Firefighting costs on state-protected lands in Idaho are up to $67 million for this year’s fire season, the state Land Board heard this morning, up from $59.7 million just two weeks ago. “We have had a lot of fire on the landscape here this year,” state forester David Groeschl told the board. The huge Clearwater Complex in north-central Idaho accounted for about $27 million of that cost. “That’s been our largest, most expensive fire to date,” Groeschl said.
Under questioning from Gov. Butch Otter, Groeschl said that complex destroyed 48 homes and 70 outbuildings.
Groeschl said about $16.7 million of those firefighting costs are reimbursable from other agencies, putting the net cost to the state at $50.3 million. Those are just estimates, noted state Lands Director Tom Schultz; some bills will trickle in over the course of the next year. State lawmakers set aside $27 million toward firefighting costs this year.
“We’ve been hit pretty hard the last couple of years on our 6.3 million acres that we’re responsible for,” Otter said. He said he wondered if the state could “do more than just go put out the fires … we actually could manage it more.” Schultz said the department’s budget proposal includes a plan to do some more management on federal lands, but Groeschl noted that the state’s 6.3 million acres of fire protection responsibility includes only about 800,000 acres of federal lands, 700,000 of that Forest Service and 100,000 BLM. The rest is largely private or state land.
The good news: “Activity has slowed down,” Groeschl said. “Since Sept. 1, we’ve seen very few new fire starts because of the moisture.” Weather fronts moving through the region have brought cooler temperatures, combined with the season’s shorter days and higher humidity, he said. “In the last week we’ve had only a total of three fire starts.” All were caught by initial attack, and didn’t spread.
“We’ve not seen a season-ending event yet,” Groeschl said, which would be several days of steady rain and/or snow to put the fires out. “Hopefully that is within the next couple of weeks.”
The state already has begun work on timber salvage sales of 70 million to 80 million board feet on about 5,000 to 6,000 acres, Groeschl said. “We have our first fire salvage sale advertised now, the West Shriver sale. … We will be selling that later this month.” The bulk of the salvage sales will be on the market within two months, he said. “We’ve been really trying to work with the private sector. They’re actively pursuing salvage operations on the private lands now as we are on the state lands.” So far, it appears that most sawmills in the Clearwater area are interested in taking salvaged timber, he said, with the exception of the pulp mill, which can’t take charred wood.