Faced with an increase in human-caused fires, fire and land managers in Idaho are stepping up fire prevention and safety messages.
Through the first week in August, the Idaho Department of Lands has investigated 152 human-caused fires on lands that receive fire protection from the department this fire season, the Idaho Capital Sun reported last week. That compares to 46 fires caused by lighting.
In neighboring Washington state, fire officials are facing a similar issue. The Washington State Standard reported the number of fires on state-managed lands in Washington has doubled this year, and humans caused at least 82% of those fires.
“One of the biggest ones we’ve come across is abandoned campfires; that has been a big issue this summer,” Idaho Department of Lands Fire Bureau Chief Josh Harvey said in a telephone interview.
“Most people don’t intentionally start a fire,” Harvey added. “Really what it comes down to is they simply don’t understand how easy it is — not only to start a fire, but how quickly they lose control of fire. The conditions in Idaho, from north to south during summer time, our wildland fuels are very readily available to spread and catch on fire very easily. When you combine all that with some wind, our temperatures and the fact that almost everywhere is forest, those fires can grow very fast. It takes a lot of effort to put them out.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Fire official: It’s incumbent on Idahoans to be aware to prevent wildfires
In response, Harvey is stepping up his messages urging the public to be on heightened alert – even to the point of being paranoid — about fire safety and prevention.
“We can post signs, we can put up reader boards, we go down to the fairs in town and we present fire safety messages and it still happens,” Harvey said. “It really is incumbent on the public to be aware and almost be paranoid. They really need to be paranoid in the summer time about their actions.”
Harvey said he has interviewed numerous people who unintentionally caused fires who swore up and down that they did everything they could to put their campfire out. But Harvey said without true diligence to put a fire dead out, winds can come through a day or two later, sweep up an ember and ignite a fire.
Fire investigators have even found heat in abandoned campfires 12 inches underneath the top layer of ash.
Harvey has a tip for people to consider if they are wondering if they have done enough to put their campfire out. Harvey asks people to consider whether they would put their bare hand in the ash and stir it around. If not? That fire isn’t out yet. (Harvey stressed that people should be extremely careful not to hurt themselves and be aware campfires are extremely hot and dangerous and the rocks or the metal pit a fire is built within can remain dangerously hot to the touch for long periods of time.)
Putting a campfire out requires multiple rounds of dousing it with water, shoveling, digging, stirring the ash and dousing again repeatedly. Harvey recommends bringing a large container of water or carrying a bucket to fill with water from a nearby source such as a stream or lake.
“Really they need to have a very good water source to where they can repeatedly be pouring a steady stream of water on that campfire site,” Harvey said.
Arson cases, while still rare, are becoming more common
Aside from negligence and carelessness, state fire investigators are also encountering an increase in fires set intentionally across all types of land — private property, federal forests, state endowment lands and industrial timberlands, Harvey said.
“We’ve seen this trending upward over the last five to six years,” Harvey said. “I don’t remember arson being such a big issue, say, before 2018-ish. But since then, every year we have had multiple people that have been conducting arson activity, either in backyards or out in forests. It’s become more and more prevalent.”
Harvey said the Department of Lands and the State Fire Marshal’s Office investigate the cause of fires. Each fire and investigation is different, Harvey said, and they treat the two causes differently. An abandoned campfire or a fire caused by operating heavy equipment is treated as a negligent act and a civil type action. For civil cases, Harvey said investigators will determine how much it cost to put the fire out and then seek cost recovery from the person found responsible. For big fires, costs can exceed $1 million and are paid out of homeowner’s insurance or out-of-pocket.
“Every effort is taken to ensure those costs are recovered,” Harvey said.
Need to get in touch?
Have a news tip?
For arson, the state treats it as a criminal act and works with the Idaho Attorney General’s Office to prosecute.
“Our investigators are highly trained and qualified by national standards, and they use well-established, tried and true processes in determining where a fire starts,” Harvey said. “With today’s technology — people with doorbell cameras, security cameras and the number of people in the woods recreating — it is very often within the first 24 to 48 hours that we have identified whoever the responsible individual is.”
The concern over the increase in human caused fire has reached Idaho Gov. Brad Little. Last week, Idaho Department of Lands Director Dustin Miller briefed Little and other statewide elected officials.
“We are seeing more unwanted human-caused fires, in fact human-caused fires are up about 30 percent this year,” Miller told the Idaho State Board of Land Commissioners on Aug. 15.
Even with the recent rain associated with the remnants of Hurricane Hilary, Harvey said Idahoans should not let their guard down.
“Once this event passes we’re right back to our summer temperatures and our fuels are going to dry back out,” Harvey said. “For the next couple of months until we really get that true fall rain there is going to be a hazard out there and fire is going to be a very real issue for a while still this summer.”
Campfire safety tips
- When building a campfire, select an open location on level ground that is away from fuels such as leaves, logs, brush and needles. Clear an area with a diameter of at least 10 feet around it, scraping away leaves and fuel down to the soil.
- Keep a shovel and bucket of water available at all times a fire is burning.
- Never leave a fire unattended, and supervise any children who are around the fire.
- When it’s time to extinguish the fire, drown it with water, stir around the fire with a shovel to turn over all coals and logs and then drown all sides of them again. Move dirt on the fire site to smoother it, stir it all together and drown any hot spots. Last, touch the area where the fire was with the back of your hand to ensure there is no more heat or smoldering embers.
Source: Idaho Department of Lands. Additional fire prevention and safety tips, as well as information about local fire restrictions is available on the Idaho Department of Lands website.