The Fires of 2000


By Rocky Barker

On the night of July 5, Independence Day revelers lit fireworks and started a grass fire on rangeland 12 miles south of Salmon.

Residents Mark Hansen and Andrea Thomas Daine jumped on a bulldozer and desperately cut a fire break across the steep slope to keep the fire from threatening the homes in the valley below.

Several small fires had flared up in the high country of the Salmon National Forest in June, a month earlier than usual. Now, 35 mph winds fanned the grass fire into a serious blaze.

Dottie Sharp, one of Hansen's neighbors, watched from her window below as the bulldozer, silhouetted by flames, climbed a burning ridgeline. Suddenly, the wind changed and the fire turned, engulfing the bulldozer and its riders.

"I heard this horrible scream," Sharp said. "It was human, but it almost sounded like an animal."

Daine was wearing a tank top, shorts and sandals. She sustained burns on nearly 70 percent of her body. Hansen ran through the fire, carrying her to safety. The two were taken to Salt Lake City for long and painful treatment. Both are recovering.

Minutes after the pair's firefighting attempt became a run for their lives, the Salmon Volunteer Fire Department arrived, followed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Eventually, 100 firefighters and five helicopters were needed to contain the 700-acre fire.

"We already knew conditions were dry," said Kent Fuellenbach, a Salmon National Forest spokesman. "Those early fires were a wake-up call."

For Idaho, it was the beginning of the worst fire season since 1910.

Before it ended, the 2000 fire season forced dozens of people from their homes, burned over cabins and cottages, and transformed the face of Idaho's forests and rangeland.

The summer of flames also shifted the debate over forest management from preservation to restoration -- and closed Idaho's wilderness to visitors for the first time.

'It took off on us'

The critical day came July 14. The sky was clear that morning, a welcome reprieve from the smoke that had choked firefighters sent into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. But then a series of thunderstorms moved through the state, starting hundreds of fires along a "lightning belt" long known by fire researchers. The belt runs roughly west to east along the Salmon River.

The stormy weather changed conditions suddenly. By the time night fell, the major fires of the season were beyond human control.

That day, a lightning strike along the belt sparked the Burgdorf Junction Fire in heavy spruce, fir and lodgepole pine 26 miles north of McCall. The fire grew from 10 acres to 1,200 acres in only four hours.

Lightning from the same storm started the Fenster Creek Fire on a ridgeline 4 miles north of Salmon. That fire quickly grew to 2,500 acres and threatened several ranches. Salmon residents parked along the highway and set up chairs to watch planes drop retardant.

Meanwhile, 60 firefighters in three hotshot crews were trying to contain the 1,000-acre Clear Creek Fire, 27 miles northwest of Salmon in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Jeff Slagg, a Forest Service recreation technician from Leadore, was a member of the team fighting the fire in the Clear Creek Canyon, which started July 10.

At 1 p.m., the winds came up. The fire moved into thick timber and blew up.

"We had never seen it move that fast," Slagg said. "Our job was to get out ahead of the fire, but it took off on us."

The fire jumped into the crowns of the 300-year-old ponderosas and began sending burning embers as big as bowling balls ahead, causing spot fires.

Twenty firefighters retreated into the blackened area behind the fire. Others ran to their camp ahead of the flames and threw their packs in the creek. They, too, ran for refuge in the black, knowing the burned area was their best hope for survival.

As the fire began sucking in oxygen from the surrounding forest, it created its own winds of up to 70 mph. In the next four hours, it consumed more than 10,000 acres and raced 10 miles out of Clear Creek Canyon into Panther Creek and finally out Garden Creek to the Salmon River.

By the end of the day, the Clear Creek Fire had grown to 23,000 acres. Despite firefighters' best efforts, the blaze had become unstoppable.

And by the standard of history, fire season still hadn't even started.

Black Wednesday


Joel Gosswiller had given up the thrill of smokejumping out of Boise this year to return to his hometown of Idaho Falls as fire operations supervisor for the Bureau of Land Management. The son of a former Idaho Falls fire chief, Gosswiller is one of the rare young fire professionals moving into management ranks of federal service.

His trial by fire came July 26, the day East Idaho firefighters will always remember as Black Wednesday.

Dry lightning ignited 29 fires that day alone in East Idaho. By 10 a.m., Gosswiller had all eight of his crews, 200 people, out fighting fires. Officials and the public were reporting new fires constantly across the tinder-dry desert of the Snake River Plain.

"We caught most of them, but a couple turned into big problem fires," Gosswiller said.

By Black Wednesday, fires were burning across 11 Western states and Texas. More than 20,000 firefighters were battling the flames. Crews, helicopters and other resources were in short supply. Without reinforcements, Gosswiller and his team were on their own for the first few days.

