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: burnpermits.idaho.gov.
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: burnpermits.idaho.gov.