“We don’t know what kind of support we’re going to be able to get from other agencies,” said Sharla Arledge, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Lands, which is responsible for protecting state and some federal land. “It’s a tinderbox out there.”
More than 90% of the U.S. West is in drought. Forecasters expect the drought will persist at least through September across most of the region.
The nation’s wildland firefighting system is a network of local, state and federal agencies, and in Idaho includes a unique program where ranchers are trained and given equipment to keep wildfires small until help arrives. The vast majority of wildfires are put out within days, but some grow to thousands of acres and draw hundreds firefighters.
Major blazes that raged in Oregon, California, Washington and other states in 2020 revealed how stretched thin the ranks of firefighters have become. By September, with more than 30,000 firefighters deployed, there were so many fires burning that hundreds of requests for help went unfulfilled as agencies scrambled to get enough firefighters, aircraft, engines and support personnel.
Firefighters from across the U.S. and other countries including Canada and Israel were summoned to help fill the personnel shortage.
Idaho officials have struggled to retain state wildland firefighters who are sometimes poached by federal agencies after gaining on-the-ground experience. Starting pay for an Idaho wildland firefighter is $12.55 an hour.