Idaho is a beautiful state which is known for its many resources, specifically its agriculture. Nearly a third of America’s potatoes are grown there, it’s recognized as the lentil capital of the world, it has one of the largest hops farms in the US, and it produces 85% of all commercial trout sold within the country.
It’s also a place where nearly 72 types of precious stones can be found, including the rare and unique star garnets. For this reason, Idaho has received the nickname: the Gem State.
Idaho is the 13th largest US state in terms of land area, where 63% is designated as public land. It has preserved over 4,500,000 acres of wildland to which there are no roads.
Idahoans boast about their state—in a humble way. In fact, the joy of the land is ingrained in one of its city’s laws. Pocatello is recognized as the US Smile Capital where the “Smile Ordinance” was enacted by the Mayor in 1948. This ordinance makes it illegal to frown (or not to smile) in public. It came as a response to restore the mood of the despondent townspeople after a severely long and cold winter.
As great of a reputation as the Gem State has, it is not entirely safe from natural disasters. In this article, we’ll discuss what to expect.
What natural disasters does Idaho have?
Idaho’s most common natural disasters include wildfires, floods, winter storms, severe storms, droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, and power outages. Tornadoes occur occasionally too, but they’re a much less threatening disaster.
Between 1953 and 2019, Idaho declared 46 major disasters, of which fires and floods happened the most according to FEMA.
Idaho has a lot of wildfires. The Gem State averages 133 fires with an average of 77,214 total acres burned per year! About half of the fires are human-caused while the other half caused by nature, mainly lightning.
One of the worst fires in the history of the United States occurred in Idaho and nearby states. The Big Burn (also known as the Great Fire) of 1910 was a series of up to 3,000 fires that burned about 3 million acres. There are mixed opinions on the original cause of the fires, but strong winds were a major contributor. The destruction, which included the death of 86 people, was undeniably devastating.
Idaho experiences a major wildfire season every seven to ten years. To protect the forests during peak season, state officials may issue burn bans. You can contact 1-844-ID-FIRES (1-844-433-4737) for information on current fire restrictions.
While wildfires can take us by surprise, there are several things we can do to become prepared for them. Most importantly, you should have an evacuation plan ready that includes emergency supplies to last you a minimum of 3 days. This is necessary for the event that you have to evacuate.
In order to prevent a wildfire from affecting your home, there are mitigation steps you can take, such as creating defensible space between your home and the trees in your property. Overhanging branches and dry leaves and shrubs must be removed consistently. For a complete list of mitigation and safety tips, check out this guide.
Floods are the second most common and costliest natural disaster in the Gem State. The entire state is at risk of flooding, however, the majority of events occur within Southeastern and Southwestern Idaho, Central Idaho, and the Panhandle Region. Currently, there are over 238,000 properties at risk of flooding in the state, and that number is expected to increase 7.6% within the next thirty years.
General flooding and flash floods can occur any time of year but they’re typically triggered by periods of extreme precipitation, rapid snowmelt, inadequate drainage systems, overflowing rivers, blocked streams and canals, breaching of levees, dam failure, and ice jams.
One of the worst floods in Idaho’s recent history was a man-made engineering disaster caused by the failure and collapse of the Teton Dam. About six months after the completion of the Teton Dam, several streams of water began appearing simultaneously near to where the dam was located. Only a couple of days later, on June 5 at 11:57 AM, the dam gave way and collapsed, sending a surge of nearly 80 billion gallons of water downstream. This resulted in damage that exceeded the billions, including the washing away of approximately 100,000 acres of farmland, the destruction of thousands of homes and businesses, and the death of 11 people and 13,000 cattle.
Preparing for a flood starts with your knowledge of your property and your community’s risk. Having this understanding can help you identify areas where you need to strengthen your home against the possible threat. These mitigation tips can give you some ideas.
Aside from that, you should create and rehearse a plan of evacuation. Floodwaters can rise in minutes, so just like the Teton Dam collapse, you may not be given enough of a warning time.
3. Winter Storms
As far as we know, it snows everywhere in Idaho. Snow accumulation varies from city to city with the Northern region generally getting more than the Southern. On average, the Gem State will receive 47 inches of snowfall per year. The snowiest place is Island Park with an average of 211 inches annually.
