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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.

Blaine County First Responders Tackle Wildfires After Intense Weeks Of Fighting COVID-19

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Wood River Fire and Rescue
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A firefighter for Wood River Fire and Rescue responds to the East Fork Fire, south of Ketchum, on April 23.

At one point, Blaine County, home to Sun Valley, had the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the entire country. It required an all-hands-on deck response from first responders, many of whom didn’t get a break before wildfire season picked up in April. 

 

 

Two months ago, Emily White was treating injured skiers on Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain as a ski patroller. Then, the same March weekend Blaine County announced its first coronavirus case, the mountain shut down. She lost a month’s income from ski patrolling, but was able to immediately start working full-time at the Ketchum Fire Department, where she volunteers as a firefighter and EMT.

Soon after she joined a shift full-time, White said, “every call started sounding like they had a fever and a cough and were feeling weak. It was crazy.”

Fire crews in Blaine County were responding to one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country in late March. And it took a toll on personnel, not only because a handful of responders got sick or had to self-quarantine because of exposure, but also because St. Luke’s Wood River effectively shut down, so any patient needing hospitalization was transferred hours away to Twin Falls or Boise. 

“For a couple weeks there, we just had five ambulances doing laps up and down the highway,” said David Schames, a squad leader for Wood River Fire and Rescue. The transfers were exhausting, he said.

“You’re going all hours of the day and night and you know, it’s not so much fun to be driving on the prairie at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

With extra attention to decontaminating ambulances, an eight-hour round-trip run to Boise could take up to 11 hours, Schames said. And because these vehicles were dispersed on highways across southern Idaho, it put a strain on local resources in the Wood River Valley. 

“One particular shift sticks in my mind where I realized, ‘Wow this could be really bad,’” White said.

From 8 p.m. to midnight, 9-1-1 calls for respiratory issues came back to back that night. Two crews and the transfer vehicle all returned to the station at the same time, and each of them needed to be thoroughly cleaned to prevent the spread of the virus. Then, another call came in.

“It was just unbelievable. It’s like we don’t have an ambulance we can send to that person right now. We don’t have one,” she said. 

Blaine County ended up bringing on an additional ambulance crew from Boise for a few weeks to help. And while the county’s daily case numbers have been slowing way down in the past few weeks, Schames said first responders didn’t get a break before they started getting calls for wildfires.

“The wildfires were crazy because they just kept coming,” he said.

Blaine County has been in a severe drought for months now because of extremely low precipitation since last fall. 

"You don't have to think about 'COVID' in those moments."

“I have a seasonal stream by my house,” Schames said. “It should be raging right now with snow melting out of the canyon, but it’s just a trickle.”

In April, local fire crews responded to at least 10 wildfires. Some sparks were ignited by trailers dragging chains on the road; others were permitted and unpermitted burns that got out of hand. 

And while the season got off to a quick and intense start, for White it was actually a relief. At the largest fire so far, just south of Ketchum, she dug lines around the perimeter with hand tools.

“I got in a couple intense hours of work, and it just felt back to normal,” she said. “You don’t really have to think about too much besides the wind and the fire. You don’t have to think about ‘COVID’ in those moments.”

Local fire chiefs are preparing, though, for COVID-19 cases to rise again, as people begin to move around more. And they’re considering what that response would look like on top of wildfire season. Sun Valley Fire Chief Taan Robrahn said conserving local resources will be important.

“Our firefighters -- their safety and health is kind of my number one priority right now,” he said. 

That means having enough healthy people locally will factor into whether the valley can send teams to help out at larger fires all over the country, something they do almost every year and are prepared to do this year, too.  

But preventing firefighters from catching a virus could be difficult during wildfire season. 

“You might end up digging and breathing hard right next to someone from another crew,” White said. “We can stay home if we're not healthy, but I don't really know to what extent we can change too much of what we do.” 

While the agencies have been keeping shifts together as units and have moved some early season training sessions online, there’s some inevitability of close contact when responding to fires, especially larger ones that bring different crews together. 

“It could potentially undermine all of the efforts we’ve been taking the past two months to keep crews healthy and safe,” said Tom White, the captain of Wood River Fire and Rescue.

The fire south of Ketchum in late April -- a permitted burn that ballooned with heavy winds -- drew nearly 60 people from local crews, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

That’s why reducing fire risk at the onset is especially important this season, local fire chiefs said. Agencies across the West are considering implementing tighter fire restrictions this season, due to both significant wildfire potential for the summer and a reluctance to overextend resources during COVID-19.

Schames said whatever they're responding to, though, firefighters are used to going from one thing to the next.

“You never really know what you’re going to until the bell rings and they send you,” he said.

In fact, that’s one his favorite parts of the job.

 

 

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

 

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