It looks like a very bad water year in Idaho.

Could it also turn out to be another bad fire year? A really bad fire year?

Burned signs on the South Fork Salmon River 2007 © Ken Cole

Burned signs on the South Fork Salmon River 2007 © Ken Cole

With precipitation and snowpack somewhere around 75% of normal, it looks bad for fish and fires this year.

Rocky Barker asks whether it could be as bad as the 1910 fires.

Is Idaho ready for a repeat of the massive fires of 1910?
BY ROCKY BARKER – Idaho Statesman

See where the state stands water wise this year: Idaho SNOTEL Snow/Precipitation Update Report

24 Responses to “It looks like a very bad water year in Idaho.”

  1. Ken Cole Says:

    Of course Rocky concentrates on remarks about how conservationists should give up on trying to change anything.

  2. Talks with Bears Says:

    No snowpack by April 1 – are they modeling for north facing slolpes to turn south or is the sun going to accelerate it’s journey in the sky? BTW – fires have been sparse here in MT for the last two years – maybe we are due?

  3. dewey Says:

    Just an anomalous little factoid I can add to this topic. Big forest fires have become the norm in my region ( Cody WY ) since the horrendous Yellowstone firestorm of ’88.

    I’ve noticed that the Really Big Firestorms seem to come on the days of August 20-22. The huge Clover-Mist fire of 88 ran 15 miles on Aug 21 in Crandall WY east of Cooke City MT…blew completely past the US Army fire camp of 8,000 soldiers. The huge Gunbarrel Fire of 2008 in the Shoshone Forest west of Cody made it’s big run on August 21. There are other instances of this August 20-22 fire amplification.

    I might as well add that all those years I was going to the mountains on foot or horseback and kept journals, there was dependably a sudden episode of cold wet weather and snow in the Absaroka high country in the August 8-10 time frame in many years…the first hint of autumn weather.

    I hope Rocky Barker’s hypothesis that 2010 is setting up like 1910 is just a numerical coincidence, but I’m chiming in on it. The snowpack in the Absaroka Mountains along Yellowstone’s eastern divide is hovering at 50 percent of the 30-year average as I write this. And we’ve got hundreds of thousands of acres of beetle-killed pines there , drying out. This may indeed be another monster fire year in my nook of the woods, Greater Yellowstone.

    • JimT Says:

      Better not be as bad as 1910..estimates have that fire somewhere in the neighborhood over 3 million acres…

  4. Pronghorn Says:

    Snowpack at Lolo Pass–currently 48% of normal. The entire Bitterroot basin is at 51%. Yesterday we burned off last year’s tall, thick native grass and flower stalks around the house–getting ready for a bad season, should it materialize.

  5. Ralph Maughan Says:

    Last year it was so wet there were essentially no forest fires at all.

    It seems to me that really horrendous forest fire seasons take two years of below average precipitation.

    There have been a number of bad fire years in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming since the late 1990s. Whenever, I go to central Idaho I am once again reminded how much of it has already burned in the last 15 years. While you can have reburns, they are rarely big configurations.

    Some people point to the giant insect epidemic as a potential for great fires, but I see these dead forests as LESS flammable than dry green forests, except for that brief period when the trees just died and the needles are red and very explosive.

    I don’t think this summer will be like 1910, though it will probably be another pretty smoky summer. That is sorry news for Montana which seems to get all smoke from fires to its west.

  6. Si'vet Says:

    Ralph, I was in the LoLo at one of the moisture collection points last fall while it was being measured and refilled, they collect that moisture data close to Sept. 30th. I thought we had had good moisture as well, but in that part of the LoLo the hydrologist thought it was well short, about 57% of normal, with this year short, we could see a large burn in that area.

  7. Tim Says:

    There are some areas in the panhandle that need to burn, but with all the growth over the last two years it could get ugly. What are peoples opinions of prescribed burns in the spring? Is that an option?

    • Rtobasco Says:

      I am sure to raise the ire of quite a few with this one – but that’s half the fun.

