Friday, October 30, 2015

Idaho Army National Guard proposes reducing number of sites, facilities across the state

For the third year, the Idaho Army National Guard has submitted a proposal to Congress that would result in not only modernizing local Idaho National Guard facilities across the state, but also reducing the number of armories – or readiness centers. 

The Idaho National Guard now has facilities in St. Anthony, Rexburg, Idaho Falls, Blackfoot, Pocatello, Preston, Burley, Twin Falls, Gooding, Jerome, Hailey, Mountain Home, Nampa, Caldwell, Emmett, Payette, Grangeville, Orofino, Moscow, Lewiston, Post Falls, Bonners Ferry, Rigby, Driggs, Twin Falls, Wilder, and Boise.

This proposal, which is part of a nationwide Readiness Center Transformation Master Plan, involves setting priorities 30 to 40 years into the future, contingent on congressional approval and funding. 

In 2011, Congress asked the National Guard Bureau to study readiness centers across the nation to determine if those facilities – including some constructed nearly 60 years ago – remain viable today. The average age of Idaho’s readiness centers is 44 years. Size, safety, energy efficiency, maintenance costs and location were some of the factors considered. 

The 54 states and territories submitted their results to the National Guard Bureau and the final report was submitted to Congress on December 19, 2014. The Idaho Army National Guard’s study determined that all but two of the existing readiness center sites — Mountain Home and Gowen Field in Boise —have insufficient acreage for expansion. That means 24 of the 26 sites do not suitably accommodate soldiers and unit equipment, and as a result are being considered for closure. 

The proposal would leave Idaho with nine readiness centers in the vicinities of Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Twin Falls, Post Falls, and the Lewiston-Moscow area, as well as four in southwestern Idaho’s Treasure Valley. 

“When we construct facilities, they’re built with the next 67 years in mind, and during that lifespan we can plan to conduct one major and two minor remodels in order to keep conditions safe and efficient for our personnel,” said Maj. Lee Rubel, a planning officer with the Idaho Army National Guard’s Construction Facility Management Office. “For our buildings that were constructed in the 1950s and 60s, we need to plan the end of their life cycle.” 

Encroachment is another factor. Many of these facilities were built on remote tracts of land donated to the Guard by the city or county and away from town centers. But in many cases the communities have grown and now envelope the sites, limiting their ability to expand. Additionally, federal guidelines now include new mandates regarding storage, square footage per soldier, and distances between perimeters and structures – all requiring additional space. 

“If the Guard needs to remodel a building, most likely there’s a need for additional land to expand and in most cases, the current lots are too small for additional square footage, force protection perimeters and even vehicle parking,” Rubel said. 

Current personnel and future recruits also are considerations, and the demographics have changed. Recruiting populations have shifted over the past 50 years to larger regional population centers. The plan attempts to establish sites within 50 miles of these population centers. In some cases the Guard’s study found readiness centers located in communities without a single local soldier being assigned there. 

South-central Idaho’s Magic Valley is considered the first to undergo consolidation because that region spans such a large area. 

“It is a command and control issue for leaders of units that sprawl across a large geographical area,” said Col. Farin Schwartz, Construction Facility Management Officer for the Idaho Army National Guard. “A commander uses so much of his or her precious time just commuting while circulating though the units. This proposal would reduce that. It would also facilitate a commander’s ability to rapidly coordinate and respond to a state emergency by having personnel and equipment consolidated in regionally strategic locations.” 

Each transfer of property during the transitioning process for readiness center sites will be individually evaluated. The arrangement between the State and federal governments in funding readiness center sites requires the State to provide at least 25 percent of the cost and the land, while the federal government provides 75 percent of the total cost. That amounts to a community getting a $20 million facility for a State investment of $5 million.

Friday, October 23, 2015

A look back at the 2015 fire season

Submitted by the Idaho Department of Lands

(BOISE) - As the end of October nears, a five-month long fire season - one of the worst on record for northern Idaho - slowly cools off.

The Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) and two timber protective associations have been fighting fire since May and are still mopping up fires this week. Together we have put out close to 300 fires that burned 75,000 acres, racking up close to $80 million in fire suppression costs - about $60 million of which Idaho taxpayers will pay. Fire managers are still encouraging the public to report fires as soon as they see smoke.

Nearly half the fires fought were human caused.

The total number of fires on lands protected by the State of Idaho was a fairly typical 89 percent of the 20-year average, while the number of acres burned was huge - 594 percent of the 20-year average.

The vast majority of wildfires are put out before they reach ten acres. However, but the fires that escape initial attack cost taxpayers the most money to suppress. That's particularly true when the fires require the use of an incident management team.

Fourteen IDL fires required the use of 27 incident management teams. The teams are interagency groups of fire management professionals specially trained and experienced in managing complex wildfires.

Agencies order a team when a fire escapes initial attack and is expected to exceed the agency's local district resources. There are high costs associated with the use of Type 1 and Type 2 incident management teams.

The largest, most expensive fires were the Clearwater Complex fires that destroyed 48 homes and 70 other buildings near Kamiah in Idaho County in August. Those fires cost more than $25 million to suppress and burned more than 68,000 acres.

A total of 63 residences and 79 other structures were lost this year in fires fought by the State of Idaho.

Approximately 740,000 acres burned across the state in 2015, nearly 80 percent owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, Idaho's two largest land managers.

Approximately 28,000 acres of endowment lands managed by IDL burned. Of that, 7,000 acres of endowment timber land burned, creating opportunities to make more money for public schools through 15 planned fire salvage sales that will produce 88 million board feet of timber and 5,500 acres of regenerated forests into the future.

The other 1,500 forested endowment lands that burned are too rocky and steep or hold minimal volume to be cut and then replanted. Fourteen of the 15 IDL fire salvage sales will be sold by the first of the year and harvest operations already have started on one of them.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Weitas Creek Bridge across the North Fork of the Clearwater River re-opens

The historic Weitas Creek Bridge, closed in 2009 has been re-opened. The bridge was placed across the North Fork of the Clearwater River in the late 1930s as part of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project. 

The impromptu ribbon cutting ceremony and signing of the order to open the bridge occurred on September 28 during a field tour for Forest and Regional recreational program staff. 

In addition to Forest staff, Alex and Julia Irby were at the bridge site for the ceremony. Alex and Julia have a long history of enjoying recreational opportunities along the beautiful North Fork River; Alex is currently co-chair of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative (CBC) Recreation Sub-Committee and a founding member of the Public Lands Access Year round (PLAY) group.

Don Ebert, Clearwater County Commissioner extended his regrets for not being able to attend the ceremony. However, he let Forest staff know how much he appreciated the invitation and the fact that the bridge had been restored to a serviceable condition.

He noted that his appreciation was not only personal but that of the county government and the people of the area. He thanked all of those folks that had a part in the success.

Clearwater County and surrounding communities will benefit from reopening the bridge as it restores access to the Weitas Creek Campground. Access is also restored to recreational opportunities that have not been available in recent years including access to the lower Weitas Creek for OHVs, motorcycles, stock users, outfitters, fisherman, and hikers; and access to an approximate 100-mile looped single track motorcycle route. 

The bridge was closed six years ago due to public safety concerns. The original estimate to repair the bridge was approximately two million dollars; a price tag the Forest just couldn’t afford. Over the years, Forest staff along with community partners explored alternative funding sources while Forest engineer, Travis Mechling, explored ways to lower the cost of needed repairs. 

In January of 2013 the Forest completed a preliminary engineering analysis on how to best repair the bridge and refine the repair estimate provided by the earlier study. From this study, it appeared that repairing the bridge was an economically feasible option.

This more economical proposal included completing a fracture critical inspection and a subsurface scour investigation to determine scour potential. As part of the proposal, inspections of all steel tension members and connecting pins to insure soundness were completed, and no unforeseen concerns with the steel superstructure were found. This left only the two primary safety concerns regarding the bridge pier caps and footings to repair. 

