Common Causes of Wildfires in Idaho
Principles & Practices
Everyone has heard Smokey Bear say "Only you can prevent forest fires", but what most people do not know is that you ACTUALLY CAN. Many are surprised to hear that the number one cause of wildfires in Idaho is people.
Common Cause of Wildfires in Idaho
Raising awareness is the first step toward wildfire prevention. Idaho Firewise works to raise awareness about the most frequent human causes of wildfires.
Arson is the intentional and wrongful burning of property (Black’s Law Dictionary) and accounts for 25 percent of all fires in the United States and, in some areas, causes over 20 percent of human-caused wildland fires.
Arsonists set fires for many reasons - profit, excitement, revenge, vandalism, other crime concealment or extremism/terrorism. However, fire play or curiosity is the leading suspected motive. On average, a serial arsonist is is suspected of setting 35 fires before being apprehended.
The way to prevent arson is through aggressive prosecution. Help fire officials catch these individuals - if you suspect arson, contact authorities immediately. Early identification is critical.
Arson Prevention Guidelines
Arsonists use many different ways to ignite a fire such as fireworks, matches, tracer bullets, incendiary devices or a lighter.
- Recognize the warning signs of juvenile fire setting.
- Report unusual behavior of individuals in the area of a fire.
- Be prepared to identify those individuals. Note height, weight, age, hair color, race, gender and identifiers such as tattoos, body piercings or physical handicaps.
- Be prepared to identify vehicles or other forms of transportation used by an arsonist, such as a bicycle or motorcycle. Note make, model, color and, most critically, license plate number.
- Note the direction of travel and number of appearances on the scene by suspicious persons.
Who is responsible?
Arson is a felony. A convicted arsonist may be imprisoned or ordered to pay for damages to property and/or life that result from this criminal act.
It's hard to imagine a camping trip without toasted marshmallows and ghost stories around a campfire. Without proper safety etiquette, however, your campfire could turn your lovely trip into a wildfire disaster.
Sometimes, it isn't safe to have a campfire. If the surroundings are very dry and fire danger is high, campfires are often banned. Respect these bans - they are for your safety. Check the Idaho Fire Info website for campfire restrictions.
Choose a Safe Location
Most campgrounds have fire rings, which prevent campfires from spreading. The fire ring was likely built in a safe spot. However, sites often change. There may now be a branch overhanging the fire ring or brush close by.
Unless an established fire ring is in a dangerous spot, use it. Make sure the fire ring is downwind and at least 15-feet from your tent, firewood and any trees, bushes, logs, stumps, overhanging branches and dry grass.
If the fire ring isn't safe, or your campsite doesn't have a fire ring, you will need to create one. Find a spot that meets the above criteria and follow the steps below.
Prepare the Area
Clear the area of combustible materials. It is best to clear a circle that extends five-feet out from the fire pit down to bare soil. A spark can easily ignite twigs and dry leaves. Fires can even spread underground through root systems or decaying material.
Next, dig a shallow pit about two-feet across. Encircle the pit with medium-sized rocks. Space rocks tightly, eliminating gaps that could allow sparks to escape. Remove any small, loose stones that could explode from the fire’s heat.
- Resist the temptation to build a bonfire. Compared to a small fire, a large fire emits more sparks and has sparks that can drift farther. A larger fire is also much more difficult to extinguish.
- Be careful what you burn. Use firewood that easily fits within your fire pit. Avoid burning fresh branches that give off excess sparks and smoke.
- Be ready to extinguish your fire. Make sure you have a large bucket of water or sand and a shovel on hand to extinguish flames. Do not even light that first match until you place these items near the fire pit. Keep them there whenever a fire is burning.
Safely Light Your Campfire
Use a lighter or match. Do not use lighter fluid or any other chemical accelerates and make sure used matches are cool to the touch before discarding.
Never leave your campfire unattended. Despite all precautions it could escape and cause a wildfire disaster.
Extinguish Your Campfire
Fully extinguish your campfire before going to sleep or leaving your campsite. Thoroughly soak your fire with water. Hot embers can smolder for hours, so make sure fires are completely extinguished by stirring coals and adding more water until thoroughly doused. Cover coals with dirt or sand. Finally, feel the ashes with your hand to make sure no hot coals remain.
What is summer without a road trip? Every year, millions of people take to the road. However, many people don’t realize how many wildland fires are caused by vehicles. The National Fire Protection Agency reports that three-fourths of highway vehicle fires resulted from mechanical or electrical malfunctions.
