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Coming to a wildfire near you

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As I write this (on Monday), here’s what the National Interagency Fire Center – based in Boise, you’ll recall – has to say about wildfires in Idaho.

Idaho land on fire amounts to 195,355 acres, third-most in the country after Oregon (with its enormous Bootleg fire) and California.

Idaho has 23 NIFC-recognized active wildfires, more than any other state, which may mean that Idaho’s wildfire situation is especially complex.

The situation is worse than that suggests, though, partly because NIFC-listed major fires are only a part of the overall picture. The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, for example, said that within its bounds it “is managing 39 active fires, seven are contained, 22 in extended attack, and eight are being evaluated for further action. Today, hotter and drier conditions will develop across the region.” And just this week batches of new fires erupted, notably in eastern Idaho.

Many of these fires are not especially large, but they add up, and their sheer number makes it more difficult getting a handle on them.

Beyond that, these 23 NIFC fires are widely scattered around Idaho, mainly between the Canadian border and Boise, with others not far from Lewiston, Harvard, Orofino, Kooskia, Pritchard, Kellogg, Hope, Dixie, Salmon, Pierce, and McCall.

But southern Idaho has by no means escaped this year, and likely won’t as the season, which still has a couple of months at least to run, goes on.

And remember, the current fires are in addition to those that came earlier and those yet to come.

Warnings (from the governor, researchers, public safety people and others for months on end) that this may be a rough fire year for Idaho, much worse than the last few, clearly seem to be smack on target.

And of course there’s the subsidiary set of issues, like the smoke that has enveloped a lot of the state and will be drifting over more.

More than in prior years, most people in Idaho will have a personal association with areas that have been or are on fire. So many places in Idaho are, or have been, or will be, on fire this year, that nearly everyone in the state will have some form of personal connection to what’s happening.

In all of that, Idaho may come out with something useful.

In the last couple of decades or so, a rough consensus has started to develop over the question of how best to manage forests and other lands to avert disastrous wildfires. Obviously, we’re not there yet. But some progress is being made.

Some of the most visible developments in this area have been happening across the border in Oregon, where in several places timber communities and environmentalists, so often for so many years at each others’ throats, have been finding common cause in developing ways to manage forests. A report from the columnist Nicholas Kristoff last year told of a John Day stewardship agreement – small and imperfect, but still profitable for local businesses and workers and environmentally friendly for activists – showing how effective forest management is often more complex than either side would immediately want, and yet gives something to each. The deal involved both tree cutting and steps for careful forest management, yielding a situation that is neither side’s ideal but is working.

Disasters can have the odd effect of bringing people together. The conflicts over the environment that have typified so much of recent Idaho history could see a turning point. The many fires bedeviling us now could be the prompt to cause many people, enough to make a big difference, to sit down and think outside their traditional boxes.
 

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