Our trip on Idaho’s Salmon River last week certainly proved interesting. After five days of heavy smoke and floating past a couple mellow burn areas, we started to hear rumors from other trips of a more active fire along the takeout road. So at least we weren’t surprised to find a pair of public servants dressed in fire gear waiting for us at the Carey Creek boat ramp to escort us through the Tepee Springs Fire.
One happy surprise was that our vehicles were waiting for us, probably the last ones to be shuttled in before the road was closed to public traffic, absolutely filthy with the ash that had been raining down on the river corridor. So we loaded up, and then began to follow a very speedy pilot car down the heavily washboarded road. But only a few miles downstream, we stopped and were told to get out and talk to the incident commander. His name was Chris, he was a very pleasant and mellow local from McCall, Idaho He told us the fire was burning fast down a steep slope towards the road and the Manning Creek Bridge, and that we would therefore be spending the night there at a small inholding with the hotshot crews.
We were invited to hang out in our vehicles and run our air conditioners, but I don’t think the fire fighters realized that a) the smoke levels were child’s play compared to what we’d put up with for the previous week; and b) a bunch of long-time Idaho river guides aren’t that intimidated by being near an active burn. Though we all did our best to be very conscientious about following the firefighters’ instructions and staying out of their way, what we really wanted was to have some beers and enjoy the show.
I’ve floated and driven past a good number of fires over the years, but this was the first time I’ve hung out by one for 16 hours with a camera and tripod handy. The fire personnel we talked to were all very friendly and sociable. They gave us a bunch of MREs to eat, which made the kids in our group pretty happy, and Eli (my son) got a real hotshot glowstick, which made it the best day ever for him.
As expected, the fire burned down from the ridge toward the river, and also headed upstream the way we had come. The little ranch compound was an island in the red glow, quickly being surrounded. It would have been a very unnerving situation if we hadn’t had engines, pressurized hoses, lawn sprinklers and a bunch of hotshots around us. After dark, we started to hear the reports of the firefighters’ flare pistols as the ignited a backburn in the dry cheatgrass above the ranch.
The firefighters told us that we were very lucky to get great views of a fire behaving well in calm conditions, with operations going as planned. I couldn’t disagree – the flames and the reflections in the Salmon were dramatic and beautiful.
Chris, the incident commander, evidently wanted to offer us good surprises rather than bad ones; he’d told us repeatedly that we might be there all the next day, maybe even the day after, as we waited for the mile of road to the bridge to become safe. A vigorous fire on a steep slope like the one above the road really loosens up the soil as all the shrubs and roost systems are burned out, so falling rocks, boulders and smoldering logs were to be expected. But we got lucky. In mid-morning we got word that the road was okay, at least for now, and that we should pack up. Though they were gracious hosts, I’m sure the fire crews were eager to have us out of their hair, and we were eager to be gone, especially as the winds were already starting up. We’re all pretty efficient, and we got going in a hurry, weaving around only a few small rocks and burning logs in the road. It felt great to be across the river and onto pavement, as we watched more flames on the south side of the Salmon. Later that day, the fire jumped the river and grew rapidly, and we saw massive smoke clouds billowing up as we enjoyed breakfast in Riggins. It was an amazing show, and I’m glad to have seen it, but I won’t be disappointed if I never see it again. Idaho rivers and the American West being what they are, however, I doubt it’s the last major fire I’ll witness.
At the time of this writing, the Tepee Springs Fire is over 94,000 acres, and despite receiving a little rain recently is only 30% contained. Many thanks and best wishes for the firefighters working there and throughout the West!