Panel says climate changing wildfires

BOISE -- Wildfires were the topic of discussion today in downtown Boise, how they're changing Idaho, and how Idahoans can change to prevent them.

Wildfires in the West have actually burned less than half of the 10-year average so far this summer. But, the worst is likely yet to come.

Just this last week, 18 large fires were burning in the Northwest with intensities not normally seen until August, according to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. This holds with a national trend of the fire season, like Idaho's fire season, is getting worse.

Kerrie Weppner is a research associate with the Boise State University Department of Geosciences. "What science is telling us today is that fire seasons are actually getting longer," she said.

That was part of the discussion today for a group consisting of a geosciences researcher, water engineer, hydrologist, and county commissioner. They met in downtown Boise. Numerous state lawmakers attended the meeting too.

Weppner says the climate in and around our forests is changing, which is increasing the fires, which is changing the climate.

"A lot of these forest and trees were established during a different climate. And, if they burn, they might not return," she said.

Also, Idaho is drying out. Charlie Luce, a hydrologist with the Forest Service, says the Gem State is using more water, but seeing less in the aquifers. There's 20 percent less water coming into our basins, when compared to the 1940s.

He says that's not the only problem.

"The snow is melting earlier so it's leaving the higher elevations at an earlier date, which gives us a longer summer to burn in," said Luce.

But what can be done? Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo and Congressman Mike Simpson have co-sponsored legislation to put a priority on funding fire suppression. That would mean less money is borrowed from those coffers to fight fires when they are already burning.

On the state level, the former head of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, Dave Tuthill, says we need to store more water.

"Part of that need is because of additional uses, but another part is because we're losing some of the storage that we've had through snow, through wildfires, more exposure, and through climatic change," he said.

On the local government level, Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen says homes can't be built in the middle of the forest, in harm's way.

"I'm reluctant to approve a subdivision in a remote area, a dense subdivision in a remote area with inadequate access, because it puts lives at risk," he said. "Will you put a firefighter at risk of losing his or her life, in order to protect a home? The answer that we're all coming up with is 'No.' And, we won't and we shouldn't."

As far as homes already in forests and rangelands, fire managers say homeowners need to do their part and be firewise by creating defensible space.

Also, something the panel says can help, which is being done, is the creation of more rural fire districts. They allow ranchers and wildland firefighters to work together to fight fires and fight them sooner.


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