Idaho fire officials say cool, wet spring could produce a more normal fire season

By Clark Corbin; Idaho Capital Sun

Firefighters respond to the Moonstruck Fire, which was contained in early September 2021 near Lake Lowell in Canyon County. (Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)

Thanks to a cool, wet spring, the wildfire outlook for July across most of Idaho looks more normal than last year, officials told the Idaho State Board of Land Commissioners on Tuesday.

Although the news is good in the short term, the risk will increase later in the summer, officials cautioned.

“Looking at July, at least for Idaho, we are expecting near normal fire potential. It may even be on the lower end of normal because of the wet spring and cool spring we have had that has continued well into June,” said Jim Wallman, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “We are looking very good here, at least in Idaho, for July.”

A year ago, fire officials were dealing with extreme heat and drought and bracing for the potential for above average risk of significant, damaging wildfires.

This year, there are no drought conditions in northern Idaho, although some of southern Idaho is still in drought, with the worst conditions near the state’s borders with Utah and Nevada.

“We’ve been above normal for the last  three months — actually that’s continued into the middle of June — so we’re doing a lot better for precipitation this spring and that has increased one, the grass growth, and two, the reduction in drought has really improved as a result of that,” Wallman said.

But spring rains led to abundant grass growth, which could serve as fuel and will increase the risk of fires into August, Wallman said. As a result, officials are predicting above normal potential for grass fires and range fires in the Treasure Valley, across southern Idaho and into eastern Idaho in August and into September.

“The biggest concern here really, from our perspective, is going to be the heavy grass load, so once it does cure as we get into August, that is something that we are going to be watching,” Wallman said.

New wildfire outlooks based on updated climate and weather data will be released on July 1, Wallman said.

Idaho Legislature approved funding increase to fight fires.

When fires do come, the Idaho Department of Lands will have more firefighters available.

Earlier this year, the Idaho Legislature approved a 23.9% increase in state general fund spending for the department in House Bill 755. Idaho Department of Lands Director Dustin Miller asked the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee for a funding boost to modernize the department’s wildfire program and be better prepared to respond to larger fires. The funding is going toward pay increases for seasonal firefighters and permanent employees, engine bosses, a booster crew based out of North Idaho, fire equipment, drone equipment and more.

“In total this year we will be bringing on approximately 170 firefighters,” Josh Harvey, the Idaho Department of Lands fire management chief, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “This is a significant increase over years past, where we’ve typically brought on 140 folks. I’m glad to say we’ve been able to use that additional funding from last … session to put more firefighters on the ground.”

The 2023 Idaho Department of Lands budget includes $8.9 million in general fund money, up from $7.2 million in the 2022 fiscal year. When federal funding is factored in, the Idaho Department of Lands’ 2023 budget includes $81.3 million in total funding, up from $66.5 million.

The Land Board is made up of Idaho’s governor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, secretary of state and state controller. The Land Board’s job is to advise the Idaho Department of Lands on how to manage 2.5 million acres of state endowment lands in order to support nine different endowment fund beneficiaries, the largest of which are public schools. Idaho was granted endowment lands when it became a state in 1890, under the condition the state manage the lands as a trust for the beneficiaries of the endowment funds, which also include state hospitals, veteran homes, two universities and a community college, the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind and the Capitol Commission.

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