BLM Battles the Preacher Fire

DREW NASH • TIMES-NEWS Smoke fills the air as the Preacher Fire continues Tuesday afternoon, July 14, 2014, near Carey.

TWIN FALLS • Plans for greater fire restrictions across the Magic Valley were called off this week after unusually wet weather has offered a respite from notably drier conditions.

Wildfire officials recently expressed concern over the alarming number of human-caused wildfires the area saw earlier in the summer. While a national fire prevention team descended on the area to address human factors, lightning continued to pepper the landscape. But recent fortuitous heavy rains kept new fires at bay.

The wet weather is a welcome change from reports that indicated the Magic Valley was three weeks ahead of a typical summer. Since June, at least 14 wildfires burned more than 42,075 acres, the most severe occurring northeast of Shoshone through Lincoln and Blaine counties.

The last major blaze local firefighters saw was the mid-July Carey-area Preacher Fire — the region’s biggest yet this year at 33,000 acres.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for portions of Southern Idaho through Tuesday, with the greatest threats coming to the area south of the Snake River Basin — particularly southern Twin Falls County — the Camas Prairie and the Boise Mountains.

Officials had been considering spreading Stage 1 fire restrictions on open campfires and cigarette smoking across portions of Blaine and Camas Counties before those plans were scuttled on Monday. Previously-implemented fire restrictions for portions of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area near Stanley, as well as those in the Treasure Valley and Owyhee County remain in effect. More on those restrictions can be found at bit.ly/firerestrict.

“A lot of the other forests aren’t having the rain we are seeing,” said Julie Thomas, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman for the Sawtooth National Forest. Thomas, however, urged recreationalists headed to public lands to still use caution.

The amount of precipitation southern Idaho is seeing is rare, said Korri Anderson, forecaster with the National Weather Service. Atmospheric moisture testing near Boise indicates levels in the upper 90th percentile, he said.

Normal atmospheric precipitable water for early August averages 0.66 inches. Current measurements put that mark at 1.05 inches, which is short of the record 1.57 inches.

The area has been “hammered” by lightning, but rain mixed with the systems has doused those blazes immediately, said Kelsey Dehoney, Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman.

“If you could pinpoint the lightning strike and went to that spot, you’d see a black spot,” Dehoney said. “But it was raining so hard when it hit that it kept it from gaining any heat to start something.”

Heavy rains are predicted through Thursday, and the current storm system is expected to leave moisture lingering over southern Idaho through the week. While above normal precipitation is expected for the next three months — suggestive of monsoon behavior — it is hard to say how and where it will materialize, Anderson said.

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“Another plume may be coming up, but it is hard to say right now,” he said.

What the weather pattern means for wildland firefighters in the coming weeks is equally muddled, Dehoney said.

“It could be what we call a ‘season-ending event’ where there aren’t any more fires after this,” she said. “It could rain and get the grasses to grow even thicker and dry out, making fires bigger. Or it could dry up and we’d get more lightning but it wouldn’t do anything because there’s no fuel left.”

The weather pattern leaves a good chance for flash floods, landslides and debris flows, especially areas that have been burned by wildfires last year or the year before, Anderson said.

“If you are going up near Sun Valley around those fires, be careful,” he said.

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