The winter season, lasting from December through February, doesn’t only bring snow to Idaho, but also below-freezing temperatures, dense fog, sleek roads, and occasional freezing rain, blizzard-like conditions, and the risk of avalanches.
One of the most memorable snowstorms to affect the state was the six-week Blizzard of 1968-1969. In late 1968, two feet of snow fell over Sandpoint and other parts of Northern Idaho. It was followed by another 8 inches a few days later. The storm was relentless. By January 23rd, the snow had accumulated to 67 inches. At the end of January, the snow measured 82 inches. It finally ended on February 6th. As a result, the city was practically shut down— schools were closed, roads were impassable, and there were snowdrifts of up to 12 feet.
If you live in Idaho or are preparing to visit during the cold and snowy months, it’s vital that you become prepared ahead of time. Prior to the winter season, have your car inspected by a mechanic to ensure that it’s in proper working condition.
Driving in the middle of a snowstorm can be very dangerous. If you're able to postpone nonessential travel, it may be wise to do so, at least until the roads are cleared up. Be sure to keep an updated winter emergency kit in each of your vehicles. I recommend inspecting the items in the kit near the middle of the fall season. Learn all of our winter safety tips here!
4. Severe Storms
The Gem State is known for having occasional severe weather, including high gusty winds, severe thunderstorms, lightning, haboobs (a massive dust storm or dust clouds), and on rare occasions, hail.
Idaho ranks 37 in the US when it comes to the number of lightning deaths. In 2013, there was an unusual thunderstorm along the Southeastern Oregonian and Southwestern Idahoan border in which over 10,000 strikes were recorded, but luckily no deaths were reported.
Another unique storm occurred on April 7, 2018. It brought in large hail to Eastern Idaho and caused over $27 million in damages including broken windows, holes in the siding of buildings and roofs, and large dents to vehicles.
Severe storms can happen suddenly, so being prepared to take cover at a moment’s notice could be vital for your safety. Be sure to obey the local weather report warnings and watches, even if the current situation doesn’t look threatening. If high winds are
For preparedness and safety tips on severe storms, check out our guide. And while you’re there, be sure to print the safety checklist!
Droughts are classified under five categories, D0 being the lowest and D4 being the highest. Like many southwestern states, Idaho experiences periods of significant drought.
The longest duration of D1 to D4 drought in recent history began on January 30, 2001, and lasted for 258 weeks, finally ending on January 3, 2006. It reached its worst point on December 23, 2003, when almost 41% of the state was under D4.
As of the writing of this article, the Gem State has varying levels of drought. Only 0.9% of the state is under D3 (extreme drought), 4.6% is under D2 (severe drought), 37% is under D1 (moderate drought), and 37.8% is under D0 (abnormally dry). The remainder of the state is not under any drought warnings.
Droughts can cause extensive damage to agricultural production, especially in a state like Idaho where crops are a major source of revenue. Be water-wise always but more importantly during times of drought. Learn to use only as much water as you actually need.
When looking at Idaho’s topography, it’s no surprise that earthquakes have contributed to the shape of its mountains and hilly landscapes. The Gem State is said to be the 5th most earthquake-prone state in the US. In fact, thousands of shakers occur each year but they’re generally gentle or deep enough that they cannot be felt.
There are several active faults in the state. Although there’s evidence that quakes have shaken all parts of the state, the majority of strong earthquakes occur along the Yellowstone Tectonic Parabola or the Intermountain Seismic Belt (which runs from the northwestern corner of Montana, through the Idaho and Wyoming border, vertically across Utah, and into southern Nevada).
The state has experienced several notable quakes. The largest and most damaging one in its history occurred near Borah Peak on October 28, 1983. It had a magnitude of 6.9, injured 3 people, killed 2 children, and caused moderate to extensive damage to approximately 250 properties and buildings. The total cost of damages exceeded $12 million (1983 USD).
The second-largest earthquake occurred on March 31, 2020. It measured 6.5 in magnitude with its epicenter located several miles north of the Sawtooth Fault, which geologists had believed was inactive until that moment. The quake was felt across six states. It caused some structural damage to homes and buildings and thousands of aftershocks.
There are many ways to become prepared for an earthquake. You should make your home “earthquake-safe", meaning that you should secure heavy items that can break or collapse on a person.
