The Ross Fork Fire burning in the Sawtooth Valley in northern Blaine County continues to spread in some of the region’s most popular recreational areas, with the flames pushing toward Alturas Lake, Pettit Lake and the headwaters of the Salmon River, near Galena Summit.
The fast-moving wildfire on the west side of state Highway 75 burned approximately 2,500 acres between Wednesday morning and Thursday morning, bringing the burn-area size to about 31,300 acres of forest, brush and grassy areas where the Smoky and Sawtooth mountains meet. The fire was only 2% contained Thursday afternoon.
In a community meeting Wednesday night near Stanley, Incident Commander Marty Adell told the audience that firefighting teams have been actively battling the blaze but have been hindered some by excessively hot, dry conditions, as well as high winds.
Adell—the leader of Great Basin Team 3, a high-level Type 2 federal wildfire team—had assumed command of the fire on Wednesday from a lower-level Type 3 team, which will stay at the site to assist, officials said Wednesday.
As of Thursday morning, 493 personnel were assigned to fight the Ross Fork Fire.
“We are aggressively attacking this fire every chance we get,” Adell said.
Kirk Flannigan, ranger of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, said crews have been taking a “full suppression” approach to the fire on three sides, on the northern, eastern and southern boundaries.
A “red flag warning”—predicted weather defined by warm temperatures, low humidity and high winds—was in place for the region Thursday. Winds were expected to push the fire toward the south and east.
By Thursday morning, the fire had pushed north to the southern edges of Alturas Lake and to the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness west of the lake. It had also spread about eight miles south and east toward Vienna Creek and the forested headwaters of the Upper Salmon River, near where Highway 75 winds up toward Galena Summit.
In a briefing Thursday morning, Great Basin Team 3 Section Chief Todd Murray said crews were working on the southwestern flank of the fire and on the northeast, east and southeast sides, where they would try to keep the flames from crossing Alturas Creek Road, Highway 75 and the Upper Salmon River. The western flank—where the fire was moving into the Sawtooth Wilderness—was being monitored with aircraft, he said.
Just past 2 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, an individual flying a drone in the Beaver Creek drainage caused all air support to shut down, according to Smiley Creek volunteer fire commander Allen Jones.
“We’re scrambling to do what we can and stuff like this happens—it’s heartbreaking. It’s all heartbreaking,” Jones’ longtime partner, former firefighter Angela Borup, told the Express.
Murray added on Thursday that crews were also working to mop up spot fires around the Smiley Creek subdivision, where the fire’s northeastern flank had reached over Labor Day weekend.
On Tuesday afternoon, pushed by high winds, the fire had jumped Highway 75 near Smiley Creek but was controlled after burning an approximately 800-acre area near Pole Creek Road, a dirt road that ascends into the White Cloud Mountains.
Fire sets uneasy tone in Smiley Creek
Ketchum-based event planner Heather Minor—who, along with her husband, Apple’s Bar & Grill owner Hank Minor, is among the roughly six dozen cabin owners in the Smiley Creek area—told the Express that it was a “miracle” that more homes weren’t lost over the weekend.
“It kind of looks like disaster up there right now. But for the most part, the neighborhood is in a better spot and more secure,” she said. “That could change at any moment, though.”
On Saturday, she recalled “crazy” winds, air choked with smoke and an overall atmosphere of “panic” in the neighborhood that soon gave way to pragmatism.
“We were like, ‘We gotta do what we gotta do,’ and jumped into action. Everyone started turning on their sprinklers and putting sprinklers up on their roofs. This was before the evacuation orders,” she said.
Minor said neighbors then scrambled to remove firewood stacked around their houses and anything flammable in their yards.
On Sunday, as some 20 fire personnel from the Wood River Valley headed to the scene, Minor watched flames come down from Abe’s Armchair—the iconic formation just south of Smiley Creek Lodge—and approach the wooded area bordering the neighborhood.
“That’s when it got really scary,” she said. “The wind really picked up, and the smoke got heavy. Everyone’s fire alarms were going off. Wi-Fi went out.”
Friends staying at Redfish Lake saw the flames and headed down to Smiley Creek, worried. As news began to spread of the evacuation order issued by the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office that evening—“both by word of mouth and on Facebook”—Minor said their friends helped the couple pack up their two cars with everything they could think of.
Other neighbors fled to ranches out Pole Creek where they unloaded horses and parked their trailers, or crossed Galena Summit into Ketchum with permission from the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office.
