Wildfire season began in Blaine County this weekend with two blazes sparking almost simultaneously about 3 miles apart south of Timmerman Junction on Saturday afternoon.
While the causes of the fires are under investigation, Ketchum Rural Fire Chief Rich Bauer said the response from his team and other area departments spoke to the ability of these entities to help each other when needed.
Saturday’s wildfires “really illustrated how well we work together,” Bauer said—a quality they’ll lean on in the coming months.
The Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District, which had enacted a burn ban for nonessential burning on March 27, lifted the ban Tuesday, Bauer said. Wood River Fire & Rescue discussed limiting or suspending open burning in late March, but ultimately decided against restrictions. Bauer reminded the public that permits are still required to carry out any kind of burning.
The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Lands and Department of Health and Welfare have all asked the public “to refrain from nonessential burning as emergency responders deal with the COVID-19 crisis, especially here in Blaine County,” Wood River Fire said in a Facebook post on March 30.
“WRFR recognizes the importance of open burning for agricultural and irrigation purposes and will not enact a burn ban at this time,” the post says. “We do ask all individuals who need to conduct essential burning now to please do so very carefully, following all guidance set forth by the District.”
In Wood River’s jurisdiction, burns have continued throughout the outbreak, according to Chief Ron Bateman. More than a dozen permits issued by the department have been activated on any given day over the past two weeks, he said.
“We trust that these are ‘essential’ and property owners are being careful in the process,” Bateman told the Express on Thursday.
At least four burn permits had been approved in Bellevue, mostly for properties along the Big Wood River, Bellevue Fire Chief Greg Beaver told the Mountain Express last week.
Ketchum Rural has funding to add additional staff for the summer during projected peak wildfire season, which is usually through July and August, Bauer said. In addition, annual training for wildland fire safety is being conducted online, with a quiz for firefighters to demonstrate their understanding of the course.
“We’ll adapt to the COVID crisis like everyone else,” Bauer said, adding that the Fire District is working closely with the U.S. Forest Service and BLM to ensure continuity in wildland firefighting.
Still, he urges Blaine County residents to be “extremely diligent,” when recreating outside or starting permitted burns, noting that any wildfire right now would stress services that are still responding to the pandemic.
This year’s low snowpack in south-central Idaho carries the potential for drier fuel loads in mountainous regions, according to the Great Basin Coordination Center, which oversees wildland fire resources throughout must of the West. And, with drier-than-normal conditions projected to continue for the next three months, certain areas will be more prone to fire sooner, Great Basin Meteorologist Basil Newmerzhycky told the Express.
That said, the Coordination Center is anticipating a normal fire season, Newmerzhycky said. The final projection will be made on May 1 when the seasonal outlook is updated.
Temperatures have been 1-3 degrees warmer this spring in southern Idaho, according to the Great Basin team, and weather from October through the end of March was significantly drier than last year. That’s not expected to change, either: Blaine County has a “severe” drought level predicted to persist or intensify through the spring and summer, according to the Great Basin forecast.
Snow-water equivalent in the Big Wood Basin is 74 percent of normal and is only 68 percent of normal in the Little Wood Basin, according to the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.