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'We’re not going to go and put our people in harm's way' Why fire officials say it takes months to put out wildfires

Posted at 4:45 PM, Sep 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-15 18:49:01-04

MAGIC VALLEY — Wildfires throughout the western United States have scorched through more than a million acres in the past year. Some wildfires continue to burn and will take months to be completely put out.

But fire officials say many factors contributing to why these fires take so long to be put out, one of them being safety.

“By the textbook, a human being cannot approach a fire that is more than four-foot flame lengths. If you were to look at the fire behavior here and you see flame lengths that are higher than four feet, people should not be anywhere near there. So then we move into what is called an indirect attack.” Heather Heward, a Fire Science Professor University of Idaho, said.

This indirect attack involves fighting the fire from a distance. On occasion, fire officials will use a burnout or back fire-a fire to help reduce the fuel before the wildfire arrives.

“What you’re trying to reduce here is you got this big beasty fire over here, and it’s putting up all these embers. Then those embers have a chance to travel a long way. So we need to build our control lines some distance away so that when those embers come from the main fire, they are landing inside our control line, or there’s nothing for them to burn when they land there," Heward said.

Fire officials say those embers are what is causing some of these wildfires to grow more rapidly.

“Fire does not only spread through direct flame contact. It is spread through what is called embers which are these little pieces of burning vegetation that leave the trees that are torching, and they can land some distance even a mile away, and start a new fire," Heward said.

On top of all of this, the hot and dry conditions make it much harder for firefighters to be able to fight these extensive fires.

“Firefighters can take advantage of lower temperatures, higher humidity, precipitation events. But if we don’t get those events then there are no days where we have advantages to be able to control these fires," Heward said.

Three main elements contribute to fire behavior: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Not being able to control some of these elements is what makes it more challenging to put out certain wildfires quicker.

“We can’t take away the oxygen from the air that's out of the question. Taking away the heat has become more challenging because we are having really warm days and also extended periods with warm days, and so our only option to take away the fire suppression is to take away the fuel," Heward said.

This is why prescribed burns and backfire burns are used to reduce fuel loads that make these wildfires even worse.

Fire officials say reducing fuel is just one of the solutions moving forward.

“I think a lot of it goes back to forest management and forest use. Being able to remove some of the dead and down material in the forest before it starts on fire and burns. Letting those grazing allotments be used so that cattle ranchers can put cattle up there and keep the fuels at a shorter level. That helps us significantly in our fire protection and mitigation in the future," Aaron Zent, Fire Chief for Rock Creek Fire, said.

Some wildfires are still burning throughout the Gem State but fire officials say the cooler temperatures approaching will help firefighters put them out quicker.

“But thankfully, we are expecting rain in the northwest and hopefully into Idaho this weekend. Which we are hoping will be what we call a season-ending weather event. Which usually means we are going to get enough rain so that hopefully firefighters will be able to make progress on these wildfires," Jessica Gardetto, with the National Interagency Fire Center, said.