In 2014, the North Central Idaho Resource Advisory Council (RAC) approved $195,000 of Title II funds to complete the less expensive repair. With these funds, the Forest contracted Engleman Steel Erection from Boise to repair the bridge.

To complete repairs, the bridge was lifted off the pier caps so new concrete pier caps could be cast in-place then the bridge lowered back down onto the new caps; other repairs included removing and patching deteriorated concrete, and placing rip rap around the pier footings to mitigate for possible scour during high flows.

Cheryl Probert, Forest Supervisor, signs the order to open the bridge after the repairs. Also in attendance are Alex Irby (left), CBC Recreation Sub Committee Co-Chair, and Andrew Skowland (right), District Ranger on the North Fork Ranger District. Photo by George Bain, Regional Office Recreation Program Director.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Fire update for Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests

Wetting rains in early and mid-September moderated fire behavior across the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, but did not provide the precipitation needed to be considered season ending events.

North Fork Ranger District – Fire personnel continue to monitor fires on the Larkin Complex. Smoke on two of the fires may be visible to visitors. The Minnesaka fire is located in the North Fork drainage and is visible from the 700 road.

The Heather fire, located in the Collins Creek drainage, may be visible from the 710 road. District personnel completed a prescribed burn in the Middle Black Timber sale and visitors may encounter fire traffic northwest of Mush Saddle along the 711 road. The district currently does not have any closures in place due to wildfire activity.

Powell Ranger District – Fire personnel continue to monitor fires with the Army Mule, located in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, being the most active.

It has continued marginal spread with some single tree torching, but no large growth is expected. The Sponge and Airstrip fires, also located in the wilderness, have experienced very little activity, although occasional smoke can be seen from both fires. Smoke can also be seen on the Boulder and Jay Point fires and is mainly due to burning roots in stump holes and ground litter within the fire perimeter.

Trails 89 Saturday Ridge, 82 Saturday Creek, and 30 Pouliot are closed.

Lochsa Ranger District – Fire personnel continue to monitor fires. Fire activity has been minimal, but visitors may see isolated areas of smoke and torching of trees as temperatures remain warm and fuels continue to dry out. Heavy equipment and fire personnel are working on rehabilitation of fire lines on the Woodrat and Musselshell fires and additional traffic is expected in those areas for the next few weeks. The district currently does not have any closures in place due to wildfire activity.

Moose Creek Ranger District – Fire personnel are continuing rehabilitation work on the Slide and Wash fires. Smoke from the Wash fire is still visible. Faller modules are currently working the upper portion of the Falls Point road removing hazardous snags and an excavator is removing debris from the road. The Falls Point road - 443, remains closed for safety. Beginning on Friday, the excavator will move to Fenn and begin work rehabbing the fire line on the Busy Trail located behind the ranger station. Selway Falls campground and any area on or adjacent to road 443 are also closed.

Red River Ranger District – Smoke is visible from the Crown, Noble, and Little Green fires and fire personnel continue to monitor and conduct rehabilitation on fire lines. Closures in place for public safety due to wildfire activity include road 492 from road 9805 to trail 807, trail 805 is closed from road 9805 to trail 807. All of trail 807 is closed. Pilot Knob road 466 is closed from the junction of road 284 to its ending point. The 9550 and 9553 roads remain closed.

Salmon River Ranger District – The portion of the Tepee Springs fire located on the forest is being staffed by two fire engines. Personnel continue to patrol fire lines, addressing areas of concern as they arise. Smoke is still visible as fuels within the perimeter of the fire continue to burn. The Spring Bar Campground is closed.

Unseasonably warm and dry conditions have increased fire danger in the upper elevations to moderate and in the valley regions to high. A few showers are possible Wednesday into Thursday followed by another round of above normal temperatures beginning Friday and continuing through the weekend.

Grangeville Interagency Dispatch Center has dispatched fire personnel to two abandoned campfires and one equipment-caused fire. As visitors and sportsman take advantage of the unseasonable warm weather to recreate on their national forest, fire managers encourage visitors to be cautious with campfires, wood cutting, and other activities and equipment that have the potential to ignite.

