Total Solar Eclipse August 21, 2017

Eclipse visitors spark fire fears

Local public land managers are bracing for this month’s solar eclipse, warning that it brings major risks of wildfire.

The expected large crowds will present a twofold danger. On the one hand, there will be many more people present who could carelessly cause a fire. On the other, all those people will clog roads making getting firefighting equipment to the scene, and evacuating people from the path of a fire, much more difficult.

From a wildland firefighter’s perspective, the sun could hardly have picked a worse day to hide behind the moon. Aug. 21 is near the peak of fire season, when grasses are at their driest and firefighting resources are in high demand to battle wildfires throughout the West.

“We’re talking about an event that’s happening in August, which is the peak of our fire season. We live in a desert area and grasses are incredibly dry at that time. Add half a million people traveling into the area, sparks from vehicles, parking on dry grass, there are big concerns,” said Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Sarah Wheeler.

The BLM and the Caribou-Targhee National Forest have agreed to institute Stage 1 fire restrictions on public lands beginning Aug. 14, Wheeler said. That means no campfires will be allowed except in iron fire rings that are only available at established campgrounds. Smoking will only be allowed in enclosed vehicles or in areas where all flammable material has been cleared away for a three-foot radius. All fireworks have been, and will continue to be, illegal.

The ways for a fire to start are legion.

Trailers that allow chains to drag and spark have caused several recent fires, Wheeler said. Trucks heading up two-tracks with overgrown grass in the center can get grass lodged in the undercarriage and catch fire. A hot vehicle can catch grass on fire by parking on it. A spark thrown from an ATV or a dirt bike could cause a disaster.

“It’s all these little things that we don’t think about under most circumstances,” Wheeler said.

With many visitors expected from areas where wildfires are small and rare, the awareness of fire dangers may far lower than usual. And many from outside the area won’t be familiar with the back roads.

“Fires can move very quickly,” Wheeler said. “We want to try to prevent them. Because trying to evacuate a lot of people who aren’t familiar with the area could be very challenging.”

The BLM and Forest Service are planning to station firefighting equipment at strategic locations throughout the region. But Wheeler said the bottom line is that every measure must be taken to prevent a wildfire from starting in the first place.

“During the eclipse, it’s something we just can’t afford to have. People need to take precautions and do their part,” Wheeler said.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.

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Source: Solar Eclipse 2017

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