Total Solar Eclipse August 21, 2017

Officials meet to discuss eclipse

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State, regional and local officials met for a few hours Tuesday morning at Idaho Falls’ downtown fire station to discuss plans for the August eclipse, which is expected to bring an unprecedented influx of tourists. The meeting was convened by the Idaho Office of Emergency Management and headed by Rob Mace, chief of the Training and Exercise Section.

It’s the first of three such meetings on the eclipse that Mace is holding around the state.

Mace said there is no plan for a preemptive disaster declaration in eastern Idaho, though that could change in the future if the need for such a declaration is demonstrated.

The meeting included emergency responders from counties throughout eastern Idaho, representatives of the business community, city and county government leaders, businesses, hospitals and other groups.

Estimates of the number of regional visitors for the Aug. 21 eclipse range upward of half a million, though one of the biggest problems is that there is no reliable way to predict exactly how many people might eventually show up.

Idaho Falls Fire Chief Dave Hanneman, who has taken the lead organizing much of the local response, said state and regional agencies are working together to establish effective lines of communication to provide “situational awareness, mainly about where the people are going to be.”

In order to facilitate the flow of traffic, Hanneman said the Idaho Transportation Department has committed to halting several construction projects in the region over the eclipse weekend.

Officials discussed several potential complications, many for the first time. Mace said it’s likely that many visitors from out of state may bring boats with them for fishing and other recreation throughout the region.

A chief concern is the importation of zebra or quagga mussels, two invasive species that are found in neighboring states. The mussels have a devastating impact on native aquatic wildlife, posing a major risk to eastern Idaho’s world-renowned fisheries. They also come with staggering economic costs as they can quickly foul or clog irrigation head gates, pipes and hydroelectric dams. With a large number of visitors, that means long potential lines at check stations to ensure the invasive mussels don’t establish a foothold in the Gem State.

Another major potential problem comes from a large number of campers, some of whom may not understand the threat of forest fires. Mace explained that U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials aren’t allowed to institute a preemptive burn ban, so unless they can demonstrate that campfires have been causing a spate of forest fires by mid-August, visiting campers may be allowed to start campfires. Then the challenge will be to make sure those fires can’t spark a major forest fire.

Sarah Flick, a tourism development specialist with the Idaho Department of Commerce, said her department is working with local businesses to help them best capitalize on the surge in demand tourism will cause. She also said with the heavy influx of tourists, the best advice for locals on eclipse day may to be to stay home and have a barbecue, avoiding congested roads, stores and other infrastructure.

Officials from Eastern Idaho Public Health also indicated that they are working to ensure that residents who are establishing food stands or other businesses to serve eclipse visitors are properly inspected for compliance with health and safety regulations. Not all businesses that serve food require licensing and inspection, but many do. And the rules for which businesses need to be licensed are themselves complicated.

“If they are trying to do some kind of food vending business they should get in touch with us so we can let them know whether they need to be inspected,” said Geri Rackow, director of the agency.

Rackow also said it’s vitally important that people renting land to visitors comply with regulations regarding the disposal of sewage and other waste.

“In the situations where people are thinking about renting out their farm fields, they need a plan in place for what they are going to do with sewage,” she said.

More information can be obtained by calling 208-523-5382.

The city of Idaho Falls is planning a July 26 community meeting to address residents’ questions about the eclipse.

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

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Source: Solar Eclipse 2017

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