Hope for the best, plan for the worst

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Idaho Department of Lands ground crews guide a fire suppression helicopter to its target at the Shoshone County Airport on June 26. Training like this will be imperative for firefighters if an actual wildfire sparks up in our area and a helicopter is needed. Photo by CHANSE WATSON

By CHANSE WATSON

Managing Editor

SMELTERVILLE — Seeing a helicopter in the air with either the U.S. Forest Service or the Idaho Department of Lands is a fairly common sight in Shoshone County. Whether they are dropping water on a fire or dropping fire on the ground to start a controlled burn, these helicopters can be a welcome sight when it comes to wildfire suppression and prevention.

On June 26, locals may have seen one of these helicopters flying around the Shoshone County Airport in Smelterville with its water bucket attached. Thankfully for the airport and surrounding area, there was no actual fire to be fought.

Instead, the helicopter and the accompanying IDL ground teams were busy collecting an incredibly vital resource in their profession (especially around this time of the year) — experience.

IDL Fire Warden Kjell Truesdell explained to the News-Press that this exercise was conducted to give newer and greener ground personnel a better idea of how to guide in a helicopter for a water drop.

“We did add some new folks this year that went through guard school and all the basic training,” he said. “A day like today is just deepening that training, that experience. When these crews see one of these helicopters for the first time, it should never be when a fire is going.”

Gathering the experience offered by drills like this is vital for all fire crews involved, especially with wildfire season upon us.

The Shoshone County Fire Chiefs Association recently announced that the fire danger level in our area has been raised to moderate. While this announcement should signal people to be more cautious and aware, Truesdell stresses that conditions could be much worse.

“Everything is tracking average based on analogue weather years that are similar from both the national weather service and the fuel side,” he said. “Right here, we are moving into moderate and we’ve tracked us moving into moderate the last few years right around the exact same time frame. 2015 was definitely earlier than 2019, but everything else is tracking average.”

The only areas of the region that could be at high risk for wildfires are the northern reaches of Idaho near the Canadian border.

Here in Shoshone County, officials have been closely observing the amount of rain we have received and the amount of available fuels on the ground (i.e. dry or dead foliage, weeds, trees, etc.).

“The rain in June was a key driver,” Truesdell said. “May/June are our months that we look at if we are getting moisture or not. If we aren’t getting any moisture in those months, the fuels usually come with it. We just aren’t seeing that this year though.”

So far this year, the only factor that has fire crews concerned is the higher-than-normal amount of lightning storms that have drifted through the area.

“We have seen an increase in lighting storms, so the potential might be there for more lighting caused fires,” Truesdell said.

Wildfire causes in the state are split almost evenly between human caused and lightning.

Here in this area though, humans are responsible for roughly 70 to 80 percent.

With Fourth of July on the horizon, the SCFCA reminds everyone to be careful with their campfires and fireworks.

Campfires should be kept to a reasonable size and extinguished completely if not attended. Campfires left unattended to smolder are still potentially dangerous. A shovel and bucket are required and will help to put these fires.

Fireworks, of any type, are not allowed on any forested land (private, industrial, state or federal) in Idaho during closed fire season (May 10 through Oct. 20), as per Idaho Code, 38-117. Regardless of where you are, fireworks that shoot into the air are also illegal.

The SCFCA recommends using only “non-aerial common fireworks.”

As defined by Idaho Code 39-2602: “Non-aerial common fireworks” means any fireworks such as ground spinners, fountains, sparklers, smoke devices or snakes designed to remain on or near the ground and not to travel outside a fifteen (15) foot diameter circle or emit sparks or other burning material which land outside a twenty (20) foot diameter circle or above a height of twenty (20) feet. Non-aerial common fireworks do not include firecrackers, jumping jacks, or similar products.

In the past two years, IDL has sent out multiple bills totaling $4.7 million for the cost of fires investigators determined to be negligent. The negligent fire bills range from a few hundred dollars to more than a million dollars.

If you see what you believe to be a wildfire, dial 911.

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