Your vehicle and trailer provide many ignition sources - improperly greased bearings, dragging trailer chains, failing catalytic converters, older exhaust systems that allow carbon build up, flat tires or a lack of regularly scheduled maintenance. Maintain and use your vehicle responsibly to reduce wildfire risk.
Perform all regularly scheduled maintenance on your vehicle and trailer. Have vehicles inspected annually by a trained professional technician.
- Check fluids. Brakes or transmissions that overheat due to lack of fluid can shatter, casting off hot metal fragments.
- Watch for fluid leaks. Check vehicles for cracked or blistered hoses and wiring with loose, exposed metal or cracked insulation. Have these conditions repaired as soon as possible.
- Grease wheel bearings. Trailers that sit unused for long periods of time and those exposed to water need more attention.
- Check tire pressure and wear to prevent blow-outs.
- Be alert to changes. A louder than usual noise from your exhaust, smoke coming from the tailpipe or a backfiring exhaust system could indicate problems. Catalytic converters can break down, ejecting particles as hot as 1,600°F. If you suspect exhaust or emission problems, have the vehicle inspected and repaired as soon as possible.
- Keep your vehicle aligned. A misaligned axle can cause a tire to ignite.
- Check trailer safety chains to make sure they are not hitting the ground. Dragging chains can throw sparks.
Vehicle Use Guidelines
Stay on designated roads and never park or drive over dry grass. The exterior of your exhaust system can reach temperatures of 2,800°F and easily ignite dry grass and brush. Obey posted speed limits and other traffic rules and remain alert to changing road conditions.
Who Is Responsible?
You could be held liable for costs associated with a fire started by an unmaintained vehicle.
Open burning of crop residue is used to improve yields, reduce the need for herbicides and pesticides and reduce fire hazards.
But smoke generated by crop residue burning can endanger public health. To minimize this risk, state rules govern when, where and how crop residue may be burned. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (IDEQ) regulates burning on lands other than Tribal lands. For information on field burning on a reservation, contact the appropriate Tribe.
Restrictions and Requirements
Crop residue burning may only be conducted with an Idaho Burn Permit. Permits are based on: air quality conditions; proximity to towns, schools, roads, hospitals, and canyon rims and other susceptible topography; the order of requests received; and other relevant factors.
In addition, only burn:
- On IDEQ-designated burn days.
- On weekdays (no burning on weekends or state/federal holidays).
- During daylight hours (after sunrise and before sunset).
- In the field where the crop residue was generated.
Fields may be ignited by reburn machines, propane flamers or other devices. Materials such as tires may not be used.
Who is responsible?
Anyone starting a fire is responsible for that fire until it is out. If your fire spreads, you can be held responsible and liable for property damages and fire suppression costs.
On average, about one out of every five human-caused wildfires is started by someone burning debris or trash. Many are started when people violate burn restrictions.
Know where and when burning is allowed.
In order to avoid costly fines and citations make sure you know where and when burning is allowed. In Idaho, Burn Permits are required between May 10 and October 20. During times of high fire danger or air quality problems, burning may be further restricted or halted entirely. Failure to get a burn permit may result in an unnecessary fire call as well as fines.
Some cities and other jurisdictions - including local or county fire departments, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (IDEQ), Tribal Reservations, and others - may have additional or alternate permit systems in place. If that’s true for your burn site and type of burning, then you will be provided instructions on how to apply for a permit from those entities.
Compliance with air quality regulations is required at the time of burning. You can check air quality conditions at the IDEQ Real-Time Air Monitoring webpage or contact the appropriate Tribe if you plan to burn within Reservation boundaries. You can also go to the IDEQ website for more information about the health impacts of burning, burn restrictions and bans, crop residue and residential burning, wood stoves and wildfires. Contact an IDEQ office in your area for local information.
This is important - anyone starting a fire may be responsible for that fire until it is out. If your fire gets away, you can be held responsible and liable for any property damage and fire suppression costs.
Before you burn
Debris burning may be conducted only on days designated by IDEQ as burn days. An acceptable burn day occurs when air quality is good and is expected to continue to be good, as indicated by pollutant levels.
Burn approval decisions are also based on the proximity of the site to towns, schools, roads, hospitals, canyon rims and other types of susceptible topography, the order of burn requests received from applicants for that day and other relevant factors.
- Obtain a burn permit when needed and comply with the conditions of that permit.
- Know what is and is not OK to burn (see Burn Safely).
- Make sure you are compliant with local air quality regulations.
- No weekends. No burning is allowed on weekends and state and federal holidays.
- Burn during daylight hours (after sunrise and before sunset).
