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INL prepping for ‘above-average’ fire season in wake of 112,000 acre Sheep Fire in 2019

Idaho Falls

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The Sheep Fire in July 2019 became one of the largst in INL history. | file photo

IDAHO FALLS — The 2019 fire season was rough for Idaho National Laboratory firefighters, but they have high hopes for a better 2020 season.

“We always look at these fires as learning opportunities,” INL Fire Chief Eric Gosswiller said during a virtual news conference Thursday.

Last year INL saw one of its worst fires in recent history. In July, the Sheep Fire burned an estimated 112,106 acres, destroyed 12 power distribution poles, signs, and incidental storage. Thankfully though, the blaze did not destroy buildings or injure people. At the time, it was the second-largest fire burning in the lower 48 states.

Gosswiller said INL officials recently met with the Bureau of Land Management fire crews to review and learn from the response to the Sheep Fire. The multi-agency response led firefighters to understand they did a lot of good things and helped INL understand the rigidity of their power infrastructure.

None of the main transmission loop power poles were lost in the Sheep Fire because of a protective coating on the poles. Officials have now shared that information with utility companies around the west to help them keep the lights on even during a raging wildfire.

Gosswiller said his department is working to improve their check-in process and communication in preparation for this summer’s fire season.

With a summer of higher predicted temperatures and less precipitation, firefighters are expecting an above-average fire season this summer.

“There is a lot of fine fuel out there,” Gosswiller said. “We have to be sensitive to that.”

To mitigate the chance for fires, Gosswiler said they are heavily focused on promoting fire prevention across the region.

“Regionally there just has to be additional attention to prevention,” Gosswiller said. “Anything we do to prevent fire this year is important … campfires, fireworks anything like that.”

INL also works to inform its employees to prevent man-made fires. Although man-made fires are not a huge problem since most INL land is off-limits to the public.

“The lab is pretty good at not creating emergencies,” Gosswiller said.

Sometimes though, natural phenomena such as lightning start wildfires, as was the case with the Sheep Fire. That means Gosswiller and his team must continually train to be prepared for what he says is one of their largest call volumes.

When not responding to emergencies Gosswiler says the first responders at INL are checking their equipment and training for the worst.

“They are out pretty much every week practicing and honing in their skills,” Gosswiller said.

As with most things in 2020, COVID-19 has also impacted preparations for the wildfire season.

“We have to find that new normal,” Gosswiller said. “The main concern is we don’t bring a sick firefighter into a firefight.”

Firefighters have their temperatures checked frequently and are planning to implement a level of social distancing in briefings and in emergency settings. Additionally, planning to prevent fires and have an aggressive initial response to get a blaze under control as soon as possible will help the department avoid larger gatherings of firefighters.

“Anything we can do to keep fires from happening is going to be especially important,” Gosswiller said.

The INL Fire Department operates as an all-hazards department, responding to anything from medical emergencies, car crashes, and fires. The department operates out of three stations in the desert west of Idaho Falls, each equipped with its own wildland firefighting equipment and trained firefighters.