      Controlled burns have their place and have proven to be a valuable tool in many cases. A major factor in past years that is currently absent from much of the Lolo zone is logging. There are 1,000’s of acres of timber that stands to be lost in a major fire event. Well managed logging (not like the old days of clear-cutting – though in some applications clearcuts have their place) can do much in the way of rejuvenating dying forests as well as help to control the occurence catastrophic fires. Modern practices protect key riparian areas and generally have less of an impact than what has historically occurred throughout much of the west. Logging will also help revive the depressed economy that plagues much of N Idaho.

    • Andy Says:

      Rtobasco… WOW, nice way to “stir that bucket”… Mind if I just sit and watch? 😀

    • Ken Cole Says:

      Logging isn’t necessarily going to help elk much unless the accompanying roads are closed to the public. One of the big issues with elk is road density.

      Also, logging does not mimic catastrophic fires it does something entirely different. Fire is an important part of the ecology of forests, I don’t think it should be viewed as a bad thing.

  8. Ralph Maughan Says:


    I think if the Lolo burns, I’d kind of welcome it except for sediment in the streams.

    For elk populations to be renewed in that area there is going to have to be a major event, one so big that it blasts us out of the biological and psychological rut we are stuck in there.
    – – – – –
    I kind of take that back, I’d hate to see Kelly Creek, Weitas Creek, Cayuse Creek and the Lochsa full of silt.

    • Rtobasco Says:


      Having looked at the reports and reading/observing the conditions in the Lolo zone I would agree that fire would be welcome over much of the area. In an ideal world such renewal would occur over several years in a mosaic fashion. However, with modern fire suppression being what it is I think I favor a catastrophic event that is more difficult to manage. Lolo could use it for a variety of reasons; restoring elk habitat and the general cleaning up that nature seems to do on occasion among them. Regardless of current conditions it seems the most reliable determining factor is the presence/absence of adequate spring and early summer rain. One of these years conditions are going to be right for something big up there. Maybe this year, maybe not. As usual it’s out of our hands.

  9. Nathan Hobbs Says:

    NRCS Snowpack levels for all of Idaho just as the news article suggests, many many bleak numbers.;jsessionid=F800ED6FDE2363BEAB1646FF0DFEFFED?report=Idaho&condensed=true

  10. Ralph Maughan Says:

    Look at the Snotel map.

    It’s a classic El Nino pattern — dry to the north and wet to the south.

    We hope to head south and look at the desert flowers soon.

  11. Si'vet Says:

    Tim, I have monitored 4 prescribed burns over the years,(in the Southern end of the state) each burn improved habitat mostly for elk, it improved mostly grass production, it didn’t seem to help much with mule deer I beleive they prefer to browse. In one instance it raised heck with the watershed. It would certainly could be beneficial up North due to the increased moisture, and the increased growth of vegetation. If the burn could be controlled and watersheds protected, particularly northern slopes may benefit.

  12. Si'vet Says:

    Ralph, a big fire would probably spell the end of that little salmon run up Weitas creek. I am torn as well, a big fire would certainly help, but it will come with a cost. Tim’s question is a good one, it makes you stop and re-think your priorities.

    • Ken Cole Says:

      I assume you are referring to the kokanee salmon run which are landlocked. I suspect a big fire would impact the cutthroat and bull trout to a much greater degree than it would kokanee but that is just speculation.

  13. Craig Says:

    Fires also help streams and land for nutients that have long been suppressed of them! Looking at everything in a one sided veiw is very wrong and not on the scientific nor long term view which MOST of you are bitching about!

  14. Craig Says:

    Do you realise that everything we have done has contributed to the benifit and the demise of our society?
    Everybody says remeber the good Ol’ days? Well they are long gone, everything we do now contributes to our demise 10 fold and it’s not ever going to get better no matter how much we try! With population increases the way they are we are on a course for mass destruction!
    We are born from the earth as is everthing we mine, make, extract ect. and we will become one again wether we like it or not! We have advanced to a point where we are getting beyond our means by population and resouces! Weather patterns, drought, famin ect are all going to take it’s toll and we will be gone in a short amount of time, in the universial scale.
    Just enjoy what we have left, it’s not going to ever get any better know matter how hard we try, never, it’s not possible with the way society is and the future weather changes ect. Pull your heads outta yer ass and enjoy what you can because it will only get worse from here! I hate to say it but I know 100% what I’m saying is true and it’s sad but we are on this course and there is no turning back!

