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Fire season picks up in north Idaho with lightning strikes

Firefighters Grace Shelton and Liz Garza dig handline on the Derr Pt fire earlier this month.
Photo by E. Hewitt/Kaniksu Wildland Fire Module
Firefighters Grace Shelton and Liz Garza dig handline on the Derr Point fire in north Idaho earlier this month.

Fire observers are out looking for signs that Friday's dry thunderstorm left its mark.

A late-starting wildfire season is now underway in north Idaho. Forest Service officials say a mostly dry lightning storm moved through the Panhandle last Friday and ignited several small fires.

They include the Eneas Peak Fire, which the agency says is visible from the Kootenai River Valley and most of the Bonners Ferry area. The fire is located about 15 miles north of Bonners Ferry.

Kary Maddox from the Idaho Panhandle National Forest says the largest fire burning in the area is the Diamond Watch fire. It began before last week's storm and has burned almost 400 acres on the Priest Lake Ranger District. It’s larger than the 40 or so other fires detected on Forest Service land in north Idaho this summer. She says it’s a hard-to-get-to blaze, but not a raging inferno.

“It’s a very patchy burn pattern. So when it hits a dry patch of fuel, they call it a jackpot, some dried out brush or a dead standing snag or something, that’ll burn pretty high intensity," Maddox said.

"For the rest of it, you can’t even see it in the overstory. The trees aren’t burning. There’s some low intensity brush and grasses. And the acreage is calculated based on the entire perimeter and what’s within it. They do not subtract for the unburned fuel," she said.

In many parts in the Northwest, the vast majority of fires are caused by people. Not so in the wild areas of north Idaho, Maddox says. Most of the fires there are sparked by lightning and, often, they’re not easily spotted.

She says agencies use a variety of tools, from lightning maps to lookout towers, to track fire starts. She says trained observers sometimes take to the air in small planes to spot smoke and flames.

“They’ll usually focus on the areas that have received the most lightning or have received lightning to be able to focus on the areas where it’s most likely to pick up fires and that happened this past weekend," she said.

Maddox says investigators are pursuing leads on other possible fires. She says it’s been an average season so far and that it’s too early to gauge how this year will compare with past years.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.