By Ben Olson
Though the 2015 fire season is hardly over, the cool weather and precipitation of late has given us reason to breathe a little easier. The smoky skies are now a thing of the past. Fire danger ratings in the “extreme” category have been downgraded to lower levels. Soon, there will be nothing left but a blanket of snow to put the seal on this taxing season.
It’s hard to give comprehensive statistics on fires that have burned in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, says Jason Kirchner, Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Forest Service. There are still active fires burning, and most of the costs have not been computed yet.
To date, there have been 302 fires reported in 2015 in the Idaho Panhandle NF. Of those 302 fires, only 16 were human-caused. The rest were either caused by lightning or other forces of nature.
“We had a really good year when it comes to human caused fires,” said Kirchner. “The public has to be commended. They understood the danger and they kept that number low. It was a combination of us pushing hard to get the fire prevention messages out there, as well as folks like yourselves in the media pushing the message. It really took this partnership between us as an agency and the media to get the word out.”
The total acreage burned within the Idaho Panhandle NF was around 53,000 acres, which doesn’t include the Tower Fire as it had started on the Colville NF and later spread to Idaho Panhandle NF. Including the Tower Fire, the acreage total is approximately 79,000 acres.
When asked which fire presented the most challenges, Kirchner said it was all of them combined.
“There’s not one fire that stands out,” he said. “What was so taxing and complicated was at one point we had 125 individual fires burning throughout all of North Idaho simultaneously. If we had the same acreage burning with just one fire, it would’ve been no problem, but having to respond to all those fires taxed resources.”
According to Kirchner, there was a point this summer throughout the west when every single firefighter that was available was fighting fire.
“We reached a point where there was nobody else to call,” he said. “We brought in firefighters from Australia, Canada, parts of Europe. They came from all over the world.”
At its peak, there were over 27,000 firefighters engaged in firefighting throughout the west.
“It’s tough to pin down how many of them worked on our [Idaho Panhandle NF] fires,” said Kirchner. “You’re constantly switching personnel. It’s like trying to count a swarm of bees.”
With all the personnel working on the ground in hazardous conditions, Kirchner was pleased to report there were no casualties.
“We had minor injuries,” he said. “Bee stings, twisted ankles, minor burns. We were very lucky this year. Our folks did a great job in putting safety in the forefront.”
With the hot, dry season urging caution from the beginning, Kirchner said that not a single fire was left to burn for ecological reasons, which is common practice when the conditions are right.
“There were times with multiple fires going on where it was located, but wasn’t a high priority because others were threatening homes or watersheds,” said Kirchner. “We have quite a bit of fire in the backcountry, and many don’t have firefighters on them. The threat that they pose isn’t worth the risk of a firefighter’s life.”
Kirchner points out that though the end is near, there are still fires burning and the public should keep informed at www.fs.usda.gov/ipnf when planning outings in National Forest land.
“People need to be aware of their surroundings,” he said. “We’re posting signs in hazardous areas, and there are still closures listed.”
How does the 2015 season compare to bad fire seasons of the past?
“I can give you a stat I was told by the Idaho Department of Lands,” said Kirchner. “The last time we had this level of fire activity in Idaho was 1926. Even in 1967, with the Sundance Fire and all the others that year, it still didn’t compare to the widespread fire activity this year.”
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