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Where There's Smoke

Idaho prepares to see firefighting costs jump 150 over forecast


The maps only tell part of the story. You can see Idaho burning from space, and the National Interagency Fire Center reveals the majority of the nation's wildfires are burning in the Northwest United States. However, the personal loss shadows all else.

Three U.S. Forest Service firefighters were killed while battling a blaze Aug. 19 near the north-central Washington community of Twisp. Coupled with the firefighters who have been critically injured and/or suffered severe smoke inhalation, the Northwest's trend of extreme fire danger each summer becomes tangible.

David Groeschl, state forester and deputy director of Forestry and Fire with the Idaho Department of Lands, sat before the Idaho Land Board Aug. 18 and said the Gem State should be prepared to see its 2015 firefighting costs jump to $25 million—a 150 percent increase over previous estimates.

"When we look back at the records ... and trying to find a year that is similar to this, we had to go back to 1926," Groeschl told the Land Board, which includes Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. "This is an unprecedented fire season."

Meanwhile, at the Moscow campus of the University Idaho, associate professor of geography John Abatzoglou is keeping a close eye on the forecast. He doesn't like what he sees.

"Things are getting interesting," he told Boise Weekly.

Abatzoglou pointed to computer models showing a series of cold fronts have passed—and will continue to pass—across the state. Unlike most cold fronts, those waves brought little, if any, rain.

"When we go through this transition of warm temperatures to cooler temperatures after the front passes, we have to deal with quite a bit of wind," Abatzoglou said. "That doesn't bode well for the fires that are active."

Take a look at an active fire map, and it's clear the Northwest is the epicenter for the blazes.

Abatzoglou attributed this to precipitation in the region falling mostly during the winter, causing the hottest and driest months to coincide.

"Just as the spigots from the sky shut off, our temperatures start increasing," he said. "That creates the perfect combination for fuel moistures to decline and any fires that do start have the advantage of burning when things are pretty warm."

The summer of 2015 has seen record high temperatures in the region—the hottest and driest year since 1910, when 3 million acres of Idaho burned.

According to Abatzoglou, while temperatures are often higher in the South and southwestern parts of the U.S., the lack of fuel and the early onset of heavy rains keep those regions' fire seasons in check. For the Northwest, he said only a good solid rain could douse the blazes for good.

Abatzoglou will continue to monitor data from his desk on the U of I campus, but he isn't hopeful help from the sky is on its way.

"I don't see anything like that in the foreseeable future," he said.

Meanwhile, in the Treasure Valley, the mountains continue to frame a bowl of smoke. As summer gives way to fall, longer, cooler nights, weak winds and calm weather help trap smoke and other particles in lower layers of the atmosphere where they can't mix. As a result, the smoke concentrates in the valley, sending air quality alerts skyrocketing.

"When we have quite a bit of smoke in the atmosphere we'll see our daytime high being suppressed by a few degrees," said Abatzoglou.

NOTE: This article has been amended to correct David Groeschl's title. Boise Weekly regrets the error.