Day 1 Marsing, Idaho
AUGUST 9th, 2015 – 7:15 PM. Storm clouds build to the southwest of Boise, Idaho. High summer temperatures and moist air moving in from the Pacific Ocean cause the storms to explode in a matter of hours. Lightning flashes across the night sky as the storms roll towards the city of Boise, crossing acres of western ranchland in the process. Ranchers and their families sit down to dinner, unbeknownst to the tragic events set in motion by these storms.
At 9:00 PM, the storms cross just northeast of Jordan Valley, lightning continues to flash followed immediately by the roar of thunder. One strike zigzags across the sky, one of its many arms fatefully striking a sage brush. Not just any sage brush, the perfect terrible combination. Tall and bushy, yet dying, it is ready to combust. The lightning sizzles as it moves through the sage, igniting the plant instantly.
Day 2 Marsing, Idaho
AUGUST 10th, 2015 – 10:00 AM. In the morning, the first calls come in to the Boise Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Fire Dispatch. A small wildfire has started northeast of Jordan Valley. A Boise BLM air attack plane flies out to survey the fire. Slowly burning, no one can predict what this fire will become and the heartache it will cause.
At only 6,500 acres, the primary concern of the fire is sage grouse habitat. An icon of the American West, the sage grouse is in decline in this area of Idaho. The fire is currently burning across “priority” sage grouse habitat as established by the BLM. The firefighters are hoping to contain it to limit the damage to the ecosystem.
Day 3 Marsing, Idaho
AUGUST 11th, 2015 – 3:00 PM. The fire has ballooned to an astonishing 78,000 acres in just 36 hours. Reports coming into the BLM from firefighters battling the blaze suggest that parts of the fire moved up to 30 miles in a few hours. Video from a local weather service camera shows the fire crossing the busy Highway 95 in under 15 minutes.
Weather conditions were perfect for extreme fire behavior during the Soda Fire.
The rapid spread of the fire can be attributed to extreme fire conditions. Becoming all too common because of climate change, high wind, low humidity, and high temperatures are the signature of extreme fire conditions. Thirty to forty mile per hour winds, especially, helped the fire move so quickly over the last few hours.
Day 4 Marsing, Idaho
AUGUST 12th, 2015 – 11:00 AM. At 119,000 acres the Soda Fire continues to spread, although more slowly now. Numerous ranches and properties are now square in the fires sight, and local resources have been spread thin trying to manage the huge 107 mile perimeter of the fire. A federal Type I Incident Management Team has been called in to take over command of the fire.
Incident management teams are specially trained U.S. government teams that have extensive experience managing fires in as assigned area. A Type I team is the highest level team available and shows the gravity of the Soda Fire. It has become a serious threat to the region. The new team calls in additional firefighters and air resources in an effort to get the fire under control.
Day 6 Marsing, Idaho
AUGUST 14th, 2015 – 1:00 PM. The next update from the Incident Management Team does not come for a full 48 hours. Conditions on the ground once again deteriorated. Extreme fire conditions persisted for the full 48-hour period with a wind shift to the West. This pushed the fire rapidly across the landscape threatening ranches and even some homes. Efforts to contain were futile, and the fire more than doubled in size to 260,000 acres.
Cheatgrass burns hotter than most native grass species, and it covers more area, helping fire spread easier.
The Soda Fire burned hotter than most wildfires. Normally after the fire is out, survey teams see a patterned landscape indicating varying burn intensities. This Idaho landscape, however, was jet black. Everything burned. This can be attributed to the extreme fire conditions, but also the availability of large quantities of suitable fuel. Cheatgrass, an invasive species, covers this landscape and it helps promote the spread of fire.
Day 7 Marsing, Idaho
AUGUST 15th, 2015 – 7:00 PM. The last 30 hours have brought good news to the firefighters working so hard to contain this blaze. The fire only grew 16,000 acres to 276,000 acres. Winds largely died down and with larger teams now working the fire, substantial progress was made on containing the blaze. Wildland firefighters almost never actually extinguish a fire, the fire simply reaches some kind of fire break (road, water, plowed ground) and goes out when it has no more fuel to burn. High winds in the previous days meant the fire jumped most of the created fire breaks. Today, however, most of the breaks held.
It as too little too late for some. Although only one home was lost in the fire, many ranchers lost cattle and over 90% of their grazeable land.
Listen to Ed Wilsey discuss the impact of the fire on his ranch.
Without food for their cattle, many may be forced to sell all of them in an effort to survive. It will also take years for the range to recover and be able to support livestock. The ranchers will have to find alternate strategies for raising cattle in the meantime.
Day 8 Marsing, Idaho
AUGUST 16th, 2015 – 3:00 PM. The fire is largely under control at this point. Firefighters have contained it on three sides and are working to control the remaining active fire front, and with weather conditions on their side, it looks like the fire will be 100 % contained soon. At 280,000 acres it is the biggest fire the region has ever seen.
Efforts begin to shift to the effects of the fire and rehabilitation. The Soda Fire changed lives in the region. How will those effected by the fire cope with their losses, and what can be done to prevent another fire in the area? How will the local ecosystem respond? Is the fire actually a blessing in disguise? Will it give the BLM a chance to replant more native grasses, lowering the amount of cheatgrass? These questions and more are discussed in Voices of Fire.