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It’s an average year for wildfires, but officials worried about possible surge

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IDAHO FALLS – With 65 wildfires in eastern Idaho so far this year, it’s shaping up to be an average year for wildfires in this part of the state.

Chris Burger, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, tells EastIdahoNews.com a total of 8,226 acres in eastern Idaho has been impacted by wildfire in 2021.

“The acreage burned has been way less than our average. Typically, tens of thousands of acres get burned every year,” Burger says. “Last year, we were 140% of normal starts. This year, we’re tracking about average. We generally average right around 100 fires a year, give or take a few.”

With a wildfire that erupted in Fort Hall on Feb. 8, Burger says the 2021 wildfire season got off to an unusually early start. The Fort Hall Fire Department Facebook page indicates 19 acres of reservation land near Arbon Valley Highway were scorched after a vehicle caught fire in a yard waste burn. More than a month later on March 17, twelve acres of reservation land caught fire after a controlled burn spiraled out of control on Edmo Road.

“From late March into that early June timeframe, a lot of (fires) were human starts. We typically do not get thunderstorms that start fires in March and April,” says Burger.

RELATED | Drone footage shows aftermath of Lavaside Fire; officials warn of ‘odd’ conditions this year

Another significant fire early in the season was the 1,192-acre Lavaside Fire west of Firth in April. Multiple homes were destroyed or damaged after a fire broke out near Hell’s Half Acre on April 22 after high winds in a thunderstorm.

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The Lavaside Fire | Courtesy BLM Idaho Fire Facebook page

Largest wildfire of the season

The largest wildfire of the season this year was the Cold Creek Fire, which burned more than 3,800 acres five miles south of American Falls and destroyed two homes in June. The Power County Sheriff’s Office put an evacuation order in effect for homes in close proximity to the blaze when it broke out on June 14.

Power County Sheriff Josh Campbell says this was the largest fire for the American Falls area in recent memory. Numerous agencies were involved, including Rockland, North Bannock and the American Falls Fire Department.

“With as big of an area as it was … it was very problematic for us to logistically get it all done, but we were able to with the help of Idaho State Police.” Campbell says. “We all worked extremely well together behind the scenes to get everything shut down and blocked off and let the firefighters do their jobs.”

RELATED | Firefighters working to contain Cold Creek Fire as it grows to 2,500 acres

No one was hurt in the fire, but it was particularly tragic for Brad and Michelle Huse and Larry and Cindy England, two families whose homes were destroyed in the fire. Both of them declined to comment, but Campbell says they’ve both been in touch with insurance companies and the Red Cross for assistance.

“Our EMS chief has helped facilitate as much help as we can get (for them). I know that the community had a fundraising event for the families at Music in the Park and I think they’re even going to be doing another one to help these folks in retrieving some semblance of normalcy,” says Campbell.

Tammy Ramsey, the President and Co-Founder of Music in the Park, says a total of $7,173.14 was raised for the Huse and England families over the course of several weeks. The funds were divided equally among the families, providing $3,586.57 for each of them.

RELATED | Two men accused of starting the Cold Creek Fire face misdemeanor charges

On June 26, Brandon Donato Frias, of Wyoming, and Lucas C. Daniels, of Blackfoot, were charged with starting the Cold Creek Fire. In an affidavit of probable cause, deputies say the two men had been driving in the area when Daniels said he wanted to learn how to weld.

Frias, who owns a welding business, pulled over to teach him how.

Frias fell asleep in his truck while Daniels was using the acetylene welder, Frias told deputies. He awoke to a fire. The two attempted to extinguish the fire, but when their attempts were unsuccessful, the two “hauled ass out of there” in order to save the truck and equipment.

Daniels did not show up for a scheduled pretrial hearing on July 20. A new hearing for Frias has been rescheduled for Aug. 18. A hearing for Daniels is yet to be determined.

Campbell says the families will likely reach a resolution with insurance companies once the case moves forward in court.

“It’s a shame and it shouldn’t have happened,” Campbell says of the Cold Creek Fire. “I’m very proud of how our community has come together to help out those in need.”

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An aerial photo of the Cold Creek Fire on June 14 | Courtesy Chris Burger

Wildfire an ongoing concern in eastern Idaho

The National Weather Service in Pocatello says the climate prediction center’s long-range outlook for temperature and precipitation shows above normal temperatures continuing for all of eastern Idaho through at least October. This trend, combined with unusually dry conditions, makes wildfire season an ongoing concern for the BLM, according to Burger.

RELATED | Looking at eastern Idaho’s heat, drought trends and if conditions will improve

“Even though we’ve been getting some moisture recently, that moisture isn’t forecasted to continue. Given the fact that southeast Idaho lowlands are a predominantly aggressive fuel type, it doesn’t take long for us to dry back out. We have been in very high fire danger since the middle of July … and things are just going to get worse if the forecasted hot and dry conditions through October develop.”

With big game archery season opening up later this month, Burger says there is potential for a surge of fires caused by hunters. Burger is reminding residents that restrictions are in place, which require fires to be in an established fire pit with vegetation cleared out from around it.

“We do see a surge in wildfires that are started by hunters coming into September and October as the nights get cold and the mornings are cool,” he says. “Even though we’ve gotten a surge of moisture, we’re not out of the woods yet. We really need to pay attention.”

Fire season lasted into October and November last year because many people were not heeding fire restrictions, he says.

“Even if you’re burning debris, adhere to those fire restrictions that are in place because it is a long season and it can be very taxing if we get a lot of fires,” he says.

Despite the concerns, Burger says the working relationship between the BLM and other agencies is quite strong and there is usually an aggressive response and a lot of cooperation in battling wildfires as a result.

“The people of southeast Idaho get a very good, efficient response out of their local fire departments,” says Burger. “That’s something that we work on year in and year out. We catch the vast majority of fires in southeast Idaho — 95% — in the first 24 hours.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article identified the cause of the Lavaside Fire as being caused by weather because that’s what the original reporting made it sound like. The cause was unknown at the time we originally reported it. We have since learned it was human-caused. EastIdahoNews.com apologizes for the error.

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