Letters From the West

This week will be the moment of truth for Idaho fires

The Beaver Creek Fire races through the crowns of the forest west of Hailey (InciWeb photo)

The Beaver Creek Fire races through the crowns of the forest west of Hailey (InciWeb photo)

This is make or break week for wildfires in central Idaho.

Red flag conditions, including higher temperatures and wind gusts to 38 miles per hour, are expected this afternoon on the Beaver Creek Fire that has grown to more than 100,000 acres. A new fire near Atlanta is heading east into the Sawtooth Wilderness into a area of heavy, unburned timber that goes all the way to the Sawtooth Valley south of Stanley.

Fire meteorologist Jeremy Wolf advised in the evening report at 10:30 p.m. Sunday that “Warm temperatures and relative humidity in the 10 to 11 percent range will again challenge firefighters, but wind gusts should drop slightly – down to 25 mile per hour gusts.” He also warned that there is a potential for thunderstorms beginning Tuesday afternoon.

The old burn from the 2007 Castle Creek fire is helping firefighters protect Ketchum, and with the value of property in the Wood River Valley estimated at $8 billion, you know they won’t leave until they are sure it is safe. But today will test firefighters on the northwest side of Ketchum. Watch the Oregon Gulch drainage, where the fire reached the upper end.

The Little Queens Fire in the Sawtooth Wilderness is another matter. Even if officials decide to use full suppression tactics on the fire that is burning into a wilderness, they will have a hard time getting a lot of resources in that rugged terrain because there are higher priorities elsewhere.

The weather is going to dictate the size and growth of that fire, which could burn through the last giant patch of forest left unburned in southern Idaho.

I know I am a broken record on this, but the date Aug. 20 has been significant. It was the day the Big Blowup began in North Idaho in 1910, Black Saturday in Yellowstone in 1988 and the second day of the Foothills Fire run on the Boise National Forest in 1992.

Ed Delgado, head of predictive services at the National Interagency Fire Center, told me last week this time of the year is extremely hard for predicting fire weather because conditions are so unstable. You have the kind of hot, dry weather that with high winds can push a fire five or six miles in an afternoon.
Or because the days and the burning periods are getting shorter, conditions can help firefighters.

A major thunderstorm — if it carries moisture and brings cold weather — can be the “season-ending event” firefighters expect. But today the event likely doesn’t end the season, only provides a break until more warm temperatures come in September or even October.

Join the Idaho Statesman at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday for a live chat about fires with National Park Service expert Dick Bahr.

Learn about the Idaho Statesman’s live chat about fire with National Park Service expert Dick Bahr on the anniversary of Black Saturday, Aug. 20 at 10:30 a.m.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West