© 2022 Boise State Public Radio

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact us at boisestatepublicradio@boisestate.edu or call (208) 426-3663.
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
00000176-d8fc-dce8-adff-faff71c90000Idaho's wildfire season is here, and that means you're going to be hearing a lot of firefighting jargon to describe what's going on.We put together this list of key firefighting terms you're likely to hear in the next few months.GlossaryHotshots: A highly trained hand crew of wildland firefighters that works on the ground to contain a blaze. Crews usually operate in 20-person teams, and are sent in first to deal with the worst fire conditions on short notice. Hotshots have a high level of physical fitness. They can carry up to 50 pounds along with a chainsaw and shovel. There are more than 100 hotshot crews around the country, and the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise coordinates the crews.Hand crew: Wildland firefighters that could have different levels of training. They work on the ground with hand tools like shovels, chainsaws and axes. They dig fire lines (also called "firebreaks") to try and get the fire under control.Smokejumper: An elite firefighter that parachutes into remote wildland fires. They work to suppress and put out fires before they become a bigger problem, and can adapt to quickly changing situations. Smokejumpers have to be fit and highly trained. They carry heavy packs and protective suits and work in mountainous terrain. Idaho has three smokejumping bases in Boise, McCall and Grangeville.Fire lines or firebreaks: Usually about 10-12 feet wide, fire lines are cut with shovels and axes to contain and suppress a blaze. Hand crews -- including hotshots -- will dig lines and clear out brush so the fire will get choked off without fuel.Containment levels: The agency that manages a fire will say how "contained" a fire is. At 100 percent containment a fire isn't out. That means a complete fire line has been dug around the fire. A contained fire can quickly become out of control again with a shift in weather.Controlled fire: This is when a wildfire is considered out. Here's how the BLM office in Idaho Falls describes it: "Think of a container -- say, a mason jar. A fire is contained when it's all 'bottled in,' like in a container. The fire may still be burning, but if a distinct fire line is built around the entire perimeter so that there is no chance for the fire to escape or spot over outside the line, then the fire fighters declare the fire 'contained.' "Human caused: This means someone accidentally or intentionally caused a fire. This could be from a discarded cigarette, a embers from a campfire, or even sparks from a truck along a forested highway. As Smokey says, nine times out of 10, a wildfire is human-caused.Fire danger: This is a rating system from the U.S. Forest Service that helps predict how likely a wildfire could start in an area. It takes into account the weather forecast, terrain and personnel. "Low" means a blaze would likely not spread, while "moderate" means a fire could start but could be contained. "High" to "very high" means fires can catch and spread easily, while "extreme" means the conditions are so difficult and fast-changing that fighting the blaze directly is rare.Red flag warning: These warning are issued by regional National Weather Service offices, and help firefighting management teams understand the weather-related risks for fire starts. Drought and low humidity mixed with windy conditions usually spell a red flag warning. Burning bans sometimes come along with these warnings.Complex: Two or more larger wildfires in the same general area. A complex is managed by a unified team of firefighters.Air attack: Usually used during the initial stages of a small blaze, or as a suppression tool during large fires. Air attacks can drop fire retardant or water to help support hand and engine crews. Multi-engine or heavy air tankers, single-engine air tankers, and helicopters are the three most common types of aircraft that can be used. Multi-engine tankers carry the most retardant, while helicopters (or helitankers) can make more precise but smaller drops.Fire retardant: Also known as slurry, these USDA-approved chemicals are dropped by aircraft over wildfires that management teams believe could grow and become dangerous. It's often used to protect private property. A 2010 ruling from the U.S. District Court in Montana raised questions about its environmental effects.Incident management teams: Operating from level one through five, these teams of firefighters can be sent around the country to suppress fires. Type 1 and 2 IMT's often work on the most difficult and dangerous fires, and can include local firefighting resources.ResourcesWe also pulled together these key resources where you can find up-to-date information about wildfires.The National Interagency Fire Center coordinates fire management teams around the country, and is based in Boise. This year, NIFC predicted a higher level of fire danger in Idaho forests, while the grassland should get a bit of a break.The Bureau of Land Management's site will update Idahoans about fire restrictions on public land.InciWeb updates fire information around the country, giving handy info about road closures during the summer travel season. You'll also find maps, photos, and growth potential for a particular fire.And if you tweet, consider following these organizations and agencies for fire updates in 140 characters.

