Those who know me best understand that I tend to get a bit on edge around this time of year. I know it's just a matter of time when I get the call — the one that has me dropping everything and scrambling out the door with my camera in hand.
It didn't help that I had a brush truck from the Mountain Home Rural Fire Department roar past me last Wednesday as I was heading home after a very busy day. I followed that truck for a short time as it continued toward the north end of town.
We got pretty lucky this time, but our community did have its first official brush fire of the season. It happened off Canyon Creek Road with our firefighters able to knock that one down fairly quick.
It appears this range fire was just a taste of what we could possibly expect to see this summer once everything dries out following this year's record-setting winter snowfall and subsequent flooding across the county. What's not helping is the persistent wind that continues to slap us in the face every chance it gets, which is going to dry things out a lot faster.
While the Bureau of Land Management predicts that Idaho's range fire season will remain fairly normal, Mountain Home Fire Chief Mark Moore anticipates that Elmore County could have "a very busy season." It's because all of the winter moisture has allowed a lot of vegetation to grow faster and taller than normal, especially highly flammable "cheat grass."
At the same time, our county hasn't seen the types of lightning storms that triggered wide-spread range fires that scorched western Idaho last year. This has allowed even more vegetation to grow and accumulate.
It almost appears that Mother Nature is trying to put more "logs" on the proverbial fire. It's especially going to be bad along major roadways, which is where a lot of these fires tend to start.
Starting next month, the BLM expects to start work to help mitigate this potential range fire threat. The bureau will start creating fire breaks along the interstate before moving on to the other highways and roads.
But as the fire chief pointed out, the BLM and other fire protection agencies only have so many people and vehicles to tackle these projects. They also don't have an endless pot of money to do everything they want.
What this means is there will be gaps in these planned fire breaks. This is why it's vital for all of us to remain on guard and to avoid being careless as we enjoy the great outdoors over the next few months.
Consider this: Elmore County nearly had a front-row seat last summer on what happens when someone gets careless. While it only scorched 2,600 acres, the Table Rock Fire in the Boise foothills allegedly started after a 19-year-old decided to shoot off illegal fireworks in the area.
Last week, an Ada County judge determined this young man could end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution. This means repaying the fire departments that battled the blaze in addition to compensating the homeowners who lost their homes and property as the result of his carelessness.
Let's not have something like this happen here, OK?
The city fire chief urges people to be aware of their surroundings and to do an extra "gut check" when they enjoy southern Idaho's picturesque beauty. This includes keeping vehicles away from tall patches of vegetation, especially off-road vehicles.
We remember all too well that it was an all-terrain vehicle parked alongside a mountain road that triggered the Trinity Ridge Fire back in 2012. By the time crews were able to contain that blaze, it had already torched 150,000 acres of prime national forest land and directly threatened the communities of Rocky Bar and Atlanta.
And just when we thought we were off the hook so to speak, we ended up dealing with two more major range fires the following summer. In both cases, the Pony and Elk Complex fires both started after thunderstorms blew through the area with lightning triggering both of them.
As much as we would like to think we're in charge, we don't have the ability to tell Mother Nature how to act.
During both of those fire seasons, we saw nearly a third of the county literally go up in flames. At one point, I had to wonder if there was anything in the county left to burn.
It's preventing fires like these that I want to address. With the weather starting to heat up and more people planning on heading to the mountains now that schools are out for the summer, it's imperative that all travelers remain "fire wise," regardless of their destination.
Also keep in mind that a lot of range land sustained massive damage during the 2012 and 2013 range fires. It could take a few more years or longer for these areas to fully "heal."
But we are seeing progress. In 2016, for example, the Bureau of Land Management gave the "all clear" for people to return to some of the areas that sustained heavy damage during the Pony and Elk Complex fires. However, they were still off limits to motorized vehicles.
Let's enjoy these areas once again, but let's do it smarter this time. After all, it takes is a moment of carelessness for one person to ruin all of the recreation outlets we enjoy.
Regardless of whether people head out on to the desert or up into the mountains, I'd urge all travelers to include some fire prevention measures with their vacation plans.
This includes keeping a close eye on campfires to make sure they are fully extinguished before leaving the camp site.
While I understand that people enjoy sighting in their weapons or simply go target shooting when they travel, please do it safely. Last week's range fire on Canyon Creek Road was linked to someone using steel bullets, which is the reason why I'm mentioning this safety tip.
For those that smoke, meanwhile, I recommend they do it in their vehicle when possible. Our county has seen its fair share of range fires in recent years where that likely began because someone carelessly discarded a cigarette butt by tossing it out a window as they drove somewhere.
Fire season is rapidly approaching, and it's likely that a county wide burn ban could go into effect within the next four weeks, if not sooner. As we continue to enjoy the natural wonders of southern Idaho, let's do it safely, because we've been lucky so far this year.
— Brian S. Orban