More than rain

It’s been a dry North Idaho spring so far, but several factors determine the trajectory of wildfire season

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

North Idahoans have long lived with the understanding that spring showers are a necessary fact of a four-season life. Rain means happy gardens, greener fields and, most notably in recent years, better defense against wildfire.

Locals may have noticed that strong spring showers have evaded the Panhandle this spring, and they aren’t wrong: According to their National Weather Service in Spokane, Bonner County saw 25-50% of its normal precipitation between March and April.

The Idaho Panhandle is seeing “normal” fire potential for the month of May. Map courtesy of Predictive Services and the National Interagency Fire Center, which release new maps monthly as more fire potential data becomes available.

When considering all of the other factors used to quantify dryness — soil moisture, drought index, snow-water equivalent in the snowpack — the experts are coming to the same conclusion as residents watching the weather forecast, searching for rain.

According to Predictive Services and the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center, who team up to release a monthly fire outlook report throughout the summer, the Northern Rockies region — which encompasses the Idaho Panhandle — is “abnormally dry.” However, the spring snowpack is 85%-100% of average, and runoff is resulting in “near-normal streamflow.”

Yet, “[b]y all of these metrics, it has been a dry year so far in the Idaho Panhandle,” said Kary Maddox, Idaho Panhandle National Forests fire public affairs official. “When it comes to applying this kind of data to wildfire season, the next month and a half will be far more telling for the trajectory for the season, but precipitation is only one of many interacting factors.”

Maddox added that North Idaho has seen years of “very low precipitation” without seeing a corresponding jump in acres burned. The moral of the story? The current lack of rainfall won’t make or break the chances of local wildfires.

“Temperature, wind, terrain and fuels, combined with location, timing of starts and human factors all contribute to the pace of a fire season,” she said, noting that prescribed fire is one of the “best proactive measures for lessening the impacts of wildfire.” 

IPNF has performed about 3,000 acres of prescribed burning so far in spring of 2021.

Another factor on the experts’ radar is Energy Release Component, a metric used to track moisture in both live and dead forest fuels such as timber, brush and grass. Because ERC is tracked May 10-Oct. 20, Maddox said there is no conclusive data yet for the current year. However, further into the summer, fire managers will use the ERC as a “decision tool,” she said, for better understanding the season’s trajectory, managing daily staffing and providing situational awareness for wildland firefighters.

Situational awareness is also something that can start at home with every single North Idaho resident. Maddox said it is important to have an evacuation plan for your family, and to sign up for emergency alerts from local authorities. In Bonner County, you can visit, scroll to the bottom of the home page and find the link to Nixle, the alert system used by the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office. Once signed up, you receive text messages with local safety alerts regarding fires, traffic accidents and more.

Maddox also recommended that residents implement Idaho Firewise principles in their yards: minimizing fuels, incorporating hardscaping, storing recreational equipment and firewood away from the house, and more. Learn more at

On trips away from home, particularly into the woods, fire safety is paramount as Idaho prepares to enter what’s shaping up to be a dry summer.

“Human-caused wildfires are responsible for the vast majority of fires that threaten homes and infrastructure,” Maddox said. “Always carry a bucket, shovel and fire extinguisher; check for dragging chains; do not park in dry grass; and never leave a campfire unattended.”

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