It took two days to transition from ski season to fire season, and after a pair of blazes on Tuesday Wood River Rural Fire & Rescue Chief Ron Bateman worries that area firefighting resources might be stretched to the limit in what is turning out to be an active spring.
“We are surrounded by the potential for a problem that will be bigger than we are, in incredibly short order,” Bateman said.
On Tuesday a fire broke out close to homes in Indian Creek during a flammable ground-squirrel management operation. The blaze torched 25 acres and drew 40 Blaine County firefighters and 20 vehicles. Another 15 county fire and emergency medical service professionals were standing by while covering other emergency calls in the area.
While crews climbed a steep and windy hillside with hoses in Indian Creek to contain the fire, a concurrent wildland call came in from south of Bellevue. What is now called the Blackfeet Fire also drew five to six federal firefighting vehicles from the BLM and U.S. Forest Service further south, Bateman told the Express. The fire was all on private land, but threatened BLM acreage to the east. Wood River Fire & Rescue crews were still working at 10 p.m. to put down a few remaining “hot spots,” Bateman said. No structures were damaged.
“It’s incredibly important to know that what happens on the periphery is sometimes as important as what’s center stage,” he said. “The Bellevue and Hailey fire departments jumped into action and helped extinguish a small, unauthorized burn. The incident commander yesterday made some quality decisions and resource requests early on and our solution was just equal to the challenge.”
Bateman said the “fitness and determination” of Blaine County firefighters was “stellar” and the generosity of the Forest Service and BLM all contributed to a good outcome.
Still, the most active part of the fire season still lies ahead. Many of the summer wildfires in the Wood River Valley—some of which destroyed homes, burned thousands of acres and threatened lives—have started from lightning strikes. But Batemen is concerned already about the likelihood of human-caused wildfires, especially those caused by spring slash pile and debris burns.
“Every morning our shift officer receives a spot forecast that allows him or her to make an educated decision to allow burning as weather conditions and Wood River Fire & Rescue resources dictate,” he said. “With strong winds forecast Tuesday across southern Idaho, that decision was straightforward—no burning.”
No burning of crop stubble or waterway debris and vegetation can begin without a $25 annual permit, along with daily permit approval, Bateman said.
“If you haven’t called in and spoken with staff to activate that permit on the day of the burn, you cannot burn,” he said. “Unfortunately, there will be times that the phone won’t be answered. We may be on a call or away from the phone doing checks on our vehicles or myriad other things. We apologize for this inconvenience. Please do not burn if you haven’t talked with us first.”
Bateman said effective community fire safety is accomplished through staff training, mutual aid agreements with partnering agencies and public education.
“Posting a picture on our social media with a few words is our endeavor at education,” he said.
Even so, every fire/EMS agency faces the possibility of encountering a problem that is “bigger than a solution they can readily bring to the table,” he said.
“It’s our job to reduce the potential for encountering such problems.”