Idaho officials brace for tough wildfire season amid drought

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho officials are bracing for what could be a challenging wildfire season.

A meteorologist on Tuesday told Republican Gov. Brad Little and other statewide elected officials on the Idaho Land Board that the state had its second driest spring in the last 126 years and one of its hottest previous 12 months.

Nick Nauslar with the National Interagency Fire Center said nearly 80% of the state is immersed in drought and the rest of the state will likely be in drought in the next several months.

Much of the U.S. West is also in drought, something Little said could lead to a shortage of firefighters and equipment as the wildfire season heats up.

“Because of the call I have with other governors, other states are trying to get resources deployed into those other states that are a lot drier,” he said. “I worry that there is going to be a lot of stuff elsewhere, and given the fact that COVID protocols by other states are going to diminish the frontline effectiveness.”

COVID-19 protocols to prevent firefighters from staying together in large camps make the logistics of keeping crews in the field more difficult and expensive.

State officials told Little that helicopters are used to bring food to firefighters scattered around fires rather than concentrating them in large camps where coronavirus infections could spread.

The Idaho Department of Lands is responsible for fighting wildfires on state and private land, as well as some federal land, in Idaho. Agency Directory Dustin Miller said firefighters are encouraged to get the coronavirus vaccine.

Josh Harvey, fire management bureau chief for the Lands Department, said that as of Monday there have been 96 fires on 432 acres (172 hectares) and that 91 of the fires were human-caused. The number of fires and acres burned are each more than 200% of the state’s 20-year average.

A wildfire in eastern Idaho near American Falls on Monday grew to 4 square miles (10 square kilometers) within 24 hours and destroyed two homes.

Harvey said the state has aircraft in Coeur d’Alene, Grangeville and McCall to fight wildfires. That includes two helicopters, two amphibious water scoopers initially located in Coeur d’Alene, and four single-engine airtankers located in Grangeville and McCall.

He said the state also has agreements to use other aircraft as well and six unmanned aircraft outfitted with infrared cameras that can detect hotspots that firefighters can then attack.

The department also has 29 fire engines and a 10-person hand crew that can move around to various fires. The state has hired 140 firefighters this year that travel nationally and to Canada to fight wildfires as needed. Firefighters from other states also come come to Idaho.

The state has 10 Rangeland Fire Protection Associations that fight wildfires, with the state and U.S. Bureau of Land Management supplying ranchers with training and firefighting equipment to help put out fires before they grow large. The associations protect about 14,000 square miles (36,000 square kilometers), mostly in southern Idaho.

“Tell everybody to be safe out there,” Little told Lands Department officials. “This is going to be a real risky year.”