Weather System May Cool Down Western Wildfires

It won't snuff the flames, but weather forecasters say a low-pressure system that will bring scattered showers and higher humidities could signal the beginning of the end to the record-setting 2012 fire season.

Bryan Henry, a meteorologist with the Northern Rockies Inter-agency Coordination Center at Missoula, Mont., said the storm, which could include wetting rains in some places and thunder and lightning in others, will move across central Idaho as early as Sunday afternoon.

"This event is not a season-ending event, but it should help and turn the corner on a lot of these incidents and on our fire danger indices, at the very least," he said.

Henry said the lack of rain in the Northern Rockies region, which includes

Idaho north of the Salmon River, all of Montana and the western part of the Dakotas, has left forests unseasonably dry.

"The fuel dryness levels are at extremely low values for the middle of August, and here we are in the middle of September and we are setting new records each day for this time of year," he said. "That is why this system is so important."

While firefighters and those tired of smoky air are eagerly waiting for drenching rains, Henry said the approaching system will be welcomed even if it doesn't pack much of a precipitation punch.

"The humidity levels are going to help out. We are going to have a three- to four-day period of much higher humidity and cooler temperatures," he said. "You factor in the scattered precipitation across the area and that will help as well."

As of Friday, more than 1.3 million acres had burned in the Northern Rockies, and 8.7 million nationally. The all-time record of 9.9 million acres was set in 1996.

"We should still probably get to that by the end of the calendar year and that would be the biggest looking back to 1960," he said.

Officials on the McGuire Fire near Dixie said firefighting operations along the Dixie Road could be shut down and tickets could be issued if people continue to violate a road closure there.

The road between Red River and Dixie was closed Sept. 15 because of advancing flames. Firefighters are now using logging equipment to cut a 150-foot swath on both sides of the road from Dixie Summit to Little Mallard Meadows.

"Having members of the public traverse the roadway on their own in violation of the closure order is not an acceptable risk we are willing to take," said incident commander Carlton Joseph. "We are concerned for the safety of the public, but mixing the public with our firefighters is going to result in us shutting down the operations in the area that is intended to protect the Dixie community."

The Idaho County Sheriff's Office patrolled the area Friday, and fire information officer Brian Harris said deputies visited with residents and stressed to them the need to give firefighters space to work. He said the two-mile long, extra wide fire line will give firefighters a chance to stop the blaze if winds shift and blow the fire burning east of Dixie back toward the west.

He said the line also prevents snags from falling and blocking the road.

"That clearing will really help with that to keep the road open so we can get firefighters in there when we need them in there," Harris said.

Dixie residents are being permitted to follow a pilot car from Red River to Dixie at 8 a.m. each morning, and to travel from Dixie back to Red River at 9 a.m. But fire conditions could lead to the piloted egress and ingress being canceled at any time, and residents are advised to be prepared to spend several days either in or away from Dixie. Harris said an inversion that lasted all day kept fire behavior moderate on Friday. The blaze has now covered 38,600 acres.

Crews on the Sheep Fire near Lucile are noticing subtle changes that make them hopeful fall, which began this morning, will soon bring an end to fire season.

"It's slowly getting a little cooler and a little damper and a little higher humidity with shorter days," said information officer Jack Horner. "We are moving in the right direction, at least."

The fire burning on the east side of the Salmon River near Lucile grew to 44,581 acres and is now 28 percent contained.

Crews are continuing to cut trees along the 243 and 221 roads to make a fire line and stop the northeastward advance of the flames. Horner said the fire continues to burn actively there as well as in Allison Creek and the upper reaches of Fiddle Creek.

Smoke camped over the Powell SBW Complex and moderated fire behavior Friday. The fire burning in and around the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area has burned about 51,700 acres. Fire information officer Molly Puchlerz said the National Weather Service is calling for a 40 percent chance of rain at Powell on Sunday, but a local forecaster stationed with the fire team is less optimistic of significant rainfall.

Copyright 2012 - Lewiston Tribune, Idaho

McClatchy-Tribune News Service