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Massive Forest Fire near Salmon, Idaho threatens Wolf habitat

July 24, 2000,  

 September 1 update
Clear Creek Fire at 200,000 acres
. Monsoonal rains may be finally arriving 

On July 8 lightning probably struck in a rugged area in Clear Creek on the Salmon-Challis National Forest. Conditions in central Idaho have been very dry this summer with almost no rain.

The best guess is that it smoldered a few days and was detected on July 10. Ninety minutes later, 8 helitack personnel were deployed, but it was already 10 acres, burning hard in heavy timber, and being fanned by 25 mile per hour winds. On the morning of July 11, the fire was 30 acres and by evening it was 150-200 acres

According the Forest Service "Helicopter bucket water-drops were made on Tuesday [July 11] to try and keep the fire north of the Clear Creek trail.  A ten person Hot Shot crew [was] positioned along the Clear Creek trail to 'check' the spread of the fire." The next day the fire grew to 600 acres. Burnout operations were conducted that appeared successful keeping the fire from Clear Creek. 

The next day the fire grew to 1000 acres. Because the fire was in the Frank Church Wilderness and a number of other fires were burning near structures on the forest, the fire was managed as "contain/confine" rather than "suppress."

On July 14 the fire "blew up," an incredible sight if you have ever seen it happen. Fanned by 50-60 mph winds, the fire ran 8 miles from Clear Creek up the main Salmon River's south side (where the road brings many travelers) to Pine Creek. By now the fire was burning in the habitat of the old Jureano Mountain Pack, which was killed off last year, but rejuvenated this spring when what was probably a formerly member or two returned to the traditional den site south of Pine Creek. The Salmon River road was closed to the public.

Clear Creek Fire. July 14. Forest Service Photo

On July 18, the fire had grown to 39,000 acres, burning up the Salmon River to between Pine and Beaver Creeks and southward up Panther Creek as far as Trail Creek. As of the 18th , the fire was just 5% contained.

On July 19, the fire remained about the same size.

Reports on July 21 and again on July 23 indicated the fire had not grown as was 20% contained. 700 persons were fighting the fire. $3.5 million had been spent to suppress the fire.

July 23 the fire was burning most actively to the west into the Frank Church Wilderness. Backcountry users in the Big Horn Crags were asked to leave as quickly as possible, although I don't know how any backcountry users would know about such as order. The fire grew to 40,000 acres and 800 people were fighting it. 

All homes in the area had been saved, but several other structures have burned. The success of the firefighters saving homes didn't stop complainers, Candice Burns reported in the Post Register, "Although fire officials say they've done everything they can to stop the fire - more than 800 people are working to put it out - Jack Ecklesdafre isn't satisfied. 'In one sense you can say thank you (to the Forest Service) for saving my building," said the Idaho Falls resident, who owns property on Panther Creek. "On the other hand the Forest Service is supposed to manage the forest - not let it burn. I didn't buy a cabin out here to look up on the hill and see a place like Yellowstone.' "

Meanwhile a new fire broke out 44 miles north of Salmon on the Idaho-Montana border and is threatening the Lost Trail Pass ski area where the recently rediscovered  White Cloud female and her pups were last reported.

I have been unable to obtain any information on the fate of the wolves in either area. In my recent report on the Wyoming wolves, I indicated that the Gros Ventre Pack was largely unperturbed by the fire near their den. However, that was a 600 acre fire.

This and many other fires always generate a political firestorm. I have had an intense interest in wildfires since the Yellowstone burns of 1988. Jackie, my spouse was also a fire tower lookout for four years -- one in north central Idaho, two in NE Oregon and one in northern Arizona. She called in a lot of fires, one of which grew as large as the Clear Creek fire.

Some conclusions:

1. Timber lobbyists will use the fires (and use them quickly) to argue that if the forest had been logged, and more roads built, the fires would not have happened.

2. Livestock interests will argue that had the area been grazed more heavily the fire would not have happened.

3. Timber lobbyists will strive for "salvage sales" after the fire because they get a great deal on burnt timber, which is especially good because they manage to cut a lot of green, unburned trees too.

4. Congress must provide for the high cost of fighting the fires on public land with a supplemental appropriations bill. The bill becomes a magnet for anti-environmental "riders" and other monetarily expensive riders.

5. Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana politicians will use the fires to bash the federal government. These politicians want the national forests turned over to the states, but they will not discuss how the states will pay for the fire fighting or maintaining  the dense infrastructure that is in place for these summertime fires.

July 25. Over a thousand fire-fighters are now on the fire. It is mostly burning to the south (into wolf habitat). Size is now 44,000 acres.

July 26. The fire grew slightly to 46, 000 acres. It is burning mostly vigorously to the southwest and northeast. 

The Clear Creek fire near Lost Trail Pass  remains a threat to the Lost Trail Ski area. The fire is 300 acres. 100 firefighters are on it. The Salmon-Challis National Forest would like another 280 firefighters, but with the growth of fires throughout the West, they may not available.

600 firefighters are working another central Idaho fire, the Burgdorf Junction fire, on the Payette National Forest. It has grown to 7100 acres

The new Fortress Fire in Gallatin Range, just north of Yellowstone National Park, was burning out of control, in the territory of the Chief Joseph Pack (Porcupine Creek) yesterday and today.

July 31. The weather has grown hotter and the fire is has doubled in size since my last update. It is burning not just the Jureano Pack's territory, but also that of the  Moyer Basin. The fire is moving south and east. Temperatures today are supposed to top 100 degrees. As with most forest fires, it is not consuming every bit of vegetation in its path, but rather leaves patches of trees, in some place burns only the underbrush and in others it reduces the forest to ash and bakes the ground. 

