Wildfires are not new to the Wood River Valley and central Idaho–early newspaper accounts in our Regional History library document forest and town fires during the 1880’s and ’90’s. Both Hailey and Ketchum experienced fires that destroyed whole blocks of buildings, and fire burned over the sawmills on Bald Mountain even as the Union Pacific logged over the valley and hills for railroad ties. Uneven forestry practices, beetle killed trees and warming climate have made the whole region vulnerable to larger and fiercer fires in recent years. Those who lived in the Valley through the 2007 Castle Rock fire still have vivid memories of watching the fire advance toward Ketchum, and still look around for smoke at this time of year when helicopters fly over.
Stage One fire restrictions were declared on the central Idaho mountain area on August 1st this year, ten days ahead of last year, as drought and warming conditions have increased the fire danger. Inciweb.org is a good source for overall fire information all around the country, with news, maps, photos and closure notices. It can be sorted by state for local information. However, the site is not designed for fast-breaking information–news on Inciweb travels through official public information channels in a sometimes labyrinthine process. National Forest websites and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) also make periodic updates, but if you see smoke, official sites will not necessarily have the most current information. Your local TV or online news outlets are often faster, if not always quite so accurate.
Social media can be a swift resource for new fire information, often outstripping television, radio and government sources, but it is a good idea to take information garnered from Facebook or Twitter with copious grains of salt until verified. That said, I’ve found some very fast and accurate reporting on the Salmon River Facebook page about ongoing fires in the Salmon River drainage. The site moderator sifts through many official and local sources for good, verified information and photos, with a strong bias toward good science, first-hand witness accounts, current photos, and accurate mapping.
Tourist information sites can yield up-to-date snapshots as well, via webcams. Check the Redfish Lake, Sun Valley, and Sawtooth webcams for up to the minute air quality, smoke, and weather information. The McCall Aviation site has helpfully wrangled together a wide variety of webcams from around the state, including the NOAA weather site, for a fast overview of conditions in many mountain areas.
The Idaho Firewise site has excellent information for homeowners in Idaho as well as visitors. Some final small tips for safety in fire season–stay on the roads, don’t drive or park in dry grass. Mowers, chainsaws, ATVs, anything with a hot engine can be a spark point. Observe open fire restrictions. Channel your inner Smokey Bear and make sure fires are dead out. Bring extra water, shovel and ax with you into the forest and on the high desert. Double check offroad vehicles and trailer loads for dragging chains or other spark generators.
And remember, the Idaho outback, with rare exceptions, is the big black hole of no cell phone coverage. Be careful out there, campers.