Several Idaho researchers have joined fire scientists from across the country to ask people to avoid using fireworks this Fourth of July amid widespread drought and heightened concerns about wildfire risk. Their plea comes at the same time that Idaho fire management agencies issued a similar request, amid a worsening wildfire outlook for Idaho.
Moji Sadegh, an assistant professor of civil engineering, was one of four Boise State University scientists who signed an open letter with more than 100 experts urging the public not to use fireworks of any kind.
“There’s just too much at stake here, both from a natural point of view and a societal point of view,” Sadegh said in a phone interview.
Representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Department of Lands and Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center held a news conference Thursday asking people to opt for public firework displays rather than lighting off their own. The fire managers cited the same concerns as the scientists and said Idaho has an above-average risk for significant wildfire for the rest of the summer.
SOME FIREWORKS ALREADY BANNED, BUT SCIENTISTS URGE EXTINGUISHING ALL
Some Idaho towns and counties, including Ada County, have already implemented bans on fireworks in high-risk areas this summer. All types of fireworks are banned in unincorporated Ada County following a county commission vote in June. On the Bureau of Land Management’s public land, even possessing fireworks is forbidden.
However, “safe and sane” fireworks like sparklers and smoke bombs are still legal within city limits. Idaho also allows the sale of aerial fireworks such as Roman candles, bottle rockets and firecrackers with a controversial “loophole” — buyers must sign a waiver promising they won’t use the aerial fireworks in Idaho.
In addition to the four researchers from BSU, one from Idaho State University, one from the Idaho Department of Lands and eight from the University of Idaho signed the open letter from scientists, which was published in The Conversation on Wednesday. The plea called for people to avoid all fireworks — even the “safe and sane” type.
“We are gravely concerned about the potential for humans to accidentally start fires — from fireworks and other activities — by adding ignitions to this combination of historic drought, heat and dry vegetation,” the experts wrote. “We urge people to skip the fireworks this July 4th and to avoid other activities that could start an unintentional wildfire.”
Nathan Mietkiewicz, an author of an article cited by the letter and another signer of it, said in a phone interview that “if you’re looking at human(-caused) fires across the whole U.S. for the day before the Fourth of July, Fourth of July and the day after the Fourth of July, humans account for 6,502 ignitions in the (wildland-urban interface) alone.”
The data on fire ignitions in the Western U.S.’s wildland-urban interface shows the holiday anomaly vividly.
These areas, where houses meet the Foothills or desert, are particularly dangerous for fireworks because the impact on homes and people can be disastrous, but there’s also a lot of fuel to burn.
Even people far from the wilderness need to be careful, though. Mietkiewicz said that embers can travel almost a mile “and still be hot enough to start another fire.”
Jared Jablonski, spokesperson for the Boise District of the Bureau of Land Management, said that since 2010, there were 11 fires caused by fireworks in the Boise area.
He emphasized that even the “safe and sane” type of fireworks can be hazardous. “Sparks are coming off of those sparklers, the little ground flowers. They move around and you get showers of sparks.” After use, Jablonski encouraged adults to douse the small fireworks in water.
Reducing fires starts will reduce chances to ignite them.
“What you need for a big fire is one spark,” said Sadegh. “So, if I, as a person — as a resident of Idaho — decided not to use fireworks this year, that one spark that I would have created might have caused a big fire. That’s just saving one big fire. And that’s huge.”
FIRE MANAGERS: IDAHO’S WILDFIRE RISK IS GROWING
Fire managers from state and federal agencies presented a grim wildfire forecast for Idaho on Thursday, calling this “the most challenging wildfire conditions we’ve seen in Idaho in a long time.”
“Normally, I purchase a healthy supply of fireworks for my family’s enjoyment and celebrations. This year’s different,” said Josh Harvey, fire management bureau chief for the Idaho Department of Lands, in the press conference.
The state, which had a normal wildfire risk in June, now has an above-average potential for significant fires for the next two months, said Nick Nauslar, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center.
“A warm and dry spring has really exacerbated the drought conditions across Idaho,” Nauslar said during the news conference. He reported that nearly 90% of the state is currently in drought, compared to just 10% last year.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, all of Southwest Idaho is now in either moderate or severe drought. Just a few weeks ago, some parts of the region were considered merely “abnormally dry.” The current conditions are more than five times the drought area seen this time last year, Nauslar said.
That means fuels across the state — grasses, shrugs and timber — are also slightly drier than normal. Fuel moisture in Southwest Idaho is currently around 7-8%, which is lower than average. Firewood that’s sold in stores is typically around 15% fuel moisture, Sadegh said.
According to NIFC data, there’s currently only one uncontained wildfire burning in Idaho: the 137-acre Fritzer Fire near Salmon. But numerous fires are burning in other states, meaning firefighting resources are already starting to be stretched.
Fire managers urged Idahoans to reduce their likelihood of starting a fire by checking their vehicle for dragging metal, ensuring their campfires are out and following shooting restrictions in place for the summer months.
“If you have too many fires happening at the same time, we do not have the resources to stop them,” Sadegh said. “If we cannot suppress all those small fires when they happen, some of them can become really big. The outcome is just disastrous.”