  15. Andy Says:

    What a happy thought Craig! 🙂

    After reading the thread on fire in the Lolo area and it’s potential benefit toward increasing elk herds vs impacting silt build ups in streams vs nutrient deposits as a good side yada yada yada (does yada has one or two d’s? )…

    The “issue” that we have in the Lolo region is purely political. Groen and his buddies want to eliminate all the wolves in the area because they’re killing the remaining elk… forget the fact that the 1910 fires opened the area and changed the habitat and now it’s changing back… hey… Isn’t this the area that Lewis and Clark almost starved to death because there were no elk?…well at least not until the 1910 fires.

    OK… fires can be good for elk… bad for fish… good for nutrients… Maybe we could get Wildlife Services and Fish and Game to manage fire and weather too…

    OK… I’m sorry… I got too cynical… I blame Craig, he got me started 🙂

  16. eve Says:

    I agree that we are probably due for another bad wildfire year. I don’t agree that it could compare to the 1910 fire, but the reason has little to do with the fire’s acreage.

    A three million acre fire is not precedent-setting. Fires of that size and larger are not uncommon in Alaska and Canada.

    What was precedent-setting about the 1910 fire, was that by Saturday, Aug 20th, when the fire blew up, something like 2000 small fires were burning. Some of these had been started by lightning, others were human-caused or were sparked by trains on railroads, but even with thousands of small blazes alight, only a fraction of the total acreage of 3 million acres had burned prior to Aug 20th. However, over the next 36 hours, whipped by 80 mph winds, those small fires grew and combined to burn an estimated 1.5 to 2 million acres. It really seems impossible – such a massive acreage burning in only 36 hours, but it was a conflagration of freakish proportions, brought on by record heat and record dryness combined with record winds. As a comparison, the infamous “Black Saturday” of the Yellowstone Fires (by coincidence also a Saturday exactly 78 years later) burned about 150,000 acres in one day. I still remember that summer’s heat and the glow of the fires visible even during the day in Bozeman. I can’t even imagine what that weekend in 1910 would have been like, burning more than 10X that amount in about the same period.

    Ironically, the gale-force winds heralded an unseasonable cold front bringing rain and snow that all but extinguished the fire a couple of days later.

    Of course, a fire season to equal the acreage of the 1910 fires could happen again, but it is unlikely the exact combination of climatic and human events would combine to produce another catastrophic blowup like that one.

    What is certain in any dry year, is trophy homes will be threatened on the urban interface, and again the Forest Service will have to spend nearly half their budget protecting structures, instead of spending it doing badly needed resource management.

  17. JimT Says:

    There has been some talk in DC about actually splitting off a separate sub agency in the USFS to be tasked with only fighting fires, with its own budget, agency head, etc.

    The descriptions of the 1910 fires in Tim Egan’s book makes your jaw drop. For those of you who like history and a well written book, pick it up for the next coming of winter storms….

  18. Mike Koeppen Says:

    I have been lucky enough to have been going to the Lochsa River country since 1969. In the past forty years, I have seen big changes in both vegetation, and elk numbers.

    Each spring during the 1970’s, when we camped along the river, we saw elk everywhere on the hillsides and many on the highway. Dropped antlers were easy to find.

    Today, places along the river banks and slopes that were grass and brush, are now evergreen forests. The critical winter range is long gone. In the Lochsa climate, trees grow a lot in forty years. I think that if the large elk herds are ever to come back to the way they were, the country will have to burn. Otherwise, we’ll have to accept the status quo. Killing wolves in this area may help elk numbers in the short term, but it won’t solve the problem in the long run.

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