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As fire rehab begins near Shoshone, BLM investigators suspect arson

SHOSHONE — It was 2:30 p.m. on a Friday when the Bureau of Land Management Twin Falls District received the call.

A fire had started about 7 miles north of Shoshone on the east side of the highway. Within 2 1/2 hours, early-August winds had pushed it to consume 4,000 acres of rangeland as it headed toward homes, a gas pipeline and power poles. Residents were evacuated.

Over the weekend, aircraft were grounded due to smoke from surrounding states. The Mammoth Fire ultimately burned 49,912 acres – destroying one home and several structures — before fire crews contained it days later.

This week, BLM crews and volunteers were working to rehabilitate the burned range in an effort to help it grow back better than before.

“What’s really unfortunate is that this fire was a human-start,” said Fire Ecologist Joe Russell with the Shoshone Field Office.

And so was the Shoestring Fire, which burned more than 35,000 acres in August north of Wendell. The exact cause of the field office’s two largest fires of the summer, however, remains a mystery.

“Our fire investigators are really good, and they couldn’t find any evidence,” BLM spokeswoman Kelsey Brizendine said. “And that says something.”

The BLM’s Shoshone Field Office has noticed an unusual trend of fires starting east of a highway with no known start — typically beginning around the same time of day and in the same weather conditions. They’re similar enough to suggest arson, but there have been no leads on who might have done this — or why.

What the BLM does know is that it’s going to take years for the priority sage grouse habitat to fully recover.

Rehabilitation follows fire season

As soon as a fire is safely put out, BLM specialists like Russell go out to the burned range to determine the next steps.

“They’ll assess where it burned more intensely, where the range condition may not have been in good condition before the fire,” BLM spokeswoman Heather Tiel-Nelson said. “And they’ll focus their efforts there.”

They can also find out where the BLM has done preventive work.

On Thursday, Russell pointed out features of the range while waiting for crews to continue a drill seeding operation along more than 11,000 acres burned by the Mammoth Fire. Just since August, cheatgrass seeds had taken advantage of what little moisture there was, and tiny sprouts had cropped up.

“If we did nothing, a lot of this is probably going to be invaded by annuals,” Russell said.

Among these: the highly flammable cheatgrass and tumble mustard — and possibly other invasive species.

To compete with these undesirable range species, the BLM is drill seeding perennial grasses, forbs (flowering plants) and bitterbrush. The range before the fire, he said, was in fair to poor condition.

“We’re trying to use anything that’ll basically out-compete cheatgrass,” Russell said.

On a good day, and in good soil, the tractors can seed about 100 acres, Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation Specialist Bart Koonce said.

“These drills were built in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and over time they have been repaired and put back together,” he said. “The older drills just seem to work much better.”

They’d plant around 30,000 pounds of seed on the Mammoth Fire project alone, Koonce said. In some areas, where lava rock made it too difficult to drill seed, the BLM had already aerial seeded with grasses and forbs.

Clif Bar employees assisted the BLM Friday with the planting of 30,000 Wyoming sagebrush seedlings for National Public Lands Day. But due to freezing cold rain and wind, they were able to work only a couple of hours.

“They worked very hard and were a very determined group,” Tiel-Nelson said.

The employees may return later to help finish the job, but the BLM will probably end up contracting some of it out.

After Jan. 1, more of the three-year rehabilitation plan will unfold, as the BLM aerial seeds with sagebrush. When the seeding is complete, the BLM will have aerial seeded 38,036 acres and drill seeded 11,036 acres of the range burned by the Mammoth — or Mammoth Cave — Fire, which started Aug 3.

Other rehab efforts

The BLM Twin Falls District has three field offices in Shoshone, Jarbidge and Burley.

Throughout the entire district, about 65 fires burned more than 147,000 acres between March 20 and mid-October.

“The Shoshone field office by far had the most fires this summer,” Tiel-Nelson said.

After fire season, the Burley field office has two stabilization and rehabilitation plans; the Jarbidge office has five.

