By Ben Olson
Coming out of one of the driest winters in over a decade, and with above-average temperatures headed our way, this fire season is already looking to be one of the most dangerous on record.
Last week, the National Interagency Fire Center released a report spotlighting North Idaho and northwestern Montana, as well as the Pacific Northwest in general, as being at high risk for wildfire.
May and June are typically the wettest months in the lower elevations of North Idaho, but so far this year, precipitation has been anywhere from 25 percent to 60 percent of normal the past two months, advancing dryness levels weeks ahead of schedule.
In addition, according to the Western Regional Climate Center, the average high monthly temperature has been about three degrees higher than normal for the past 12 months, a trend that has dried combustible materials in the region.
The Federal Fire Occurrence Database cites an average of over 600,000 acres have burned annually in Idaho since 1992.
Already this season, we’ve seen an abnormally high amount of incidents that have local officials worried.
“Currently, on any typical year, we’ll have a couple of fires in the spring time,” said Shawn Hicks, fire warden detailing for Idaho Department of Lands. “Typically, we’ll have maybe one acre of total area burned. As of now, we’ve already seen over 50 acres burned.”
According to Hicks, the combination of low snow pack, above-average temperatures, a low spring precipitation and an early freeze last fall that failed to allow water to seep low into the ground make for a dire scenario.
Sandpoint Fire Chief Ron Stocking’s jurisdiction covers not only Sandpoint, but everything south of the Long Bridge to the county line.
“It’s hard to predict the future,” said Stocking. “But if the future is anything like the past, this past winter we saw more brush fires escaped from people burning slash piles than we’ve ever seen before.”
Stocking said he and his crew have responded to eight escaped fires in the month of March alone, when normally there is still a fair amount of snow on the ground.
“That is highly unusual for this region,” he said. “If that’s any indication of what the summer is going to be like, we could be in for a dangerous fire season.”
The leading culprit for fire incidents, says both Hicks and Stocking, are escaped slash piles. In Bonner County, 65% of fires are human caused. Lightning is the next biggest culprit, causing about a third of the fires.
While IDL and Sandpoint’s Fire Department handles most of the lower elevations, the Sandpoint Ranger District branch of the U.S. Forest Service will oversee all burns at higher elevations.
“We’ve had several fires ourselves and have assisted the state as well with numerous fires, which is almost unheard of in this area,” said Brian Hicks, the assistant fire management officer for the Sandpoint Ranger District.
While the lower elevations see the majority of starts from human factors, lightning is the leading perpetrator with higher elevation starts.
“We may have some hiker fires, but … 80 percent of our fires are lightning caused,” said Hicks. “Normally those lightning storms don’t start up until later, but we did pick up one lightning fire near Green Bay on May 29.”
The Sandpoint Ranger District has increased its staff this season thanks to a big turnover at training facilities.
“Our guard school and basic training was huge this year,” said Hicks.
With a normal staff of 16 permanent and seasonal firefighters, the Sandpoint Ranger District will see an additional five people brought on staff this year.
One common precaution that all fire districts have stressed is educating yourself on good burning habits.
“The main thing is to follow the rules and regulations of how to burn,” said Stocking. “Fires burn so rapidly in brush. Every person I’ve talked to this year has said the same thing; ‘I didn’t know fire would move that fast.’ It does, it moves that fast.”
We are currently in a “closed fire season,” which means from May 10 through October 20 you must apply for a burn permit if you plan to have a fire of any kind, excluding campfires. Web addresses to obtain permits for inside and outside city limits will be listed at the end of the article.
Good burning habits include having someone attending the fire at all times, having a water source nearby, not burning on windy days or at night, and keeping your fires small and manageable. Stocking also recommends creating a defensible space around your home and property.
“This eliminates fuels around the house,” said Stocking, “so if a fire does come up to someone’s property, that fire does not climb up ladder fuels like wood piles, brush and lawn furniture.”
“We like to see vegetation pulled back 66 feet from the structure,” said Hicks. “Also, have your trees limbed up and brush and firewood removed.”
Defensible space is especially important for communities like Sandpoint, which lie within the Wildland Urban Interface, which is anywhere there are homes and improvements located close to forested areas.
“It’s a higher risk area,” said Shawn Hicks. “There is more value to the risk. You have homes, people, it adds another complexity. If there is a fire, if it’s threatening structures, there are issues with evacuating people if need be.”
Hicks continued, saying that preparation is first priority:
“If you’re burning, make sure you’re aware. Check the weather, and have all the precautions ready. Out means cold to the touch.”
To apply for a burn permit within Sandpoint city limits, go to SandpointFire.com and follow the links. Outside the city limits, BurnPermits.Idaho.gov will be your resource. For safe burning habits, visit FireWise.org.
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