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In early days, Ross Fork Fire managers prioritized firefighter safety

Managers recount first weeks of destructive Sawtooth blaze

Ross Fork Fire; amy david

Sun Valley firefighter Matt Gelso works on the Ross Fork Fire around Smiley Creek near midnight Sunday, Sept. 4.

Seven professional firefighters known as “smokejumpers” parachuted into a remote area in the Sawtooth Mountains on Aug. 14 to try to contain a newly discovered wildfire. The lightning-caused blaze, about 260-acres in size, was burning in steep, sparsely forested terrain north of Ross Fork Basin, about eight miles southwest of the community of Smiley Creek.

By then, the Moose Fire near Salmon had already burned nearly 80,000 acres, on its way to burn some 50,000 more. One thousand firefighters were already on the scene. Two other wildfires in the wilderness north of the Sawtooths had consumed about 1,500 acres, too. But this new fire, dubbed the Ross Fork Fire, would burn slowly in remote terrain for at least two weeks before it became a high priority.

Over the next two weeks, the Ross Fork Fire meandered on ridge lines and across ravines far from population centers before it exploded around Labor Day weekend. High winds and hot temperatures blew the fire into thick stands of forest and rangeland, much of which had been thinned during Forest Service “vegetation treatments” over the last 20 years to reduce fire risk. Despite the logging, mowing of sage and mastication of slash piles that had taken place in the area, the Ross Fork Fire eventually roared down into the Sawtooth Basin, consuming nearly 38,000 acres and destroying multiple structures. Fortunately, no lives were lost.

The Ross Fork Fire approached 38,000 acres on Sept. 13, where it has stayed since.

Ross Fork hotshot

Hotshots work on the Ross Fork Fire on Friday, Sept. 9.

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