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For the week of August 16 through 22, 2000

Frank Church Wilderness closed amid raging wildfires

Fire closes in on Sunbeam

Express Staff Writer

Due to the danger posed by eight out-of-control fires, the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness Area will be closed to all public use beginning tomorrow.

The closure will affect over 2,000 miles of trails, over 80 miles of river and all airstrips except for one. It will not close the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The main Salmon, however, will be closed to boating.

The decision was made by the supervisors of the Payette, Salmon/Challis and Nez Perce national forests.

"We did not enter into this decision lightly," Salmon/Challis National Forest supervisor George Matejko said in a Tuesday press release. "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."

This summer, over 182,000 acres have burned in the 2.3-million-acre wilderness. Most of the fires in the wilderness are being fought only when they threaten lives or property, the press release states.

According to Salmon/Challis National Forest spokesman Kent Fuellenbach, people who are already in the wilderness at the time of the closure will be allowed to come out at their own pace.

"If they are in areas of imminent danger, we will try to contact them," Fuellenbach added.

River runners will be allowed to float out of the wilderness, he said.

Fuellenbach said people ignoring the closure and entering the wilderness anyway could be cited.

"But what we’re trying to impress on people is that it’s not safe to be in there," he said.

The closure will remain in effect until further notice.

Closer to home, a lightning-caused wildfire is threatening the hamlet of Sunbeam in the Salmon River corridor, according to a Forest Service fire status report.

The 2,116-acre fire started Friday near Rankin Creek, which empties into the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River from the east. It’s burning about 20 miles from Stanley and is just several miles from Sunbeam.

Yesterday, the 279 firefighters working on the blaze had it 85 percent contained, according to the status report.

On Friday, however, the Forest Service evacuated two raft guiding companies from their Sunbeam-based headquarters for fear the fires would move in that direction. So far the flames have not, and the guides were permitted to resume operations.

Two-M River Outfitters owner Michael Murphy said, however, that the flames aren’t far away.

"You can sit in the parking area at Sunbeam [Dam] and see spot fires on the ridge to the north and west," he said in an interview yesterday. "It’s creeping down that ridge a bit. It wouldn’t take much for that fire to come down that ridge."

On Friday, Murphy said his guides pulled four rafts full of people off the river when the smoke and flames settled in.

"It turned out we probably didn’t need to move anything, but we weren’t taking any chances. It was real smoky," he said.

Later that afternoon, the Forest Service ordered mandatory evacuation for the entire Sunbeam area.

Two-M and White Otter Outdoor Adventures have resumed operations in Sunbeam, though the Forest Service is requiring that they meet guests at the river put-ins, Murphy said.

According to Erasmo Paolo, the managing director of The River Co. in Stanley, the fire hasn’t hindered rafting business on the upper Salmon for most of the area’s rafting companies.

"It’s a little smoky down there, but depending on the time of day, that all gets blown out, too," he said.

Another fire near Fairfield was extinguished Monday after burning for a little over a week and consuming six acres of dry desert.

Firefighting personnel were taken off the fire Monday.


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