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Current News & Issues: Forests & Fires

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A view from Lynne Stone, BWCC Director

Valley Road Fire
Valley Road Fire plume, Thursday, 3:56 p.m., Sept. 8, 2005. The fire is burning Fourth of July Canyon, Pass Creek, Fisher Creek, Pigtail Creek and approaching Warm Springs Meadow. Copyright photo: Lynne Stone, Boulder-White Clouds Council.

The Valley Road fire began Sept. 3 in the Sawtooth Valley 15 miles south of Stanley. Snow and rain on Sept. 10 helped bring containment to the fire, after burning over 40,800 acres. It started from a ranch trash barrel on a windy Saturday afternoon of Labor Day weekend.


During the first week, over 1000 fire fighters and support personnel were on the blaze, along with various numbers of tanker trucks, helicopters, small planes and retardant bombers.


At times, the fire’s huge mushroom-shaped plume, reportedly reached 35,000 feet and was visible in Twin Falls 150 miles away.


On Friday, Sept. 9, the fire made its biggest run, driven by 50 mph winds, and burning several miles down Warm Springs canyon to within three miles of Highway 75 and the Salmon River. In mid-afternoon, the wind shifted, stopping the fire from reaching the river and saving singer Carole King’s Robinson Bar Ranch at the mouth of Warm Springs canyon from going up in flames.


Highway 75 was closed Friday from Stanley to Slate Creek and residents evacuated. The Salmon River canyon was full of smoke and the sky had turned an eerie red. The highway reopened Friday night once the fire veered to the east. The snow and rain that fell was the first major precipitation in the area since early July.


Valley Road Fire
Bomber drops retardant on slope above Fisher Creek. Copyright 2005 Boulder-White Clouds Council.

Currently about 100 firefighters and others are still here, monitoring and working on hot spots. Only the snows of winter will extinguish all the smoldering wood.


“CATASTROPHE WAITING TO HAPPEN” - Tim Sexton, Incident Commander of the Valley Road fire was quoted in the Challis Messenger on Sept. 15: “The Sawtooth Valley is still "a catastrophe waiting to happen" due to dense, unburned stands of beetle-killed lodgepole pine on the west side of Highway 75. In the article by reporter Todd Adams, Sexton said prescribed burns in late fall would be one recommendation along with more timber harvest and reviewing plans for structure protection.


Sexton led the nightly information meetings in Stanley during the fire. He said that the Valley Road fire will be analyzed and information used to help plan for future large fires in this area.


Another view was added by a longtime forester friend of mine. He told me that it was a good thing that the fire started on September 3 and not August 3rd. Also, that perhaps now the public, residents and Forest Service will seriously realize there’s a real problem with extreme fire danger in the Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains. His solution agreed with one of Sexton’s recommendations -- large prescribed burns.


To date, large prescribed burns, which would help clear out dense young trees, underbrush, forest duff, and woodcutter and logging slash, are not something the SNRA has been willing to do because of the risk involved that the fire might get out of control.


There’s been patch cuts (limited to three acres on the SNRA) for post and poles and house logs, thinning around campgrounds, houses and other structures, and highways and powerlines. The SNRA offers free firewood for non-commercial users in the Salmon River watershed.


Valley Road Fire
Valley Road Fire burns Fisher Creek, three miles behind this Shaw Mesa home near Highway 75 in the Sawtooth Valley. Copyright photo: Lynne Stone, Boulder-White Clouds Council.

Many of you are familiar with the drainages that have been burned. As hard as it was for me to see the flames and the atom bomb-type cloud over my beloved mountains, this large fire was probably inevitable. More will likely follow. Lodgepole pine matures at about 80 years, then becomes prone to insects and disease. Over 1.5 million trees on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area have been killed by the mountain pine beetle since the early 1980’s and the number continues to grow. Six years of drought have also weakened trees.


Nearly a century of fire repression has contributed to dense tree stands and fuel build up. Whitebark pines, which grows at higher elevations (you can see them from Galena Pass) are now also dying from the mountain pine beetle in the Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains. Some slopes have thick stands of subalpine fir that are ripe to burn. Adding to the fuel load was the fact that our region had heavy spring rains, causing grass to grow unusually tall and thick.


Forest fires often burn in a mosaic and so it was with the Valley Road - burning some areas intensely, while skipping over others. A Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) has been on the scene and will soon produce a report on the fire and recommend steps to help the land and streams recover.


USFS personnel have reported large numbers of fish killed in Champion Ck, Fourth of July Creek and Warm Springs Creek where the fire burned extremely hot. Heavy spring run-off or big storm events could harm these streams where they have lost their streamside vegetation. Mulching these areas with straw distributed by helicopter drop or by hand, will commence in early October.


