By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports
The Pacific NorthWest Economic Region 2023 Summit on Tuesday brought experts together to discuss wildfire prevention in Idaho and across the West.
The conversation came as legislators, policymakers and experts gathered for the annual summit. Idaho Department of Lands State Forester Craig Foss spoke on the panel about the roughly 9 million acres of land his agency attempts to maintain during fire season.
So far this season, there’s an above average number of fires but a below average number of acres burned, due largely to lightning ignition fires, Foss said.
To date, the IDL website reports 134 wildfires this year which have burned about 520 acres. Of those fires, the causes are listed as 63 human-caused, 33 natural causes, and 38 are undetermined causes. Those are only fires reported on land IDL protects, not other state or federal agencies or private landowners.
Foss expressed concern for national forests and a lack of mechanical thinning, a method of thinning dense areas of trees to help forests withstand fire. Clearing the vegetation helps reduce the amount of fuel for wildfires.
“I’m a huge advocate for mechanical thinning,” Foss said. “One of the concerns I have with the condition of our forests, particularly our national forests, are (they’re) at a huge risk with insect disease and fire.”
Foss acknowledged that it is a huge challenge for the federal agencies, though.
“We’re not going to burn ourselves out of this crisis,” Foss said, referring to prescribed burns. “Our forests are far too overloaded with wood. They’re overgrown. It’s like a garden that you’ve never thinned and you’re expecting to get a decent result.”
The National Interagency Fire Center lists parts of southwest Idaho and the Panhandle as having an above normal significant wildfire potential in August.
Jon Axtman, senior manager of transmission and distribution, engineering and reliability with Idaho Power, also spoke on the panel Tuesday.
Axtman focused on Idaho Power’s plans to protect the power grid while reducing the risk of starting wildfires.
“On days like today, where the fire potential is high, we have areas where we set protection settings more sensitively, all in an effort to reduce ignitions,” Axtman said.
Some of Idaho Power’s wooden poles are wrapped in a protective mesh to protect them from burning.
“By far, the number one activity we can do to prevent wildfires is vegetation management,” Axtman said. “We have 400,000 trees as a utility we prune periodically, roughly every three years.”
The company works on identifying hazard trees as well, meaning trees that have potential to fall into power lines depending on their health. The company also identifies high-risk zones, to understand when wildfire risk is at its peak and help staff understand that when working.
The panel on wildfires was one of several the summit will host throughout the week.