Idaho National Laboratory Prepares For 2020 Fire Season After Last Year's Sheep Fire
A year after a massive wildfire swept across the high-desert grasslands at the Idaho National Laboratory, the research facility is figuring out how to protect its property going forward.
The Sheep Fire last July was caused by a lightning strike and burned more than 112,000 acres. It was the largest fire on the INL property in its 70-year history.
“We fought that fire overnight and by the next morning, it did something we’d never seen," said Eric Gosswiller, the fire chief at the INL, where there are 22 full-time firefighters.
“By 7 o’clock in the morning, it was a plume-dominated fire, and it went really large very quickly. It expanded from about 10,000 acres to about 80,000 acres in a few hours," Gosswiller said.
There wasn’t much damage caused by the fire — flames came within a couple of miles of a facility that processes nuclear waster and non-essential employees from several facilities were evacuated, but no major structures were compromised. The fire reached a few power poles, but none were lost because of a protective paint coating.
Still, after a large fire, the landscape itself takes a hit. That's significant on INL’s property, which is protected sage grouse habitat.
“With the 20-plus years of fire here in the West, the more of that habitat we lose, it’s problematic," Gosswiller said.
Early this spring, INL and agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Energy went out in a helicopter to aerially seed 25,000 acres of burned sagebrush and fire containment lines that were bulldozed to stop the fire from reaching INL buildings last summer.
The Sheep Fire forced officials at INL and the federal agencies to rethink how to protect the natural resources on the property. A complete ecological report on the impacts of fire and fire mitigation techniques on the wildlife there will guide future fire treatments and recovery plans.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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