Since April 18, Wood River Fire & Rescue and the Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District have responded to about 10 wildfires, far more than what would normally be expected in April.
With the number of controlled burns gone wrong, or growth along highways being sparked inadvertently, both fire districts are taking different measures to mitigate risk, but both urge caution to residents as these fires strain resources and put firefighters at great risk.
According to Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Ron Bateman, a lot of consideration goes into issuing burn permits. Wood River is “trying to respect that there are waterways that need to be cleared,” he said, and has opted to not suspend burn permits, which he believes would harm some people due to the few who have violated the permits.
Wood River has issued 129 active burn permits, with anywhere from five to 12 actively burning on any given day, according to Bateman.
Before each permit is issued, a crew is sent to the site where the burn will take place to ensure there is sufficient water supply and a safe distance between the burn area and any structures. Currently, there are no fines or citations issued if a controlled burn becomes uncontrolled, or if someone starts a burn without a permit. It would be up to the Fire District commissioners to decide if there should be a fine moving forward, Bateman said. For now, he gives a warning to those burning without a permit—like the landowner that started a fire with an illegal burn on Tuesday at a residence on Glendale Road.
In that situation, Bateman felt he was putting his health at risk when forced to speak with a resident who refused to maintain proper social distance while Bateman was not wearing a face mask.
“ … [I]t is unacceptable that I have to tell a property owner multiple times to back up when I am talking to them,” Bateman said in a text message the day of the Glendale Road fire.
On the same day, nearly at the same time, the Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District was responding to two separate fires along state Highway 75. Though both were small and put out relatively quickly, the fires show just how flammable the brush along the highway is right now.
The two highway fires—one near East Fork Road and the second near Zinc Spur Road—were both likely started by a trailer chain dragging along the roadway, Ketchum Rural Chief Rich Bauer told the Express.
The busy April has led to a “measure of fatigue and frustration” among Wood River’s captains, Bateman said. More than that, everyone, including Bateman himself, is frustrated with the lack of consideration that residents have been giving to firefighters called to respond when fires get out of control.
“The detailed care that we’ve exercised to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within our first responders becomes incredibly complicated on these scenes,” Bateman said in an email to the Mountain Express on Monday. “I am fearful that all the effort will be undone fighting a wildland fire.”
Bateman said his department has been “militant” in ensuring that firefighters are protected from the virus both within the firehouses and out on calls, but that with each fire, the risk remains high that someone can contract the virus.
“All the effort we’ve done is potentially out the window with one of these incidents,” he said.
Bauer reiterated those concerns. It’s difficult to fight wildland fires and keep safe distance between firefighters, he said.
“All of us are making changes. Everyone needs to be extra careful to preserve the quality of life here,” he said.
On Monday, Ketchum Rural opted to suspend burn permits at least until May 13, when the district’s commissioners will meet to discuss whether the suspension should continue.
“Current fire conditions are abnormal for this time of year,” Bauer said.
Though Bateman is only seven months into his new role here in the Wood River Valley, he said those on his team who have been here for multiple spring and summer seasons agree that conditions this April are different from what they’ve seen in the past. With this winter’s low snowpack melted in the valley and new growth not yet greening, Bauer said conditions are prime for a wildland fire to spark anywhere in the area.
“Fuels are ready to burn,” he said.
Regardless of what the fire season may look like, the coronavirus has already worn on first responders. Many have taken active roles in transporting patients, responding to an abnormal number of calls and continuing to be vigilant in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus among crews. Bateman said the workforce has been stretched thin for the better part of two months.
“They’ve worked extra shifts, transferring patients to Twin Falls, and they are playing catch-up with maintenance checks, missed training and station upkeep,” he said. “I need them to recover and prepare for what’s next.”
Bauer said BLM firefighting managers expect a lull in wildland fires once vegetation begins to green. That lull will likely last until the later summer months, July and August, when temperatures hit their peak and once again create warm and dry conditions.
For now, both local agencies urge residents to use extreme caution when activating a burn and to remain vigilant over that burn to ensure it doesn’t get out of hand.