Experts Discuss Increase in Pa. Wildfires

July 18--TWIN FALLS -- A national team of fire prevention experts have descended on the Magic Valley to combat increases in human-caused wildfires across a landscape ripe for extreme wildfire growth.

The five experts will focus on public information campaigns, targeting the most frequent causes of wildfire, such as vehicles, illegal or poorly managed campfires, and shooting.

They are working through July with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Twin Falls District staff and the U.S. Forest Service's Sawtooth National Forest staff.

Since June, at least 14 wildfires have burned more than 42,075 acres, the most severe occurring northeast of Shoshone through Lincoln and Blaine counties.

"It's dry everywhere," said Tony Erickson, BLM fuels specialist for the Twin Falls district. "It's nothing really special about that area."

Trends indicate the Magic Valley is at least three weeks ahead of a typical summer, said Chris Simonson, fire management officer for the BLM Twin Falls District.

"While we have not had much lightning, we have seen an alarming number of human-caused fires, a large majority of which were preventable," Simonson said in a news release. "We need to get the public's attention and share fire prevention information. We can't do anything about the lightning, but these human-caused fires are easily preventable with citizen cooperation."

Thursday, portions of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) and Owyhee County came under Stage One fire restrictions, which ban smoking outside an enclosed structure and making a fire outside a fire structure provided by the Forest Service.

The team also will work to educate SNRA visitors. Much of that fire-restricted area is west of Idaho 75, from Galena Summit at the south to Trap Creek at the north. It includes many popular hiking and camping destinations, including Stanley Lake, Sawtooth Lake, Redfish Lake, Pettit Lake, Alturas Lake and the Hell Roaring area. It does not include the Boulder-White Cloud mountains to the east.

About half of the trees in the SNRA were killed by a beetle infestation in the early 2000s, said Nathan Lancaster, fire management officer for the Sawtooth National Forest.

"The forest is at risk, and any fire starts will be extremely dangerous and difficult to control," Lancaster said in a release. "We want to give the public the information they need to be responsible forest users."

As mayor of Stanley, the launch pad for thousands of recreationists headed into the SNRA, Herb Mumford keeps an eye on fires that sprout in the area. Those starting southwest of Stanley are particularly alarming, as prevailing winds come from that direction.

Mumford said many Stanley locals go out of their way to educate visitors about the fire danger. Mumford, owner of the Valley Creek Lodge & RV Park, hands out Forest Service brochures.

Many people are frustrated that the Forest Service isn't more proactive about fuel levels in the SNRA, he said. They'd like to see campfires restricted or banned sooner to reduce the risk to the town's signature attraction. It feels as if the Forest Service is simply "waiting for the disaster," he said.

"I feel like I'm standing on a firing range and dodging bullets ... and I don't think we are lucky enough to dodge another."

The Blaine County Commission has made fire prevention a priority, especially since last year's Beaver Creek Fire forced thousands of residents to evacuate their homes throughout the Wood River Valley, said commission Chairman Larry Schoen.

He said fire chiefs from the area met earlier, hoping to "reinvigorate" the local fire-wise program to protect homes.

Fire is on county residents' minds earlier this summer, since the 715-acre Colorado Gulch Fire was sparked by fireworks. In response to that blaze, some locals are seeking greater restrictions on use of fireworks, Schoen said.

"We have signs posted on the highways throughout the county in both the Little Wood and Big Wood areas pointing to the current fire danger," Schoen said. "Somebody said to me today, 'Enough with the fires already.'"

On Thursday, BLM firefighters worked to further contain the Preacher Fire, now estimated to have burned 33,867 acres. The fire is not active or spreading, and crews expect to fully control it by 8 p.m. Saturday.

Firefighters also worked to contain a 22-acre wildfire started by lightning Tuesday, only 7 miles from the City of Rocks National Reserve. The fire is not active, and BLM crews are securing the fire line and mopping up the area. The BLM expects to control that fire Saturday night as well.

The National Weather Service in Boise predicts a 15 percent to 20 percent chance of lightning along the Nevada border this afternoon, said forecaster Korri Anderson. Sunday afternoon could bring the same chance of lightning.

While Anderson couldn't say if the area is receiving more lightning strikes than in prior years, he said the area's unusual dryness makes strikes more likely to cause fire and helps create the static that brings lightning down from passing systems.

Copyright 2014 - The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho