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Wildfire

Wildfires and What You Can Do About Them

Overview

What to Expect

Burn scar from the 2016 Table Rock Fire in the Boise Foothills. This man-made fire destroyed 1 home and nearly 2500 acres of native grassland.

Wildfire is a natural part of the ecosystem in the Treasure Valley. Each summer you can expect smoke from nearby fires to affect air quality in the region. (Source) Nearby fires may also impact travel around the Treasure Valley, and to popular destinations like the Sawtooth Mountains. 

Most people are not aware that wind-blown embers are the main cause of homes igniting during a wildfire. Dry, flammable debris like leaves in your gutters or branches on your roof can ignite long before the actual fire gets close. With some simple maintenance and regular clean-up around your home, these risks can be drastically reduced. 

Worst-Case Scenario

In August and September 2007, a lightning strike sparked the 48,000-acre Castle Rock wildfire near Ketchum, Idaho, threatening homes in the Sun Valley area. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The foothills surrounding the Treasure Valley could catch fire and threaten people and property. In 2016, the Table Rock Fire burned nearly 2,500 acres and destroyed one home. It was started by an aerial firework. Read more about the fire here.

In 2008, the Oregon Trail Fire destroyed 20 homes and led to the death of Boise State University professor Mary Ellen Ryder. Read more about this fire here.

There is a heightened risk of floods and landslides after wildfire. Wildfire can cause significant vegetation loss and expose highly-erosive soil, creating the conditions for a landslide. Such landslides are also called post-fire debris flows. Several of these debris flows struck Boise in 1959. You can watch When the Pot Boiled Over to learn more. You can also hear local geomorphologist and BSU Professor Dr. Jen Pierce discuss these events and the risk of future debris flows in this conversation with Idaho Matters.

In 1959, a brushfire followed by an intense rainstorm in the Boise Foothills led to massive debris flows, burying neighborhoods in east Boise under 10 inches of mud. This image from the informational video “When the Pot Boiled Over” illustrates the huge amount of sediment that homeowners had to remove in the aftermath. Original video sponsored by the US Dept. of Agriculture and Forest Service Intermountain Region.

How to Prepare

Historically, humans have caused more than 80% of wildfires in the Treasure Valley. People who live, work, or recreate in the foothills should be aware of the wildfire risk in the region and take precautions to exclude ignition sources that put homes and the environment at risk.

There are many simple steps homeowners can take to reduce their risks, making their family, property and community safer from the real threat of wildfire.

If the worst should happen and a wildfire starts in the Boise Foothills, the most immediate danger to you will be windborne embers spreading the flames to your home. You can minimize this risk by keeping your yard and gutters clean and clear of foliage and debris. 

A full-size model house catching fire in an airborne-embers experiment. The points of ignition are where dry kindling has accumulated, such as the gutters and the mulch around the house.
This life-sized wildfire experiment demonstrates how wildfires spread through clouds of embers igniting flammable materials near the home. Photo courtesy of the Insurance Institute of Business and Home Safety.

Even one day of clean-up can make a world of difference. Look at this backyard before and after checking for fire-hazards.

Before and after fire-prevention clean up. While the wooden fence still presents a risk, even a single day of cleanup means that this area is much less of a fire hazard. Courtesy of HCRI Co-Founder and Director Dr. Brittany Brand, 2020.

Before, airborne sparks could ignite dry grass and spread to the house; now, those sparks would burn out in the gravel. Consider how you can protect your home in the same way. 

The following Home Ignition Checklist can be used to identify steps you can take that are specific to your own home.

Courtesy of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), funded by the USDA Forest Service.

Now we can consider some local resources that can help you better protect your home and loved ones.

Actions You Can Take to Reduce Your Risk:

This tool from the USDA and US Forest Services allows anyone to see if they live in a wildfire hazard zone and what they can do about it. Courtesy of WildfireRisk.org.
  • Move wood piles at least 30 feet from homes and clear gutters of leaves and debris
  • Plant fire-resistant plants around your home
This diagram illustrates how you can take steps to protect your home. Start with the Immediate Zone around your house and work your way out. Courtesy of the NFPA.

How is this hazard impacted by a changing climate?

Wildfire seasons are getting longer and more intense. With the possibility of more fires in and around the Treasure Valley, smoke could be in the air longer and homes along wildfire-prone areas will be at higher risk. Air quality and opportunities for recreation or tourism will be affected. Longer fire seasons also mean post-fire debris flows could occur more frequently. (Source: NOAA – ID Climate Summary)

Written by Carson MacPherson-Krutsky and Caleb Tidwell. Edited by Captain Jerry McAdams from Boise Fire Department

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