Idaho’s typically active wildfire season is closing with a slow fizzle after short bursts of rain and cooler temperatures dampened the state’s tinderbox of fuel.
Roughly 271 square miles in Idaho have burned after 1,090 fires ignited between May and September, according to officials with the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center. The numbers are the lowest since 2009.
“This year in Idaho was a weird year,” said Jennifer Myslivy, wildfire mitigation specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “We had fires early on but then the rain would come. It kept the fire season from going crazy.”
None of the wildfires in Idaho grew to more than 156 square miles, which bucks a three-year trend the state held as having some of the nation’s largest and highest-priority wildfires since 2010.
However, that doesn’t mean this year’s season was all tame. Several wildfires threatened homes and other structures while firefighters were often called to suppress the flames in treacherous terrain.
For example, the Big Cougar fire burned about 101 square miles on the Idaho side of the Snake River across from the Oregon and Washington border. Flames threatened more than 200 structures but only nine were lost.
In central Idaho, a teenager sparked the 1-square-mile Colorado Gulch fire with fireworks just two days after the Fourth of July. The fire caused the evacuation of 20 homes and city officials later reduced the time period residents can use fireworks in order to lower the risk of wildfires.
Myslivy said that fewer fires in Idaho meant there were more resources available to suppress the flames faster.
Firefighters didn’t have to compete with crews fighting other fires across the state, as in years past, to acquire air tankers and helicopters that provide large drops of water or fire retardant.
Instead, states along the West Coast became the center of attention of this year’s season, Myslivy said. Wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington all caused mass evacuations as they sprawled closer to residential areas encouraged by sporadic winds and soaring temperatures.
This past week, smoke from wildfires raging in California covered most of southwest Idaho. Air quality alerts were issued throughout the Gem State as Idaho’s own fire officials declared that the state’s wildfire season was almost at a complete halt save for one forest fire in northern Idaho.
While fire activity might have been slower overall, state lands officials reported that this year’s Idaho’s suppression costs on state lands are at record levels, said Idaho Department of Lands spokeswoman Emily Callihan.
Nearly half of the acres burned in Idaho have been on Idaho-owned lands, Callihan said. This has resulted in more than 125 square miles burned on state lands causing the state to pay more than $27 million for the nation’s expert fire crews — known as Type 1 or Type 2 teams — to come in and suppress the flames.
Idaho does not employ its own full-time firefighting crews but provides resources such as engines and part-time crews to help put out flames on state lands.
An overall slow season does not necessarily mean next year will be more intense, Myslivy said.
The amount of snow that Idaho receives throughout the winter — and how fast it melts — is an unknown factor.
“It all kind of depends,” she said. “Fuels may grow some more, but they may not dry out until late July next year.”