Gosswiller joined an engine crew fighting the Coffee Point North Fire at the Delaware-sized Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. The area, known as the Arco Desert, has been the stage for repeated fires during the past decade. The fires have been followed by the encroachment of cheatgrass, an alien weed native to the Siberian steppe of Russia. The annual grass dries out early and increases the frequency of fire in the desert ecosystem.

On the Arco Desert, the shifting fire frequency doesn't allow for the return of sagebrush and the native bunch grasses on which sage grouse, raptors and other species depend. The lack of vegetation leaves little to hold the soil in place. When the wind comes up, dust storms carry away precious topsoil and bring visibility on U.S. Highway 20 to zero.

By the end of Black Wednesday, the Coffee Point North Fire had grown to 30,000 acres. Fire starts continued during the next week, and by early August, more than 190,000 acres were burning in a series of 14 fires dubbed the Eastern Idaho Complex.

State of emergency


On July 28, with fires burning north, south, east and west, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne declared a statewide emergency.

The declaration made state resources, including public safety officers, equipment and the Idaho National Guard, available to local governments and federal firefighters. The Idaho National Guard played a key role in staffing checkpoints, transporting firefighters and helping to run the huge fire camps set up near McCall, Salmon and elsewhere.

Kempthorne's action also paved the way for the entry of the military into the firefight.

On Aug. 1, 600 soldiers of the 3rd Battalion 16th Field Artillery from Texas arrived in Idaho, joining the fight to protect forest towns from the Burgdorf Junction Fire. Before the season ended, two contingents of Marines were called in to reinforce firefighting crews on the Clear Creek Fire near Salmon.

And the rest of the West continued to burn. By the beginning of August, more than 30,000 people were fighting the growing number of fires that had already scorched 3.9 million acres.

But the firefighters primarily were assigned to protect communities and private property. They weren't trying to put fires out. Only the weather would do that. And on Aug. 4, the outlook was grim.

"We're really at the mercy of Mother Nature," said Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck, who toured fires in Idaho and Montana. "Unless we have a miraculous change in the weather, I think you can look forward to several tough weeks ahead."

Past fire seasons suggested the critical period would begin Aug. 15 and run for the next 10 days. That's when many of the biggest fires in the northern Rockies historically have hit, including:

Æ The 1992 Foothills Fire near Boise that burned more than 150,000 acres beginning Aug. 18.

Æ The Big Blowup that burned 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana on Aug. 20, 1910.

Æ Black Saturday, Aug. 20, 1988, when 200,000 acres burned in Yellowstone National Park.

Fire officials said 2000 could be the worst year of all.

A line of forest fires 20 miles apart or less ran from the Sawtooth Range to the Canadian border. Dozens of communities from Atlanta to Salmon and Hamilton, Mont., were within one burning period of a major fire, said David Bunnell, the man in charge of large-fire assessment for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

"We've never been more exposed at any time since 1910 than we are now," Bunnell said at the time. "We have more fire on the landscape than existed in the 1910 fire, and we have more uncontrolled fireline and more perimeters exposed."

Saving Atlanta

Lightning lit up a mountainside in roadless land in the Boise National Forest 5 miles from Atlanta Aug. 15. Three days later, the fire had turned into a major blaze, spotting out a mile ahead and burning several smaller buildings on the community's outskirts.

Attacks by retardant bombers and helicopters saved Atlanta from the full force of the fire, but the town was evacuated and the fire burned to the edges before it was halted.

Meanwhile, fires were burning up and down the 100-mile wilderness stretch along the Salmon River. Hundreds of thousands of acres, from Yellow Pine on the west to Yellowjacket on the east, were in flames. The supervisors of the Salmon-Challis, Boise, Payette and Nez Perce forests decided to close the wilderness.

In the 95-year history of the Forest Service, the primitive country of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness had never been shut off from public access. Dozens of outfitters rely on the Salmon and Middle Fork of the Salmon River for the income generated by float trips in rafts. But those trips grounded to a halt Aug. 17.

"We did not enter into this decision lightly," George Matejko, lead forest supervisor for the wilderness area, said at the time. "Most of the trailheads into the wilderness are blocked by fire, and numerous fires are burning along the banks of the Salmon River. It has gotten to a point where we could not guarantee the safety of the wilderness visitor."

Lightning continued to start new fires, and winds whipped up old fires. Firefighting resources were stretched to the limit.

The end in sight

Then, on Aug. 24, it rained.

The rains were not enough to end the season. That wouldn't come officially until October. But they were enough to take the edge off the blazes and to restore a chance at control.