I was in the mountains near Hailey yesterday. The temperature in Hailey was 102 degrees. It was hot on top of Norton Peak, which I climbed (10,400 feet elev.). The elk are at or above timberline to avoid the heat and drought. There was a herd on the top flank of Norton Peak.

August 1. The fire has grown to 83,000 acres (130 square miles ). It is burning most heavily to the south and and east. Today is another red flag warning day with a Haines Index of 6.

August 2. The Clear Creek fire is now 91,000 acres. Marines are training  in fire fighting in California to fight this fire, and they are expected to be in Idaho by Saturday.  The fire has not burned over the den/rendezvous area of the rejuvenated Jureano Pack.  It is moving into the northern end of the Moyer Basin Pack's territory. 

The Burgdorf Junction fire in western Idaho NE of McCall has grown to 15,562 acres and the 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery of the U.S. Army from Ft. Hood, Texas, arrived and will begin field training near Boise today. This fire has displaced B45F, the wolf who went to Oregon. She has now moved south toward McCall. The Twin Creek fire on the Continental Divide (Idaho-Montana border) is now 95% confined at just under 600 acres, but there are numerous new fires in the area due to fresh lightning strikes.

The New Crooked Fire (after the Crooked Creek) is burning near Lolo Pass and U.S. Highway 12, in the territory of the Kelly Creek wolf pack and the Big Hole wolf pack. It is threatening structure near Lolo Pass. Size is 1200 acres. Zero per cent is contained. It is two miles from Lolo Pass.

Some of the wolves are hanging out near the edge of the fires, perhaps looking for deer/elk that didn't make it, but that is an unproven explanation.

August 3. 

As blazes rage, officials expect worse Dry heat predicted to continue into October By Rocky Barker The Idaho Statesman. 

The Clear Creek fire mostly burned southward on August 2 toward Blackbird Mountain.

August 4.

On August 3 the fire grew to 99,500 acres, but higher humidity and some rain showers helped the firefighters. Most of the burning was on the east side of Jureano Mountain (territory of the Jureano wolf pack) and on Blackbird Mountain.

August 20. From the Forest Service: Acreage: 156,254 acres 

Injuries: None 

Percentage Contained: 30% 

Estimated Date of Full Containment: Unknown 

Resources: 1510 people, 14 helicopters, 53 engines, 39 dozers. 

Current Situation: Winds up to 30 mph blew blew yesterday afternoon. The firelines in Pine Gulch, Napias Creek, and Panther Creek held. High winds and low humidities are predicted again for today. Crews near the Girl Scout camp will continue to burn out and hold the lines until around noon, when they will be pulled out to a safe location before the expected wind event. Crews in the Beartrack Mine and Napias Creek areas will be staged in camp until branch directors can evaluate conditions on the ground to determine if they can be deployed safely along the firelines. Crews will continue their work along Panther Creek, and structural protection engines will remain in place. Several wilderness fires continue to spread east toward the Clear Creek Fire. Very active fire conditions are expected. Communities north and east of the Clear Creek Fire can expect very smoky and conditions again today.

August 23. From the Forest Service: Acreage: 171,505 acres.

Acreage: 171,505 acres 

Injuries: None 

Percentage Contained: 36% 

Estimated Date of Full Containment: Unknown 

Resources: 1645 people, 16 helicopters, 58 engines, 14 dozers. 

A Red Flag Warning is in effect for the fire area today. Strong, possibly erratic winds are expected. 

Current Situation: Active fire behavior was observed again yesterday with spotting and torching along the south and eastern flanks of the fire. Fireline held along Pine Gulch, Napias Creek, and Panther Creek. Low relative humidity and northwest winds are increasing the difficulty of controlling fire west of Panther Creek. Today crews continue burnout operations along Panther Creek on the southeast flank of the fire. Firefighters are also reducing fuels around structures in the towns of North Fork and Gibbonsville. Structure protection work is underway in Castle Creek, Silver Creek, Ramshorn, and Meyer’s Cove. The Clear Creek team has now assumed control of the Aparejo fire, burning about 7 miles southwest of the Clear Creek Fire. Its current acreage is 10,457 acres. It started in the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness. Yesterday the fire made a 1¼ mile run. Last night crews conducted major burnout operations along the Panther Creek Road from Yellow Jacket Creek Road to Silver Creek Road to hold the fire west of Panther Creek.

September 1

Acreage: 200,155 acres                                

Injuries:  3                 


Percentage Contained: 49%                        

Estimated Date of Full Containment:  Unknown

Resources:  1757 people, 16 helicopters, 47 engines, 17 dozers.


Current Situation:  Progress continues on the burnout operations in the areas of Beaver Creek, Camp Creek and Silver Creek.  Firefighters are scouting/improving lines and conducting structure protection in Ramshorn and Castle Creek.. 


The Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment returns to Camp Pendleton, California, today.  Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina arrives today.  They will receive field training on Saturday and Sunday.



Salmon-Challis NF "Fire Season 2000" (US Forest Service website. They update it daily)

Idaho Visible satellite (look for plumes of smoke in daylight hours). The Clear Creek plume is in the center of the photo. 

Map of the Clear Creek Fire. This is current to August 20. 

More photos of the Clear Creek Fire

Wildland Fire Fighting Terminology

Email addresses for members of Congress, other officials, and the media

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  Copyright © 2000 Ralph Maughan

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Ralph Maughan PO Box 8264, Pocatello, ID 83209