In addition to the Mammoth Cave Fire rehabilitation, here’s what the BLM has planned for its Shoshone office:

Crestview Fire: The July 3 Crestview Fire burned 1,626 acres near Kimama. The BLM will drill and aerial seed the entire range with a mix of native and non-native species.

Antelope Fire: The 29,491-acre Antelope Fire started July 10 south of Shoshone. The BLM will drill seed 6,116 acres and aerial seed 7,700 acres.

Martin Canyon Fire: The Martin Canyon Fire started July 23 east of Bellevue and burned 2,477 acres. The BLM will aerial seed 2,517 acres. No drill seeding can take place because of the steep landscape.

Shoestring Fire: The BLM will drill seed 8,132 acres and aerial seed 14,000 acres of the 35,704 Shoestring Fire that started Aug. 5 north of Wendell.As of Friday, the Idaho Department of Lands is no longer requiring residents to obtain burn permits for activities outside city limits. The permits are typically required each year from May to October during a closed fire season. The permit is free and good for 10 days after it is issued. Information:

As of Friday, the Idaho Department of Lands is no longer requiring residents to obtain burn permits for activities outside city limits. The permits are typically required each year from May to October during a closed fire season. The permit is free and good for 10 days after it is issued. Information:

Paul beet farmer looks back on 53 sweet years

PAUL — LeRoy Uhrich harvested his final crop of sugar beets on Oct. 13 after 53 years of navigating the challenges of what wind, insects, freezing temperatures or hail can do to the hardy crop.

At the beginning, he said, it was a good thing he didn’t know all the things that could go wrong.

“I’ve had all those things happen,” said Uhrich, 74, who grew beets each of the 53 years he spent farming.

But this year, his last, was a record-setting harvest.

His biggest beet this year weighed in at 22.65 pounds, which he entered into Paul Haun’s Hardware beet contest.

“I don’t think it will win, though, because the winner usually weighs about 24 pounds,” he said.

He harvested 42.2 tons per acre on the homestead parcel, the most ever produced on it. Another field that he leased produced 45.1 ton per acre.

“That was the best ever in my farming career,” he said. “I knew all summer it was good.”

Uhrich picks up a scrap of paper on his dining room table and reads a favorite Bible verse reminding him of how things really come about.

“So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow,” he said.

He started farming in 1965 with his father, Harold Uhrich, who gave him 10 acres on the family homestead after he was released from the Air Force.

“He started out with humble beginnings, and he’s ending humbly,” LeRoy’s wife, Debbie Uhrich, said.

Debbie, Uhrich’s third wife, says she was a city girl, but has come to love the role as a farmer’s wife.

“It’s been a great experience,” she said.

Uhrich hand-thinned the beets on his field that first year and watched his operation grow over the decades to 112 acres, some of the ground leased from nearby farms.

“When I got my first beet check I thought this is a pretty good deal,” he said. “It was a modest amount by today’s standards but gas was only 40 cents a gallon then and you could buy a pizza for two bucks. It looked pretty big to me.”

Over the next five decades his opinion of beet farming didn’t change much. He grew a few other crops along the way too, like barley and hay, but his main interest was always in the sugar beet.

“I just couldn’t see making the farm pay with other crops,” he said. “And I never envisioned getting big. I was satisfied to farm on a small scale.”

There is something gratifying, he said, in watching those little seeds grow into beets that are several pounds.

In 1996, he purchased 112 shares for $400 per share with the new grower’s co-op Snake River Sugar Company, which purchased Amalgamated Sugar Co.

He went through 10 crop consultants from Amalgamated Sugar.

“They were a valuable source of information,” he said.

He was also was a seed representative, which allowed him to get to know more than 100 growers around Mini-Cassia.

“I cultivated some of their practices into my operation,” he said.

The farmer mentality in Mini-Cassia is astounding, he said. “I’ve seen times when a farmer had an accident and his neighbors would leave their own crops to come and harvest his. We live in a great community.”

