Fire Season 2011

Guest post by Patrick Gocke, Grangeville Smokejumper, University of Idaho

2011 fire season, Clearwater / Nez Perce fire zone.

The drive to Grangeville in early June (from Missoula) pointed to a long wait for anything resembling fire season in central Idaho with between 3 to 5 feet of snow still around the visitor center.

Fast-forward to August and the fuels when the fuels curing bringing a hint of brown to the landscape and activity on the fire base increasing to the south around Riggins. August 6th I joined a crew to the Seven Devils where a fire got into a patch of timber around 7,000ft. Fortunately, the jump spot was green with dark moist soil, an area that wouldn’t promote the fires growth and provide a safe spot for firefighting. We found that the dead and down timber held fire in the higher terrain where as lower in the breaks the cured grasses are supporting fire spread.

Late August to mid September was the busiest for the base as there was a period of warm/dry weather with a smattering of lightning. We started getting fires in the higher country that were getting established in the standing dead lodge pole and making short runs with group torching, with the aid dead and down timber. Although the fuels became receptive once dried out, it was late in the season and fire activity was short lived with suppression efforts involved, limiting large fire potential. It should be noted that the fire use fires grew between a few hundred to a couple thousand acres. Seeing how receptive the fuels became once things dried out it brings me to conclude that in the future a early to normal time frame of curing fuels coupled with the dead fuel loading in Central Idaho will lead to a more active fire season.

From a fellow hot-shot:

“..last year was the least active year I have experienced. 2011 a much more active season than 2010. In 2010 late July/early August was the only active part of my fire season, and I only was assigned to initial attack fires that were easily controlled in the first shift. During the late summer/early fall this year, I was busy on a number of fire assignments, although none of these grew particularly big and were contained within 5 shifts.  I have based this assessment on how many days I was on assignment, how many fires I went to, and how successful our suppression efforts were. It is, as you probably have figured out, wildly subjective.”

-Patrick Gocke

Summary: As of October 20, NIFC has reported a total of 381 thousand acres burned in Idaho, 161k in Montana, 18k in Washington, and 270k in Oregon.  Just strictly by the numbers this is actually less than in what was considered a nominal fire year in 2010.  The caveat is that one fire in southern Idaho in cheatgrass/range accounted for a majority of the area burned, albeit it is not comparable to equate an acre of rangeland burned to an acre of dense forest burned. Despite an absolute lack of wildfire in June and July true to Predictive Services fire season outlook put together back in April, the dry July-September, coupled with warmer temperatures, lower relative humidity in August and particularly into the first half of September resulted in low fuel moisture and elevated fire potential across much of the interior NW.


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About John Abatzoglou

John is an associate professor of Geography at the University of Idaho. John's interests are centered around climate and weather of the American West and their impacts to people and natural resources of the West. John and his Applied Climate Science Lab at the University of Idaho have published nearly 100 papers and book chapters on climate science, meteorology, and applied climate science connecting climate to water resources, wildfire and agriculture. The research group also develops web-based climate services that connect climate data with decision makers to help improve climate readiness of societies and ecosystems.

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