Those first rains were followed by more in early September and snow in the high country.

By Oct. 10, 82,587 fires had burned 6.9 million acres nationwide. In Idaho, 1,578 fires burned nearly 1.3 million acres. And the fires continue to burn in the backcountry.

The smoke has cleared; the backcountry has reopened; the firefighters have returned home. Dottie Sharp sees signs of hope written on the hillside above her home, a reminder that the summer of fire will give way to regeneration, rebirth -- and another cycle of fire.

"I'm looking up there now, and it's already green with the new grasses."


In October, a return to the  Idaho wilderness

Look across the Middle Fork of the Salmon River at Little Soldier Mountain and you can't help but wince.

The lush forest that climbed from the river's edge up the 8,813-foot peak has been turned into a backdrop for a Smokey Bear commercial. Windblown flames consumed the ravines up Short and Cow creeks during the firestorm in early August. Two months after the fire started, smoke rising from the burned-out trunk of an old pine makes the tree look like a cigar.

It's a stark contrast to the park-like groves of towering ponderosa pine that remain above the Middle Fork's many popular beach campsites, once occupied by Shoshone Indians. The scene is nothing like the promotional pictures that lure more than 10,000 boaters into the Middle Fork's narrow world of rocks and whitewater each year.

But it's a scene familiar to outfitter Dave Mills. He's been floating the Middle Fork for 31 years.

"I can't remember a year when there wasn't a fire," Mills said.

Float only a few miles downstream to Pungo Creek and old-growth pines once again dominate the landscape.

Look through the eyes of time and the evidence of fire is around every bend of what is arguably Idaho's most scenic float trip. The 2000 fires burned 505,663 acres of the 2.4 million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, more than in any other single year this century.

The wilderness fires burned in a patchwork pattern that scorched places like Soldier Mountain and burned others only lightly, continuing a cycle that has created the Middle Fork so many people love.

Fire's mark shows in the rusty limbs of the trees that survived a fire up Little Soldier Creek Canyon in 1998. The bushy young pines that burned around lower Jackass Creek have risen above the brush and fireweed that have covered the slopes with blankets of magenta flowers since a fire in 1983.

Most of all, the history of fire appears in the black fire scars on the orange bark of the ponderosas up to 4 feet in diameter that are the heart of wildest Idaho. These ancient giants owe their existence to frequent fires.

"In 300 years, those trees could have burned 30 times," said Ken Stauffer, who served as acting Middle Fork ranger for the U.S. Forest Service during the fire season.

A trip through the wilderness

Stauffer, a wilderness recreation program manager for the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Salmon, led our group of six people on a 75-mile trip in early October to assess the impact of the most extensive fires along the Middle Fork in several generations. The team included Norm Ando, the Forest Service's Middle Fork river manager, and Dave Sabo, a forester and minerals specialist.

They found the river as wild and idyllic as Harry Shellworth did when he came into the country in the 1920s. The late executive of the Boise Payette Lumber Co., now Boise Cascade, played a key role in preserving the Middle Fork.

In October 1927, Shellworth took Idaho Gov. H. Clarence Baldridge, Forest Service District Forester Richard Rutledge of Ogden, Utah, and others with him on a hunting trip to the Middle Fork.

"Many times during this trip, the topic of our evening's talk around the campfire was the question of whether or not this Middle Fork Salmon River country, or at least a portion which is natural winter range of game, should or should not become either a game preserve or a primitive area," Shellworth wrote.

On the recommendations of Rutledge and Baldridge, Forest Service Chief William Greeley designated 1 million acres of the Pistol and Indian creek drainages as a primitive area, which prevented development.

Only one road reaches the river 100 miles from its confluence with the Main Salmon. Today, the Middle Fork is protected as a part of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and as a part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system.

Its isolation has locked out logging and made firefighting ineffective for all but a decade. Grazing ended years ago.

In most of the West's ponderosa forests, loggers removed the biggest, oldest trees, allowing Douglas fir to take over. Grazing removed the fine grasses that fueled the small frequent fires that cleared the forest of dense underbrush.

With fire removed from the system for decades, the fuels built up, providing a ladder for flames into the crowns of the big trees and destroying entire stands. In the Middle Fork, with a few exceptions, even the biggest fires left dozens of old trees to reseed and shade the surrounding forest.

"Out in the wilderness, we can see the effects of a natural event more clearly than on managed land, because management changes the composition of the forest," said Yvonne Carree Barkley, a University of Idaho extension forester.

In state and national forests outside wilderness, land managers, interest groups and politicians are debating how to rehabilitate the hundreds of thousands of acres that burned in this year's huge fires. They also are seeking techniques to reduce the threat of large fires in the future.

