Salmon and wildfire both find their place in Idaho’s wilderness

Shooting star wildflowers in a meadow in Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho. Photo by John McCarthy.

Every spring I hike out to a special meadow in Idaho’s Frank-Church River of No Return Wilderness to see spectacular wildflowers. Earlier this month, I had a chance to witness the same wild place, only this time to see a burning summer wildfire. Both the flowers and the fire are wonderful and beautiful acts of nature.

My location for connection with nature is the southwest corner of the vast Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho. At 2.3 million acres, here the wilderness is big enough to provide a full view of wild nature.

In the spring, walking through swaths of shooting stars, camas and marsh marigolds, I also watched multiple pairs of sandhill cranes hop and chortle in mating displays. The entire meadow was awash with color and wet with soggy snowmelt, providing home to beavers in the meandering Elk Creek — including one who surfaced for a good view at sunset.

Now in midsummer, I watched the Little Beaver wildfire smolder and cast smoke after a thundershower at the edge of the wilderness. As the fire burned, three-foot long wild Chinook salmon swam in the lower end of the same Elk Creek. The salmon traveled upstream more than 800 miles from the Pacific Ocean to Elk Creek, a tributary of the famed River of No Return or Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

While the salmon, cranes and beavers are recreating age-old cycles, this particular fire reflects a new approach to fire management, with multiple objectives to provide safety, resource benefits and cost efficiency — now and in future years.

Little Beaver fire smolders over Elk Creek with beaver house on bank in Idaho. Photo by John McCarthy.A variety of techniques and tools were used to contain the fire spread on the west and south flanks but it didn’t include digging down to mineral soil to carve a hard fire line in the old tradition of fighting all wildfires. Along the south side, a wide stretch of several miles and a couple thousand acres were intentionally torched by helicopter and hand held drip torch, to burn out fuels down-slope from lightning started ignition points. This burn out ran at moderate intensity and along a reasonably even line — to avoid high intensity runs up and down the slope that could put fire workers at risk from runaways. Elsewhere the fire crews put out some spot fires and moved some fuels into the already blackened areas, which makes the eventual rehabilitation easier than a hard fire line.

These effective containment techniques have allowed important backcountry roads to remain open at the south and the west sides of the fire. A couple of private cabins, an outfitter camp and a historic ranger station were also protected.

At the same time the fire is allowed to burn east and north into the wilderness, “poking along” and “milling around” at low to moderate intensity, according to Bobby J. Shindelar, Boise National Forest fire management officer. In this year with temperatures lower and moisture higher than average, it’s a good time to get some fire on the landscape, he said.

“In a draught year it could all get slicked off by a high intensity fire,” Shindelar said. While these lodgepole pine forests are characterized by hot, stand-replacing fires, there have been a lot of recent hot years with big fires and the forest managers want some variability in fire size and scope.

The management strategy is called monitor/confine/contain and is worked into plans for the entire crew of 251 people, which is set up in a technologically advanced camp in a broad meadow where elk show up at the evening briefing. The large crew will only be on site for a week or a little more, depending on how much fuels dry out and warm up. Then the local fire crews will shift to strategy where monitoring is the primary emphasis.

The fire may burn for weeks into the wilderness, and will spread beyond its size of 4,053 acres. As Shindelar and I looked over the patchy burned hillside at Elk Creek, and salmon darted through the water at our feet, we agreed, “it looks really good and it’s the right thing to do.”

Shooting star wildflowers in a meadow in Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho. Photo by John McCarthy.
Little Beaver fire smolders over Elk Creek with beaver house on bank in Idaho. Photo by John McCarthy.