Frank Church Wilderness closed amid raging wildfires
Fire closes in on Sunbeam
By GREG STAHL
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
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 were trying to impress on people is that its
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. Its 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
arent 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.
"Its creeping down that ridge a bit. It wouldnt 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 didnt need to move anything, but we
werent 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 hasnt hindered rafting business on the upper Salmon for most of
the areas rafting companies.
"Its 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.