Can Prescribed Fires Be The Answer To Wildfires?

A shot of a prescribed burn taking place earlier this year at the Fishlake National Forest in Utah.
A shot of a prescribed burn taking place earlier this year at the Fishlake National Forest in Utah.

A recent study says the American West should be doing more prescribed burns to keep forests healthy and to help lessen the impacts of wildfires across our region. It also concluded that there needs to be a change in how we perceive the practice out here for that to happen.Listen to this story.

Seventy-five years ago, Smokey the Bear first told the American public his famous catchphrase, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

The Smokey the Bear ad campaign began in 1944. It was part of an effort by the U.S. Forest Service to communicate to the public that fires, as a whole, were bad. At the time, the agency’s fire management policy stated that all wildfires needed to be suppressed by 10 a.m. the day after they’re first spotted.

“The historical legacy is what really is driving the modern trends,” says Crystal Kolden, associate professor of fire science at the University of Idaho.

Part of that legacy she says, is the Great Fire of 1910. That blaze burned 3 million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana, with smoke being seen as far away as New York state. And it was this perception of fire that stayed in the American consciousness for much of the 20th Century.

“It’s the death and destruction image of fire,” says Kolden.

She says while aggressive fire suppression techniques were underway in the West, the southeastern region of the U.S. was trying something else.

“They started using prescribed fires in the Southeast, actually not to reduce wildfire risk, but to improve habitat for species that they like to hunt,” she adds.

Kolden says that’s helped to change the public sentiment around the practice in that region where they see fires as an intentional process to control the landscape.

“And it’s the exact opposite in the West,” Kolden says. “Most Westerners have never seen a prescribed fire. It’s much more likely that they’ve seen a wildfire.”

Kolden recently published an article in the journal Fire. In it, she states that other areas of the country are increasing usage of prescribed fires, including a rise across Indian Country. But in the West, the practice has been decreasing, and she says that’s a problem.

“Science has only increased in its findings that prescribed fire is not only a very good way to mitigate wildfire risk, but that it’s actually really a necessary component for healthy ecosystems,” Kolden says.

That might sound counterintuitive, but think of it this way. Prescribed fires burn grass, brush and undergrowth, things that help fuel wildfires. These controlled burns also provide the heat needed for things like Sequoia and Redwood trees to crack open their cones and release seeds. But they also come with risk.

The Little Valley Fire began south of Reno in fall of 2016 following a prescribed burn. High winds in the area carried embers from that blaze, which ignited a wildfire. By the end of it all, it burned nearly 2,300 acres and destroyed 23 homes.

A statue of Smokey the Bear greets visitors at the Nevada Division of Forestry offices in Carson City, Nevada.
Credit Noah Glick
A statue of Smokey the Bear greets visitors at the Nevada Division of Forestry offices in Carson City, Nevada.

The Nevada Division of Forestry was in charge of the controlled fire and was later found guilty of gross negligence. This year, the division reached a $25 million settlement with victims.

“Even with the best intentions and the best written plan, things can still go wrong,” says Kacey KC, the Nevada state forester.

KC says since the Little Valley Fire, the division has rewritten its policies concerning prescribed fires to plan for bigger environmental impacts than they previously had predicted.

“It’s a different environment now, with climate change, with the current condition of our forests and our rangelands, you can expect a lot more of these extreme environmental wind impacts,” says KC.

Planning a prescribed burn is pretty complex as is. KC says land managers look at dozens of variables, from relative humidity to wind conditions to the desired fuel to be burned—and of course, contingency plans in case anything goes wrong.

“The planning process usually needs to start almost a year in advance. There’s a lot of modeling that needs to go on, there’s a lot of thought that needs to go into it, there’s a lot of coordination,” she says.

And then you’ve got to have the right conditions. KC says often times, plans sit dormant for years, because the weather just isn’t right for a burn. It’s all very complicated, and as Ryan Elliott says, controlled burns will never be a silver bullet. Elliot is a fire investigator for the Bureau of Land Management. And he does say there is one simple fix. Most fires are started by humans.

“Do whatever you can to not start them. And that sounds like a glib answer, but it’s the truth,” he says.

So, maybe after 75 years, we still have something to learn from Smokey the Bear.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of Wyoming Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2021 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.