Valley Road Fire
Warning sign posted Monday, Sept. 19, 2005, as trail and road closure was lifted. Copyright 2005 Boulder-White Clouds Council.

ROADS AND TRAILS REOPEN - On Monday, Sept. 19, Fourth of July road was reopened and I drove the ten miles to the Fourth of July trailhead. The Forest Service (and myself) do not recommend going into the canyon due to the burned trees along the road, which could fall over, especially with rain and wind. There are hot spots of smoldering wood. I saw two with flames. Nevertheless, despite the risk, it was facinating to see the burn.


The following drainages have burned or partially burned -- please note that this is preliminary information and not official from fire authorities. It's based on the fire perimeter map and numerous conversations with those at the scene.


Warm Creek and a portion of Michael Humphrey's cattle pasture at the mouth of Champion Creek. No cows were injured. The eastern edge of the fire burned to the Hourglass ridge, well known to folks who follow the wolf issue in the Sawtooth Valley. The Galena Wolf Pack has apparently survived the fire without incident. Their tracks have been seen in the ash, and they’ve been heard howling at night.


Champion Creek canyon to the lakes, lower SFK Champion Ck (the outfitter camp at lower Champion Lake did not burn).


Valley Road Fire
BWCC's Lynne Stone at the Champion Lakes Trailhead off Fourth of July road, which was completely burned. Copyright 2005 Boulder-White Clouds Council.

Champion Lakes trailhead on Fourth July Road burned completely, including the trail register box, outhouse, stock mangers and loading dock.


Fourth of July canyon about 4 miles up to Fourth of July trailhead. A historic log cabin at the crossing into Pass Creek burned. The middle Fourth of July canyon burned hot, upper canyon spotted.


Ridge above Fourth of July canyon to Blackman Peak (spot fires - visible from Highway 75).


At Fourth of July Trailhead the fire spotted, and left all manmade structures intact except for a stock manger which burned. The odorous toilet did not burn. Reports of vehicles burning at this trailhead were not true. Hikers/backpackers in the area were located on Sunday, then evacuated by helicopter or vehicle.

Valley Road Fire
Fourth of July Creek was burned over for several miles, killing fish. Copyright 2005 Boulder-White Clouds Council.

A dramatic rescue of seven stranded vehicles at Fourth July Trailhead occurred on Monday morning when the fire was laying low, and personnel chain sawed their way up the smoky canyon to retrieve the cars. There were originally 30 vehicles at the trailhead when the fire started. Apparently some recreationists left as the smoke rolled up Saturday afternoon.


An historic mining cabin at the old Fourth of July trailhead burned. I have a photo of miner Elmer Enderlin that was taken in the 1950’s at the cabin. I have 25 years of photos of my friends, family and myself in front of that cabin. Now it’s gone. I’ll miss it.


Heart Lake drainage reportedly burnt to Heart Lake, but if so, it’s not visible from Fourth of July road. There are still many trees in lower Heart Lake canyon.


Some of lower Phyllis Lake drainage. Winds blew the fire away from Phyllis Lake. Burned trees are presently blocking Phyllis Lake road along with numerous smoldering fires nearby. Hunters will probably cut these trees out.


Portions of Mt Home canyon and a little of Strawberry Basin.


Pass Creek to meadow by Fisher Creek road.


Valley Road Fire
Smoke plume as fire burns Pass Creek, Fisher Creek and Pigtail Creek, Thursday, Sept 8, 2005. Copyright 2005 Boulder-White Clouds Council.

Fisher Creek burned but stayed 3/4 mile or so away from homes. Intensive effort went into saving the Fisher CK subdivision, including countless bomber retardant drops and helicopter water drops, and back fires. Tanker trucks including fire engines from Ketchum stood by. Fisher Ck property owners were evacuated until Friday night, Sept 9. Several residences in Fisher Creek are surrounded by trees and other thick vegetation.


Pigtail Creek (the Fisher-Williams Creek bike loop is going to have a new look).


Aztec Mine cabin and out buildings. This is at road's end in upper Fisher Creek. The trail used to go by this cabin, but was rerouted away several years ago.


Warm Springs Meadow - the dry portions burned, the green portions did not.


Valley Road Fire
Downtown Stanley, Friday, Sept. 9 as the fire blows up and races down Warm Springs canyon. Copyright 2005 Boulder-White Clouds Council.

Warm Springs canyon to within 3 miles of Robinson Bar Ranch on the Salmon River.


Martin Creek and Garland Creek trails -- fire boundary was three and two miles up these drainages respectively from Warm Springs Creek. The fire did not reach Lookout Mt or the Casino Lakes or Martin Lakes.


Lower Swimm Lake drainage, lower Bear Creek drainage, lower "Gunsight" canyon drainage --- rough, wild places on the west side of Warm Springs Creek.


Again, this write-up is based on preliminary information.

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