Officials from the Bureau of Land Management-Idaho, U.S. Forest Service and Idaho Department of Lands gathered in a virtual conference last Thursday to review the National Interagency Fire Center’s updated wildfire potential outlook for Idaho that the Center had issued that morning.
The news, as expected, was grim.
Fire potential in Idaho has been rated “significant” from July through September and will peak starting this month, according to National Interagency Fire Center Meteorologist Nick Nauslar.
“There’s not a lot of good news going forward, not much relief in terms of the potential for significant fires through August,” he said of the center’s June 22 forecast update.
Above-normal temperatures combined with below-normal precipitation have already created perfect fire weather conditions in Idaho, Nauslar said. About 80% of Idaho is in drought, nearly five times the drought area this time last year, he said, and the state’s wildfire conditions will only ripen with this summer’s Southwest monsoon weather pattern.
Though the Southwest monsoon brings increased moisture to typically dry inland areas, Nauslar said it also produces strong downdrafts, gusts over 40 miles per hour and thunderstorms with more lightning than rain, increasing wildfire risk.
The weather pattern, which is caused by a reversal of wind patterns in Mexico and the southwestern U.S., usually doesn’t travel this far north. It may help soothe exceptional drought conditions in parts of the Southwest this summer but should lead to more lightning ignitions in the Northwest, Nauslar said.
“Due to the monsoon, fire season is expected to shift west and north,” he said.
On June 22, the country moved to Wildfire Preparedness Level 4, the second highest on its scale. The ranking means that over half of the U.S. firefighting resources are currently directed at ongoing wildfires, Nauslar said.
“Almost 91% of the West is now in drought. And compared to a year ago, the [percentage] of areas in extreme and exceptional drought has gone from 2% to 56%, so quite a substantial increase,” he said. “At this time last year, less than 10% of Idaho was in drought. Now, nearly 90% of the state is in drought, with south-central Idaho in exceptional drought.”
Around July 1, the bull’s-eye-shaped “extreme” drought area centered over Blaine and Custer counties spread north to Butte and Lemhi counties. With it, fire risk accelerated.
“It would take a fair amount of rain and snow and cold to really slow us down,” Nauslar said.
Josh Harvey, fire management bureau chief at the Idaho Department of Lands, said long-term drying continuing from last summer has put significant stress on the ecosystem.
“The extreme heat, lack of early spring moisture and the stress that the grasses and brush and our forests are feeling right now have caused tinderbox-like conditions in Idaho,” he said.
Recreation on the forests can exacerbate the risk. The Sawtooth National Forest recorded 342 unattended campfires and the Boise National Forest recorded 384 last summer, according to Ben Newburn, fire and aviation management director for the U.S. Forest Service.
“We saw a dramatic increase in visitation to our public lands resulting in a significant increase in abandoned escaped campfires,” he said. “These are 100% preventable.”
Lightning sparks small fires
Four small wildfires have ignited on the forest since late June due to lightning strikes, Sawtooth National Spokeswoman Julie Thomas said.
Those include the 13-acre First Fork Fire, located 8 miles southwest of Oakley, controlled around 6 p.m. on Saturday; the 0.35-acre Big Casino and Rough Creek Fires in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, 3 miles east of Stanley, controlled around 6 p.m. Monday; the 0.5-acre Johnson Creek Fire in the Sawtooth Wilderness near Johnson Creek, about 6 miles southwest of Alturas Inlet Campground, controlled Monday evening; and the one-acre Gold Run Fire in the Sawtooth Wilderness near Gold Run Creek, also fully controlled Monday evening.
In the Salmon-Challis National Forest, lightning-caused wildfires have burned about 140 acres since June 23.
Those include the Aspen Fire about 12 miles southwest of Challis and the Bachelor Fire about 4 miles east of the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge. While under an acre each, the fires have required several engines and helicopter crews due to 40 mph wind gusts on Wednesday.
The 139-acre, lightning caused Fritzer Fire continues to burn in grass, dead fuels and Ponderosa pines about 21 miles west of Salmon. The fire was 80% contained as of press deadline Thursday.
Eight other fires under an acre were reported on the forest between July 1 and July 5 and are fully out, Salmon-Challis Spokeswoman Amy Baumer said.