Idaho Burning 

Officials warn fire season could be worst ever

With a wicked combination of continued drought, high pressure, above-average heat, dry lightning and abundant dry fuels, this year is shaping up to be one of the worst wildfire seasons in Idaho history.

"This has the potential of being one of the worst years on record," said George Bacon, director of the Idaho Department of Land and Idaho state forester. "The way we're seeing fuels burn, the number of incidents we've seen early in the season ..."

As of Tuesday, 854,259 acres have burned across the state, the most of any state in the country, said Jennifer Smith, spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center, headquartered in Boise.

On Monday, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter issued disaster delcarations for Cassia, Idaho, Nez Perce, Owyhee and Twin Falls counties, citing the risk to life and property from wildfires.

Bacon attributes the higher fire danger not to a low snowpack, but lack of rain. "We're asked often about the correlation of snowpack and fire season," he said. "You think 'low snowpack, bad year,' but there's no correlation. Some of the worst fire years have had regular snowpacks."

With the current forecast for more hot, dry weather, Bacon said things are bound to get worse. "It's too early to tell, but if nothing changes, we have to be very, very careful about [fire] starts," he said.

Smith said fire conditions are far ahead of normal. "We're a couple of weeks ahead of where we would normally be in the fire season," she said. "These are conditions we usually see in August. This could be a long fire season."

The heat is also taking its toll on the roughly 2,800 firefighters currently working the fire lines in the state, Smith said.

NIFC coordinates firefighting efforts for the largest fires across the country, allocating both equipment and personnel depending on the priority assigned to each fire. As of Tuesday, the top priority is the Murphy Complex fire burning south of Twin Falls. At press time, the fire had burned 567,721 acres and was only 15 percent contained.

The Murphy Complex Fire—the cause of which is still under investigation—is threatening the towns of Murphy's Hot Spring and Jarbidge, Nev., forcing evacuations in both towns, as well as numerous outlying ranches.

"It's burning in grass and brush, so it's going to burn quickly," she said.

While the majority of fires burning are due to dry lighting, land managers are warning the public about the extreme fire dangers. Fire restrictions have been increased across the state, and all campfires have been banned everywhere in Idaho.

Bacon warns that anything mechanical has the potential to throw sparks. Additionally, catalytic converters can get hot enough while just idling to set grass on fire. Smokers should also refrain from tossing cigarettes out.

"They're very simple things that sometimes we don't even think about," Bacon said.

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