- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho is facing an unprecedented wildfire season, the state’s top forestry official says.

“We are seeing well above average temperatures, and we’re seeing fuel moisture levels that are at record lows,” David Groeschl, state forester for the Idaho Department of Lands, told Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and other members of the Idaho Land Board on Tuesday.

Records indicate conditions are worse now than they have been since at least 1926, noting there is no moisture forecast for 10 to 14 days, he said.

“We don’t expect conditions to change anytime soon,” Groeschl said. “We have a lot of fire season ahead of us.”

The cost of fighting the fires has been rising quickly, with the latest estimate somewhere about $26 to $29 million and climbing, he added.

A fire burning in west-central Idaho near McCall caused 120 residents to evacuate, fire spokeswoman Julie Thomas said. Additional residents have been told to be ready to flee the 8-square-mile fire north of New Meadows.

The plan on Tuesday was to prevent the fire from reaching U.S. Highway 95, Thomas said. The road is open, but motorists can expect smoke, she said.

In northern Idaho, a group of fires that has scorched 90 square miles and destroyed 42 homes near Kamiah in the last several days is 25 percent contained. More than 800 firefighters and nearly 50 fire engines are assigned to that blaze.

On the Idaho-Oregon border, officials said favorable weather allowed firefighters to increase containment to 90 percent on a fire that has burned 443 square miles of rangeland.

That fire has scorched grassland needed for cattle and habitat for sage grouse, a bird under consideration for federal protections. A decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected this fall.

Groeschl told the Land Board that the fire burned 58 square miles of core sage grouse habitat on private, state and federal land. Another 297 square miles considered important sage grouse habitat also burned.

Otter, speaking after the meeting, said the loss shouldn’t factor into the sage grouse decision by the federal agency. He said the state planned to surround the core habitat area with fire-resistant grasses before the fire, and now plans to work to rehabilitate the area.

“We know how to do it,” he said. “If they’ll leave us alone, we can get that established, and we’re prepared to do that.”

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