Have an earthquake drill with your family to ensure everyone knows where to take cover safely, and where to meet outside if you need to evacuate your home. Keep emergency items, such as a flashlight and a pair of sturdy shoes, under the bed in the event that an earthquake occurs while you're sleeping. For more tips on earthquake preparedness, check out this guide.
The Gem State houses several volcanic areas, including the Black Butte Crater, Kings Bowl Lava Field, Hells Half Acre, North and South Robbers Lava Fields, Cerro Grande Lava Field, Wapi Lava Field, and Craters of the Moon. The youngest one of these, Craters of the Moon, is expected to erupt again sometime in the next 1,000 years.
Craters of the Moon covers more than 600 square miles and has over 25 small cinder cone volcanoes. The eruptions occur along fissures, or cracks in the crust of the earth (aka fissure eruptions), therefore they’re gentle lava flows rather than explosive.
When preparing for a volcano, you will need to determine what is safer to do: will you shelter in place or evacuate? You may not necessarily have the answer to this question until the moment a volcano erupts, so it would be wise to have a plan for both of those circumstances. Visit our volcano preparedness guide for more information on mitigation and safety tips.
Idaho has 114 mountain ranges. Its point of highest elevation is Borah Peak at 12,662 ft. Due to its terrain, the Gem State has a moderate susceptibility and moderate to high incidence of landslides, specifically within Central and Southeastern Idaho.
One of the worst landslides in Idaho’s history occurred in August 1959 after two heavy rainstorms fell over the burn scar of the Lucky Peak Fire. The water overwhelmed the topsoil and caused mudslides that primarily affected the Eastern Boise region. Some homes and businesses were covered in over 10 inches of mud. This disaster prompted the city to come up with a preparedness plan in which trenches were built to prevent future mudslides.
When preparing for a landslide, begin by learning your property and city's risk level. If your property has hills or significant slopes, you may want to consider following some of our suggested mitigation strategies listed here. If roads leading to or from your city are in high-risk areas, learn which alternative routes you have available.
9. Power Outages
The power grid is exceptionally vulnerable to natural and manmade disasters, and Idaho is no exception to the rule. Throughout time, there have been several outages that left Idahoans in the dark for hours on end.
A significant disaster is capable of destroying infrastructure, including the power lines, therefore it would be prudent to prepare to be without electricity for more than a week during large-scale disasters.
Long-term power outages can wreak havoc on our lives. As an example, our electronic devices will lose their charge fairly quickly, many toilets will stop working properly, and it can become increasingly difficult to prepare a hot meal. That sounds like an inconvenience on a good day, but chances are that you’ll also be dealing with the effects of the disaster that caused the power outage in the first place— imagine that it occurs during the peak of winter where the temperature is below freezing.
Luckily, there are several ways to prepare ahead of time for these scenarios should they occur. In this guide, you will learn the ins and outs of effectively preparing for a power outage.
Tornadoes are rare in Idaho, but not entirely uncommon. On average, Idahoans can expect between three and six tornadoes each year.
One of the strongest recorded tornadoes to affect the state occurred on June 9, 1990, in Jerome County. It was an F2 tornado. There’s not much information regarding the damages that it caused but luckily it did not cause fatalities.
Natural disaster resources for Idaho
There are many resources you should take advantage of to prepare for disasters that occur in Idaho. These are some options:
- Sign up for weather alerts and warnings on any smart device by downloading the NOAA Weather App. You can expect to receive real-time notifications so make sure your settings allow messages to come through during the night time in case you’re sleeping.
- Take advantage of our in-depth no-fluff preparedness guides on each of the disaster types. Here you can find mitigation strategies and safety tips, as well as download the free checklist that can be saved for future reminders.
- A great way to get involved with other like-minded people within your community, while getting free training, is by joining the Community Emergency Response Team. You can find your local CERT here.
- If you have a surplus of supplies or resources that could benefit people in need in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, I encourage you to get in touch with the Idaho VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters). This organization is made up of volunteers who help determine the needs of a community after an emergency. Then, they get in touch with donors for the distribution of supplies.
- If you’re interested in state-specific resources for emergency preparedness and recovery, visit the Idaho Office of Emergency Management website for more information.
I hope you enjoyed learning about the disasters that affect Idaho.
Be sure to share this article with someone who you think may enjoy it too!
Want to look up another state? Find out which disasters are common in other parts of the United States here!