Clark Corbin

(Idaho Capital Sun) Due to drought conditions in North Idaho and warmer than normal temperatures across the state, most of North Idaho and southwest Idaho is at elevated risk for wildfire through September.

That was the assessment Idaho Department of Lands Director Dustin Miller delivered to Gov. Brad Little and the other members of the Idaho Board of Land Commissioners on Tuesday at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise.

Thanks to a cool, wet spring, most of Idaho experienced a slower start to the fire season without a lot of significant fires or acres burned.

But despite the cool, wet start to the year, state officials have been urging caution for weeks, saying that much of North Idaho experienced less snowpack and a rapid melt off that led to prolonged drying and drought conditions.

“The late spring put North Idaho on a rapid drying trend with above-average temperatures and below normal (precipitation),” Miller told the land board Tuesday. “As you’ll recall, many places in North Idaho saw below-normal snowpack this winter.”

“Conditions have been better in the southern part of the state, with cooler- and wetter-than average conditions. However the long-term weather forecast indicates a warmer-than-normal fire season,” Miller added.

Idaho’s wildfire season (so far): 7,200 acres burned

So far in 2023, the majority of fires the Idaho Department of Lands tracked in its protection areas were caused by people. Through Thursday, 91 of the 117 fires that the department’s staff had tracked were caused by humans, versus 26 fires that were caused by lighting. Human-caused fires amounted to 78% of all fires the department’s staff has tracked this year.

“We have more people living and working and recreating on endowment lands, and we are now seeing more unwanted human-caused starts. …Certainly conditions are such that ignitions are quite likely in a lot of places around the state,” Miller said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Through Thursday, almost 7,200 acres have burned in Idaho this year, including 5,905 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management land and another 316 acres of U.S. Forest Service land.

In Idaho the responsibility for wildfires can vary depending on where the fire is located and what type of land it is on. The Idaho Department of Lands provides fire protection on more than 6 million acres of land, including state land, private forests, endowment forest lands and offset lands, Idaho Department of Lands Fire Bureau Chief Josh Harvey told the Idaho Capital Sun June 30. 

Meanwhile the federal government manages about 34.5 million acres of land, about two-thirds of Idaho’s landmass.

With Idaho experiencing a slower start to the fire season, the Idaho Department of Lands was able to help its counterparts in Canada fight wildfires that have burned more than 27 million acres there, Miller said. The Idaho Department of Lands sent a handcrew to Canada a couple of times this year, Miller said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a handcrew as a team of 18 to 20 wildland firefighters.

Miller told land board members there are now more than 600 out-of-control fires in Canada.

Back home in Idaho, the Idaho Department of Lands hired a full staff of 170 seasonal firefighters this year, but the state struggled retaining veteran firefighters and is facing a shortage in experienced leadership personnel, the Sun previously reported.