it has investigated 19 human-caused fires this season and suspect that four have been ignited by exploding targets. The targets are popular for rifle practice, because they scatter incendiary materials for several feet after they've been hit by bullets. But in combination with dry grass, they can become the culprit behind fast-moving range fires. What's more, they're illegal during the wildfire months between May 10 and Oct. 10 on territory managed by the BLM, Forest Service and Idaho Department of Lands. Violators face jail time, up to $100,000 in fines ― and possible firefighting costs, if caught.
  

Fire season on state lands a light one so far…

The fire season on Idaho state lands so far this year has seen only 48 percent of the 20-year average number of fires, while the acres burned are only 7 percent of the 20-year average, the Idaho state Land Board heard this morning. That's the fourth-fewest number of fires in the last 28 years, and the fifth-fewest acres burned. That was largely because the active fire season was delayed by the cool, wet spring; September is predicted to be warmer and drier than normal, so wildfires could increase. Still, the state is likely to save money on firefighting costs for the year.

Two 8-year-old boys from Pocatello charged with arson in wildfire

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: POCATELLO, Idaho (AP) — Two 8-year-old Pocatello, Idaho, boys are charged with third-degree arson for a fire that destroyed a house and burned more than 1,200 acres of public and private land. Bannock County Deputy Prosecutor Ian Service says the boys are accused of starting the so-called Drive-In fire on Aug. 15 in Pocatello. He says they were playing with matches and a lighter, and had ignited and extinguished several smaller fires before one burned out of their control. Officials estimate more than $750,000 was spent fighting the blaze. Service says he doesn't intend to lock up the boys but send a message that playing with fire has consequences and can cause serious damage. Third-degree arson is a felony, but the punishment for juveniles is less severe than adults.

East Boise foothills wildfire up to 200 acres

A wildfire in the foothills east of Boise today is up to an estimated 200 acres, authorities report, but so far, winds have been moving the fire away from any homes or other structures. It's up in the hills behind the new East Junior High; this photo was provided by the Boise Police Department and the unified command at the fire from the Boise Fire Department and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; firefighters have aggressively targeted the fire today with helicopters and ground crews.

Coming on Saturday

The little piggy did not go to the market. It's somewhere in or around North Pines Middle School and students there are in the midst of collecting clues to find the pig, named Piggy H., so they can win $250. Reporter Lisa Leinberger was at the school this week and she'll have a fun story on Piggy H. in Saturday's Valley Voice.

Also coming tomorrow is a look at the discussion the Spokane Valley City Council had about road projects and street preservation, an unusual new church called Advent Lutheran Church and the work the Spokane Valley Fire Department and Spokane County Fire District 8 are doing to help homeowners protect their homes from wildfires. There will also be another campaign announcement, so make sure you pick up your paper tomorrow.

Evacuations ordered in wildfire near Tamarack

Here’s a news item from the AP:  CASCADE, Idaho (AP) — The Valley County sheriff’s office is ordering an immediate evacuation of some subdivisions near the Tamarack Resort as strong winds fan the flames of the Hurd Creek fire. The sheriff’s office issued a Level 3 evacuation notice Thursday morning for about 100 homes in subdivisions south of the golf and ski resort. Level 3 means residents are being told to leave their homes. Authorities are also telling residents with pricey homes closer to the resort to be ready to clear out on a moment’s notice. So far, the Hurd Creek fire has burned about 550 acres in a mid-section of the mountain. About 700 firefighters are working to contain the blaze ignited Saturday by lightning.

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.

Two homes damaged, evacuations ordered in Eagle wildfire

A fast-growing wildfire northwest of Boise has damaged two homes in the Skyline Subdivision near State Highway 16 in Eagle, and homes north of Beacon Light Road and west of Highway 55 have been ordered evacuated; an evacuation center has been set up at Eagle High School. Numerous firefighting planes, trucks and brush rigs have been dispatched to the fire this afternoon, which has darkened the skies over Boise with brown smoke. This as there’s also another 100-acre grass fire burning between Boise and Mountain Home, and the Teapot Dome fire, about 10 miles east of Mountain Home, reportedly has expanded to 600 acres and is 60 percent contained. Be careful out there.

‘Normal’ fire season predicted on state lands

As of the close of the state’s fiscal year on July 1, emergency fire suppression costs incurred by the state Department of Lands for the year were $1.95 million. That’s similar to last year’s costs, and is 33 percent of the 20-year average. The number of acres burned was just 12 percent of the 20-year average, at just 31 acres; the average is 253 acres. In fiscal year 2010, there were three lightning-caused fires on state lands and 20 human-caused fires, but only 31 acres burned. The reason: A warm, dry winter was followed by a cool and wet May and June. A report to the state Land Board today said, “Even though early July is predicted to be warmer and drier than normal, the summer is predicted to have normal temperatures with normal rainfall. At this time, the National Interagency Coordination Center is predicting a normal fire season for Idaho.”