Safety Precautions in Fire Areas: Recent recension of closures has granted public access to areas affected by fire.

Below are safety precautions to keep in mind when entering those areas:

Driving – Please drive slowly with your head lights on. Watch for fire vehicles and personnel, other traffic, and do not stop on the road.

Hazardous Trees – Fire damaged trees can fall unexpectedly. Be aware of your surroundings and avoid areas with snags.

Debris – Watch for rolling rocks, logs, and other debris. Take a saw of some type (handsaw in Wilderness areas) for potentially clearing roads and trails.

Watch for Ash Pits – Ash pits are holes of hot or cold ashes, created by burned trees and stumps. Falling into ash pits can cause burns and/or lower leg injuries.

Flooding – The risk of floods remains significantly higher until burned vegetation can re-grow—up to five years after a wildfire.

Wilderness Visitors – If you travel in the vicinity of a fire, be aware of rapid and unpredictable fire spread, rolling debris, falling snags and trees, and limited visibility. Some general guidelines before you leave are:

Prepare. Plan your trip with the most current fire information and use trails that avoid the fire. Take a map and compass, and let others know your travel plans. Navigation skills are important in fire areas where trail signs may have burned and are no longer present or readable.

Watch. As you travel look out for burned out trees and snags, unstable sections of the trail, rolling rocks and helicopter or airplane water and retardant drops.

Camp. Choose a safe place to camp. Look for areas away from the fire, in open areas out of the timber, away from falling/rolling hazards below cliffs and slopes. Ensure that campfires are out before leaving the area.

Friday, October 2, 2015

August unemployment rate ticks up to 4.2%

An increase of 400 people looking for work nudged August’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate up a tenth of a point to 4.2 percent.

A seasonal decline of 500 nonfarm jobs – a 0.1 percent decline - in private higher education offset a modest August payroll gain in construction, manufacturing and service sector jobs. At a five-year average monthly change of 0.2 percent, August is typically a month of minor changes.

Year-over-year the numbers tell a different story. Nonfarm payrolls are up by 3 percent over last year due to an across-the-board gain of 19,800 jobs, underscoring 12 months of healthy economic growth, with the biggest gains in construction, trade, professional services and healthcare.

Even though August’s labor force increase was the smallest monthly increase so far this year, it was the eighth month in a streak of labor force gains, reflecting an annual increase of 21,000 people – or 2.7 percent - the largest percentage increase since March 2006.

With only one unemployed worker for every job opening, Idaho’s labor market continued to tighten in August, according to job opening estimates by The Conference Board.

Idaho’s labor force participation rate - the percentage of people 16 years and older with jobs or looking for work - remained unchanged at 64.1 percent for the third consecutive month.

Nationally, unemployment fell to 5.1 in August, from 5.3 percent in July.

Clearwater County’s rate fell slightly from July, to 7.8 percent, compared with July’s rate of 7.9 percent. In August of last year the rate was 8.9 percent.

Lewis County’s rate climbed to 4.7 percent in August, up from 4.3 in July and 4.1 last August.

Idaho County’s rate also climbed from July to August, 6.4 to 6.6, respectively, but was still down from last year’s August rate of 7.2 percent.

Nez Perce County’s August rate of 4.0 was exactly the same as August 2014’s rate. It was up a bit from this July’s rate of 3.9 percent.

The state’s unemployment benefit payouts were down from July by nearly 21 percent in August to $1.29 million, with the number of claimants receiving benefits declining by 25 percent to 4,597.

Twenty-four Idaho counties experienced higher unemployment rates than the state average during August. Madison County claimed the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 3.1 percent, while Adams, Clearwater and Shoshone counties reported the highest rates.

Almost all of Idaho’s Metropolitan Statistical Areas had unemployment rates below the state average except for the Coeur d’Alene MSA at 5.1 percent. The Idaho Falls MSA remained unchanged from July with the lowest unemployment rate of the MSAs at 3.7 percent.

Additional insight into Idaho’s unemployment picture can be found at