Fire Risk: Lessons Learned, or Maybe Not

In 2013, 32.7 million dollars was spent on suppressing wildfires in Idaho. This number raises the eye brows of most taxpayers in Idaho, but homeowners continue to move into areas adjacent to wildlands (now referred to as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI)) at high numbers, causing some unwanted issues.

home in wui

Flames are visible near a home in the evacuated Golden Eagle subdivision as the Beaver Creek wildfire rages outside Hailey, Idaho August 16, 2013, courtesy Laura Zuckerman, WSAU News

The Problem:Every fire season, we spend enormous amounts of money to suppress wildfires that cause threats to homes and people, but only a small percentage of that money goes to protecting homes in the Wildland Urban Interface. Local land-use development policies continue to actively encourage people to move into harm’s way. The Boise Foothills are developing quickly because of people’s desire to live in more remote areas. Considering the facts, they are moving into an area that is now more dangerous than ever.

The Facts: In 2013, KTVB news  reported 742,050 acres of land burned in Idaho and close to 50 structures were destroyed. In 2012 over 1.7 million acres burned in Idaho, more than any other state.

Climate change is projected to increase summer temperatures and decrease precipitation in Idaho in the years to come. This means less snow, and summers becoming drier earlier which means longer fire seasons. (Future Climates in the Pacific Northwest, Mote and Salathe)

history fire fighting

Firefighters going to the front, 1927, courtesy the Forest History Society

Fire is an essential element of a healthy forest ecosystem. Before the middle of the 20th century, most forest managers believed that fires should be suppressed at all times. By 1935, the stipulated that all wildfires were to be suppressed by 10 A.M. the morning after they were first spotted. A history of suppression has led to some overwhelming fuel sources that people are attributing the recent big fires to this old fire management policy.

 Lessons Learned, or maybe not? Residents and policy makers cannot forget about what it means to live in the Wildland Urban Interface. The Beaver Creek Fire last summer burned 111,490 acres in Hailey and 2,250 homes were evacuated. Just 6 years prior a similar situation happened with the Castle Rock fire. Everyone needs to learn from the experience, and create better plans because the cost of suppression is a lot more than the cost of taking preventative measures. According to Mike Elle, Ketchum Fire Chief, even people who have defensible space (space from home to flammable materials) still have flammable cedar shake roofs which can be a problem considering, flaming embers from brush can fly 2 miles, and end up igniting these roofs, according to Elle. Mike Elle is “fighting tooth and nail” to ban all cedar shake roofs in the Hailey and Ketchum area.

Idaho Wildfires

Helicopter dropping water on fire near Hailey, Idaho courtesy the Crescent News

The good news is that Mike Elle’s suggestion to ban cedar shake roof is being heard. State Fire Marshall Mark Larson stated, “The wood shingles have to go.” The International Fire Code is being updated this January, it will not include the ban, but local governments can provide stricter bans, and now is the time to do it.

Boise’s citizens need to find better ways to mitigate fire risk as well. Too many residents in the Boise Wildland Urban Interface have low perceptions of the risk of wildfires. The threat is real, and can be seen from the history.  In 1959 a man made fire in the Boise foothills, caused extreme amounts of damage, not during but after the fire. Soil erosion took place when it rained and residents in the east end of Boise were hit the hardest.(video courtesy,, When the Pot Boiled Over)


Photo courtesy, We rent Goats

Recently the 2008 Oregon Trail fire destroyed 10 homes, damaged 9 others and killed one person in a Boise WUI subdivision.  The risk perception of homeowners was very unaware of the fact that wildland fire could happen in their neighborhood. Homeowners and companies, such as Idaho Power, are now using preventative measures to cut down on the risk of fire. One tactic of Idaho Power is using We Rent Goats, a company that rents out goats to cut down on the flammable vegetation and create a line of defense.

According to Jerry McAdams, Boise Fire Department Wildfire Mitigation Coordinator “It was a tragic fire. The potential exists for a much worse fire on the Boise front, and I don’t think that people really quite understand that.”

What can we do about it? In Boise’s Comprehensive Plan, they have created a Wildland Urban Interface zone in attempt to reduce the risk from wildfires. What does this mean? Does the zone really work? Besides having the usual mitigation such as defensible space and landscaping requirements it does not create a good plan for reducing fire risk. The most important issues are getting people aware that their homes are at risk, and creating better land use management that prohibits development in high risk areas. Boise’s comprehensive plan has little in it regarding wildfires. It should be at the forefront of people’s minds, with the awareness of the risk; plans to mitigate that risk are meaningless.