Before you begin
Remember the steps you take before you strike make all the difference. There are simple precautions that you can take to prevent escaped fires.
- Watch the weather. Avoid burning on windy, hot and dry days. Wait to burn if winds are over eight mph, temperatures are above 80°F and/or thunderstorm activity is predicted.
- Be prepared. Have enough people, water and equipment/hand tools available to control the fire.
- Dress appropriately. Wear long sleeves and pants, a hat and leather gloves and boots. Use a bandanna over your month to protect your lungs.
- Make a firebreak before you start.
- Ignite against the wind when burning fields, ditch banks or fence lines.
Build piles in openings away from structures, trees, overhead branches and power lines. Clear litter and grass a minimum of five- to six-feet away from piles.
- Keep piles small. Piles should be approximately four- to five-feet in diameter and height. High, narrow piles burn better than low, wide ones.
- Covered piles can be burned during periods of wet weather when escape is not a concern. Remove plastic covering before burning piles.
- Keep piles free of dirt. Wet or dirt-covered materials burn poorly causing fires to smolder and emit more smoke.
- Check with your local fire department before burning slash piles that include large trees which burn hotter than piles with smaller diameter debris and generate flying embers that may be difficult to control.
Burning in barrels
Before using a burn barrel (incinerator) make sure it is legal to do so in your area. If you have regular trash pickup, burn barrels may be illegal. Your fire department may have specific requirements for burn barrels.
- Burn barrels should be at least 10-feet from combustible materials such as walls, fences and roofs. They must have a metal screen (spark arrestor) with openings no larger than one-half inch so embers cannot escape.
- Place barrels on bricks or concrete blocks and cut small holes in the bottom to create a draft that will help fires burn hotter with less smoke. Holes also allow rainwater to drain, which prolongs the life of the barrel.
- Stay and monitor your fire until it is out and never leave ANY fire unattended.
The use of firearms for hunting and target practice is a long-standing right and tradition in Idaho. In recent years there has been an increase in wildland fires started by careless target shooting.
Firearms Use Guidelines
Check for restrictions where you plan to shoot. Some areas may be closed to shooting to protect wildlife habitat and other resources. Other restrictions may be posted.
- Never shoot tracer or incendiary ammunition.
- Do not shoot steel-core or bi-metal bullets during fire season. If a bullet is attracted to a magnet, it contains steel.
- Have a shovel, water and fire extinguisher ready.
- During fire season, avoid shooting at rocks, metal, dry vegetation or exploding targets.
- Avoid shooting on hot, dry and/or windy days.
- Clean up your targets and casings.
Who Is Responsible?
The deliberate misuse of firearms can lead to fines and citations. You may be held liable for a wildfire that starts from your shooting.
The 4th of July means fireworks. However, even small fireworks are dangerous. Every year, fireworks cause more than 32,000 fires, destroy more than 3,000 structures and vehicles and lead to 10,000 emergency room visits.
Fireworks are illegal in many areas, including federal land. Know where you can use fireworks and the types allowed. To learn more, visit the National Council on Firework Safety website and test your knowledge by taking their firework safety quiz.
Firework Use Guidelines
Only designated adults to should light fireworks. Put the used fireworks in a bucket or water and have a garden hose ready to extinguish any sparks.
- Light one firework at a time, move away quickly and keep a safe distance until the display is finished.
- Only use fireworks outdoors and far from anything that can burn.
- Never throw fireworks or hold them in your hand.
- If a device does not light or fire wait at least 15-minutes, then let an adult approach it carefully.
- Keep matches and lighters out of children's sight and reach.
- Clean up all debris.
Who Is Responsible?
Deliberate misuse of fireworks can lead to fines and citations. You may be liable for a wildfire that starts as a result of firework use.
Careless smoking can cause fires especially during hot weather when vegetation is dry. Often, the smoker walks away without realizing what he/she has done. Pay attention to fire danger ratings and fire restrictions. In Idaho, fire restrictions place limitations on smoking.
- Discard all smoking materials properly, whether you are smoking in a concrete parking lot or a dry, grassy field.
- Never throw smoking materials from a car. Doing so is considered littering. Use your car's ashtray.
- Make sure butts are completely out before throwing them in the trash.
- Smoke only in designated areas and discard smoking materials in approved receptacles.
- Do not discard butts in landscaped areas - many types of mulch are extremely combustible. Butts can smolder for a long time in these environments.
Who is responsible?
Carelessly discarding cigarette butts can lead to fines and/or citations. If a fire starts from your cigarette you may be liable for damages to property and/or life that resulted from your careless act.