Idaho’s three megafires

Halstead fire
Halstead fire as seen from Yankee Fork Rd near SunBeam, August 30, 2012, Photo by Crig Daughtry

There are currently three uncontained wildfires that are larger than 100,000 acres. For purposes of this discussion, we will call 100,000 the minimum size for a megafire.

All three of these fires are in Idaho, and two are on the Salmon-Challis National Forest. Those two are the Mustang Complex and the Halstead Fire and are under the direction of Jim Loach’s Area Command Team. The third fire is the Trinity Ridge Fire on the Boise National Forest.

map of Mustang, Halstead, Trinity fires
Map showing the location of the Halstead, Mustang, and Trinity fires, September 5, 2012. (click to enlarge)

Here are some stats we compiled from InciWeb and the National Situation Report about these three megafires:

Megafire stats - September 5, 2012

The cost to date for these three fires totals over $73,000,000. They are tieing up 2,653 firefighting personnel. We don’t know what the weather and fuel conditions were when the fires were first reported, or what the commitment was to an aggressive initial attack strategy. Maybe there was no chance in hell of catching them early. But if initial attack had been successful on these three fires, over $71,000,000 could have been saved and 2,653 firefighting personnel could be doing something else. In some cases a significant investment in initial attack resources, both ground and air, can save large sums of taxpayer dollars later.

It is not likely that any of these fires are going to be contained or controlled anytime soon. Now that we are into the month of September, I imagine the Incident Management Teams are looking carefully at the fire and weather history of the area, hoping to have a weather related fire season ending event in the near future.

Predicted containment dates on large fires, especially megafires, are frequently picked out of the air (or some other more intimate location) and are relatively meaningless if they are farther out than a few days. In this case, the predicted containment dates for the three fires range from September 30 to October 16. In case you’re wondering which year, they all selected 2012.  Whew!

The IMTeam on the Mustang Complex dashed hopes for a quick containment with this statement on their InciWeb page:

Containment [of 16%] will not change in the near term future due to current point protection strategies.

Abandoning containment for point protection may or may not be temporary, and is usually due to extreme weather and/or fire behavior, extreme topography, a shortage of firefighting resources, management direction to be less aggressive in suppressing the spread of the fire, or a combination of some of these.

Firefighters challenged by three large fires in Idaho

Map of Mustang, Halstead, and Trinity fires in Idaho
Map of Mustang, Halstead, and Trinity fires in Idaho, August 19, 2012. (Click to enlarge)

Firefighters are being challenged by many fires in Idaho. Three of the largest are the Mustang, Halstead, and Trinity Ridge fires.

Mustang Fire

The Mustang Complex is 22 miles northwest of Salmon, Idaho, caused by lightning over the weekend of July 28-29. Five of the fires, the Mustang, Broomtail, Roan, Cayuse and East Butte have burned together. The Lost Packer Fire continues to burn and and increase in size. The Complex is about 25 miles northwest of Salmon, Idaho. It was confirmed on Saturday that the Beartrap Lookout was destroyed by the fire.

Carlton Joseph, the Fire Management Officer on the Cleveland National Forest in southern California is the Incident Commander. The complex of fires has burned 89,000 acres and is 6 percent contained. Considering those numbers, it is surprising that only 496 personnel are assigned to the fire. But, firefighting resources are stretched very thin now.

Trinity Ridge Fire

Trinity Ridge fire
Trinity Ridge fire. Photo by Zane Brown

The Trinity Ridge fire forced the evacuation of the Featherville area on Saturday. Firefighters expected the fire, approaching from two different fronts, to reach the community late in the day on Sunday. There was a Red Flag warning in effect Sunday due to possible thunderstorms, complicating things for firefighters. The fire is being managed by Rich Harvey’s incident management team and has burned 88,000 acres since August 3. It is 5 percent contained and is being fought by 1,087 personnel.

Halstead Fire

The Halstead fire, caused by lightning, has burned 92,000 acres since it began three weeks ago, and it is also 5 percent contained. Bob Housman is the Incident Commander of the fire, which is located 18 miles northwest of Stanley, Idaho. Assigned to the fire are 488 personnel.