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Land board pushes for increased funding to fight Idaho’s historic wildfires

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In the two decades leading up to 2016, Idaho had more acres burned in wildfires than any other state in the continental U.S., according to an Idaho Statesman analysis of federal wildfire data. (Photo courtesy of Ada County)

Commissioners want the state to request more engine captains, hazard pay and seasonal firefighters

The Idaho State Board of Land Commissioners voted Tuesday to ask the Idaho Department of Lands to increase its requests for resources and funding to battle wildfires over the next three years.

Led by Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, commissioners asked the Department of Lands leaders to incorporate each of the recommendations from a three-year fire plan into their budget requests.

That includes 2023 budget year requests for funding for additional engine captains, hazard duty pay for firefighters and funding for seasonal firefighters.

Department of Lands staff indicated that due to budget concerns from legislators, they were only planning to request five of the 10 engine captains and not request some of the other items recommended in the fire plan.

Wasden said he was concerned the state is already “behind the eight-ball” when it comes to resources for fighting fires.

“We (should) include all of the requests, the honest-to-God requirements, the honest-to-God — you used the word — needs, as outlined (in the three-year-plan),” Wasden said during the meeting. “That’s my motion that we approve these budget requests with those additions.”

The land board is made up of Idaho’s elected constitutional officers: Wasden, Gov. Brad Little, Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and State Controller Brandon Woolf.

The land board’s push to implement the recommendations arrives as Idaho and many Western states are experiencing a historic fire season due to drought and extreme heat.

Idaho Department of Lands Fire Management Chief Josh Harvey said a widespread shortage of manpower, engines and support is exacerbating the problem.

“We’ve never seen anything like it before,” Harvey told the land board. “In terms of fire history, we are living and making fire history right now.”

As of Aug. 11, fire suppression costs in Idaho were estimated at $51 million. Idaho Department of Lands Director Dustin Miller estimated that figure could increase by another $40 million to $50 million before the year’s fire season ends.

So far in 2021, the fire season on lands that receive fire protection from the Idaho Department of Lands is well ahead of the 20-year average.

Year-to-date, the 288 fires on lands that receive protection from Idaho Department of Lands year-to-date are 161% of the 20-year average. The 115,971 acres burned represent 578% of the 20-year-average, Miller said.

In total, more than 300,000 acres in Idaho have burned this year when other state lands, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, private land and other federal land is included, according to the Idaho Fire Incident Map.

“This fire season has been unprecedented and trying, to say the least,” Harvey said. “Unfortunately it’s not over yet.”

Harvey and Miller said warm, dry conditions are expected to continue and that fire danger is forecast to be above average in North Idaho and southwest Idaho through August and September.

State agencies are due to submit their 2023 budget requests to the state Sept. 1. Ultimately, the Legislature will vote on and set the 2023 budget during the 2022 legislative session that begins Jan. 10.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.