The varieties changed over time and the seed companies developed better product, which meant better yields. But the biggest advance came with introduction of Roundup Ready beets in 2008. Roundup Ready crops are genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup.

That meant the beets could grow without competing with weeds for moisture, sunlight and nutrients.

“That was the biggest thing that happened in my career. It really increased the yield of a crop,” he said. “I know I started to sleep better knowing the weeds weren’t going to overtake the beets.”

The space between beets shrank from 10 to 12 inches to four to six inches.

“And there was no thinning,” he said.

Some farmers will argue, he said, that beets aren’t as big now, but that’s up for debate.

Uhrich enjoyed everything about growing beets — the planting, watering and especially harvest.

He always hired help during harvest, and after his father died he had a loyal hired man for 20 years.

About three years ago he started hiring trucks to haul the sugar beets from his field to the plant after his old trucks gave out.

“I will definitely miss harvest because that is the culmination of a year’s worth of effort. I have always looked forward to it. It is the work of your hands, the fruit of your labor. And when the beets go into a truck it is really satisfying,” he said. “I wouldn’t have changed a thing — including the challenges.”

If you do one thing

If you do one thing: College of Southern Idaho’s Cohorts Carnival in the Corn activities will include games, music and a scavenger hunt from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Breckenridge Endowment Farm on North College Road in Twin Falls. Admission is $5.


Valley's Jason Hardy carries the ball against Oakley during their conference matchup Friday night, Oct. 20, 2017, at Oakley High School.

Idaho unemployment hits record low of 2.8%

TWIN FALLS — Idaho’s unemployment rate shrunk in September to the lowest ever recorded, the Idaho Department of Labor reported Friday.

The 2.8 percent seasonally adjusted unemployment rate hasn’t happened since the state began tracking unemployment in 1976. Total employment also grew by 4,154 — the largest monthly increase since July 1993. More than 800,000 people in Idaho have jobs.

In south-central Idaho, unemployment rose one-tenth of a percent to 2.4 percent, but that’s hardly a bad sign for workers. While job listings are on the decline, employers are still looking for candidates.

Another positive for the region: Labor force grew by almost 1 percent from August, with year-over-year growth of 1.3 percent exceeding the state-wide labor force growth rate. In fact, every south-central Idaho county gained workers in September.

“We know that positions are being filled,” Idaho Department of Labor Regional Economist Jan Roeser said. “It’s not simple, but they’re getting it done.”

In Cassia County, unemployment of 2.2 percent is “certainly a double-edged sword,” Burley’s economic development director, Doug Manning, said.

“It’s a good thing that people are employed, but we need more people,” he said. “I think if you don’t have a job right now, it means you’re either not looking for one, or you don’t want one.”

Twin Falls County’s unemployment is at 2.5 percent. The county’s workforce gained more than 300 people in August and is up nearly 400 people from one year ago.

Twin Falls Economic Development Director Nathan Murray said the city is in a period of growth, productivity and vibrancy. The city is coordinating recruitment efforts with the hospital and the college.

State officials are taking the news of record-low unemployment as an indicator of Idaho’s “pro-growth climate.”

“Idaho continues to be a national leader in growth in jobs and incomes,” Lt. Gov. Brad Little said in a statement. “But we cannot let our foot off the gas. We must work with local leadership, the business community, and entrepreneurs in every part of the state, ensuring no community in Idaho is left behind.

“Fortunately, the upward pressure of growing employment gives us the opportunity to focus our efforts on those rural economies and communities which are not growing as fast as other parts of Idaho.”

Here’s a breakdown of September’s unemployment rate in the eight counties of south-central Idaho:

Blaine: 2.3 percent

Camas: 2.1 percent

Cassia: 2.2 percent

Gooding: 2.2 percent

Jerome: 2.4 percent

Lincoln: 2.5 percent

Minidoka: 2.4 percent

Twin Falls: 2.5 percent