But here in the wilderness, there is no debate. Congress decided in 1964: "Wilderness is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

That means fires are supposed to burn. Rivers are supposed to flood. Nature rules.

"If you look at fire as destruction, then what logically follows is rehabilitation," said Stauffer. "If you look at it as natural, then what follows is erosion and eventually stabilization."

In reality, the Forest Service still fights fires in wilderness. As acting ranger, Stauffer ordered firefighters to immediately fight the Clear Creek Fire, which burned out of the wilderness and eventually threatened Salmon.

The agency seeks to allow fire to burn naturally, except when conditions become so dry they endanger people and property outside the wilderness, as happened this year. But once firefighting resources became short this year, fighting fires in the wilderness became a low priority.

Water like gin, chocolate

For most of the five-day journey from Indian Creek to the Main Salmon, the Middle Fork was as clear as gin. Its water turned murky below Camas Creek, traditionally one of its cleanest-running tributaries.

Camas Creek itself appeared clear, but the rocks and gravel of the Middle Fork downstream were coated with a thin layer of black soot.

Bill Hickey and J.E. Newman had ridden down Camas Creek a few days earlier on mules, fixing trails and removing downed trees. The Camas drainage had burned extensively, they said.

"After that rain, this river was the dirtiest I've ever seen it," Hickey said. "It must have really gutted this drainage."

The full fury of two fires converged on the Flying B Ranch Aug. 18, sending a fireball down Brush Creek. In October, Brush Creek was running chocolate.

And if Soldier Mountain makes you wince, then Brush Creek will make you cry.

Much of the drainage was incinerated. It may take years for its highly erosive granite slopes to stabilize.

Wayne Minshall has seen it all before. The Idaho State University professor of stream ecology has studied the Middle Fork and its tributaries since 1979.

That's the year the Mortar Creek Fire burned 63,300 acres.

"We saw big floods, gully-washers," Minshall said. "It's dramatic."

Even as individual tributaries blew out, others continued to be clean and productive. The ash carried nitrogen that not only replenished the soil but also the streams. Nutrients increase the insects on which cutthroat trout, salmon and steelhead depend.

Thousands of trees still stand 21 years after the Mortar Creek blaze. They fall and are washed into the streams and river continuously, like time-release pills. These downed trees reshape the Middle Fork's flows, create new pools and offer cover for young fish.

As the forest grows back, the cycle continues. The streams produce fewer insects, but they become clearer and cleaner, Minshall said.

Since only a portion of the Middle Fork's watershed burns in any given year, the overall impact of individual fires is benign, he said.

"In the long term, we'll see an enhancement of wilderness values because of these fires," Minshall said.

Stauffer, the recreation planner, sees it another way. When the inevitable flooding causes massive mudslides into the river, campers downstream will benefit.

"Brush Creek is going to blow out, but it's going to replenish beaches on the Main Salmon," he said.

Outfitter Jerry Hughes remembers the Mortar Creek Fire. He deflated his rubber rafts and left them and his gear in the Middle Fork as the fire raced toward Little Creek Guard Station. At the last moment he and his crew jumped into two waiting planes at Thomas Creek air strip.

After the 1979 fire went out, Hughes was worried about the future of the Middle Fork.

"We were hearing that the fire burned so hot that the soil was sterilized and everything would erode away," Hughes said. "It changed things, but not in the catastrophic nature people warned."

He and a group of outfitters flew over the Middle Fork in October. Any fears they had about this year's fire were assuaged.

"I think we'll be surprised about how fast it looks like home to us," he said. "Those spots aren't going to be any hotter than the Mortar Creek burns we see up river today."

'Gone for my lifetime'

Not everyone is as optimistic. There is no place Flying B manager Rick Dorony can ride in an afternoon that doesn't show the destructive effects of the fire. The Flying B is surrounded by the denuded slopes of the Brush, Short and Bernard Creek drainages. The lodge canceled its hunts this season because Dorony and its owners thought the game had suffered enough stress already.

Dorony knows the area will heal eventually.

"I can rebuild a ranch. I can't rebuild a landscape," said Dorony, a former computer consultant. "It's gone for my lifetime."

The University of Idaho's Carree Barkley toured the Pistol Creek area at the request of cabin owners at the Middle Fork Ranch. Like Dorony, many of the cabin owners mourn the loss of a cherished vista -- the forested slopes of Little Soldier Mountain.

"Some people see it as the end of an era, and it is," Carree Barkley said. "What they should see it as is another stage of their forest.

"It will be incredible. It will be green. It will come back."