Low snow cover and drought increase wildfire risk in the Idaho Panhandle and Salmon regions

As weather experts predict above-average temperatures nationwide this summer, the risk of wildfires is increasing across the country, including in Idaho.

On Tuesday, the Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Department of Lands informed the Idaho State Board of Land Commissioners of the fire forecast.

Late winter and early spring snows brought Idaho's water supply back to normal levels

East central Idaho near Salmon and southern parts of the Idaho Panhandle are most vulnerable to wildfires this summer, BLM meteorologist Jim Wallmann told the Land Board.

While much of southern Idaho has experienced wet winters and consistent snowpack, Wallmann said these areas are at higher risk for wildfires due to low snowpack and dry summer conditions.

Idaho also has an unusually high level of fine fuel pollution, Wallmann said, meaning it has a lot of natural plants, such as ryegrass and sage, that are highly flammable and could contribute to the spread of wildfires.

“Now it's July, especially in the Snake River Plain… Once the perennials dry out and the sage starts to dry and harden, they can contribute to the fire,” Wallmann said. “Any ignition we have could be potentially problematic in areas where there is grass throughout the northern Great Basin.”

So far, 58 hectares of land have burned in Idaho

As of Tuesday morning, the Idaho Department of Lands counted 50 fires in Idaho this year, affecting a total of 58 acres, Joshua Harvey, fire protection director, told the Land Board.

Twenty-seven of those fires were human-caused, seven were natural, and many are still under investigation, he said.

The number of wildfires and burned areas in Idaho has increased dramatically in recent years. According to the Land Board:

In 2021, there were 391 fires and a total of 141,981 acres (67,100 ha) burned. In 2022, there were 280 fires and a total of 4,614 acres (18,900 ha) burned. In 2023, there were 284 fires and a total of 2,582 acres (10,900 ha) burned.

Dustin Miller, director of the Idaho Department of Lands, said that while the agency strives to be efficient in firefighting, annual costs are difficult to predict.

Currently, $68 million is allocated in the general fund for firefighting, but Miller stressed that this is only an estimate of potential needs and the need for additional funding could grow. For example, in 2023, the department spent $17 million on firefighting, while costs rose to $75 million in 2021, during a particularly severe fire season.

“Our focus is to keep costs as low as possible during the fire season,” he told the board. “We track those costs closely and I know we have an obligation to our taxpayers to make sure we use those funds very efficiently.”

The Land Board includes Idaho Governor Brad Little, Secretary of State Phil McGrane, Attorney General Raúl Labrador, Secretary of Education Debbie Critchfield and State Controller Brandon Woolf.

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Anna Harden

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