Wood River Fire & Rescue firefighter Zack Traylor, who was on scene Sunday night working on structure protection, said the fire had retreated somewhat when he arrived.
“As soon as we got there the wind changed dramatically and kind of flipped the fire back on itself,” he said.
By Monday night, however, the fire had picked back up and consumed two cabins on the southern end of Vader Drive.
“Those were the homes where the trees and fuels were heaviest,” Minor said. “One of the residents was out of town.”
Minor said she planned to leave on Monday, but “got stuck” when the fire spotted across the highway, prompting crews to start a back burn operation to hem in the flames. She drove back to Ketchum on Tuesday after the spot fire was contained. Friends with a ranch further north had allowed her husband to park their truck and trailer on their property, she added.
Minor said a majority of those who have stayed behind are “very knowledgeable” volunteer firefighters.
“Zach (Crist), the owner of the lodge, is up there too, feeding all the firefighters, who have been holding their meetings there,” Minor said. “I think the wind is just the biggest concern right now.”
On Wednesday and Thursday, Borup was busy putting together care packages for firefighters, distributing air purifiers and a fresh batch of masks, and doing laundry for the crew members. She said she planned to make meatloaf for 30 people, “enough for dinner and sandwiches tomorrow.”
“It is heartbreaking,” she said, “seeing the total loss of all of our favorite places to explore.”
Officials grapple with ‘horrific’ damage
The federal handoff this week allowed several local firefighting agencies that have been helping on the scene, including the Ketchum, Bellevue, Hailey and Sun Valley fire departments and Wood River Fire & Rescue, to send crew members home, Traylor said.
Several Blaine County Sheriff’s Office deputies remained on scene enforcing intermittent closures of Highway 75 between Prairie Creek Road and the Blaine-Custer county line on Wednesday and Thursday, according to Ketchum Police Chief Jamie Shaw.
The highway was open as of Thursday morning. However, the Sheriff’s Office has warned that the highway is subject to closure at any time and travelers are advised to check the Idaho Transportation Department website for updates.
A mandatory evacuation order was issued Wednesday for the Pettit Lake Road and Cabin Creek Road areas after fire activity increased east of Alturas Lake. The order also remains in place for all homes and campgrounds in Sawtooth City, Smiley Creek, Alturas Lake and Beaver Creek. A vast zone of the Sawtooth National Forest is also closed to public access, including the Pettit Lake area, Alturas Lake, the Pole Creek drainage and the Salmon River headwaters area.
The Ross Fork Fire was started by a lightning strike on Aug. 14 in a remote section of forest west of Smiley Creek and burned slowly for numerous days. On Friday, Sept. 2, crews with hand tools worked on the fire, officials said. A “high wind event” caused the blaze to erupt over Labor Day weekend, sending a huge smoke plume into the sky as it aggressively spread. The fire was fueled not only by high winds, fire officials said in the meeting Wednesday, but also unseasonably hot and dry conditions that caused “extreme fire behavior.” That behavior has sometimes been exacerbated by the presence of dead, beetle-killed trees.
On Sunday, Sept. 4, high winds pushed the fire toward Smiley Creek, where fire engines and firefighters were stationed to protect buildings, officials said Wednesday. Since the fire entered the Smiley Creek community on Labor Day, teams have used a variety of resources—including hand crews, engines, bulldozers, helicopters and air tankers—to battle the blaze and protect structures. However, weather and fire conditions have sometimes prompted firefighting activity to be halted, officials said.
Firefighting crews have employed a variety of tactics, officials said, including water drops, “burnout” operations to eliminate fuels, and trying to establish lines to contain the fire. However, the use of fire retardant has been restricted to protecting “life and property” because of so-called “avoidance zones” established to prevent stream pollution that could kill endangered salmon, they said.
Flannigan told the meeting audience that federal and local officials understand the impact of the fire on property owners and others who value the vast 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
“It’s real. It’s lasting. We feel it,” he said.
The extreme behavior of the fire has been notable, Flannigan said, including when it marched northeast down the Beaver Creek drainage, which runs toward the Smiley Creek community northwest of the Smiley Creek drainage.
“Seeing that fire come down Beaver Creek was amazing,” he said. “It was horrific.”
Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary told the audience Wednesday that she was appreciative that additional resources had been sent to help protect “a place we all love.”
She echoed some of Flannigan’s comments.
“It’s scary to see how erratic this fire has been, the behavior of it,” she said.
McCleary said Gov. Brad Little had signed Blaine County’s emergency declaration for the Ross Fork Fire, meaning more money and resources would be made available. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will also help with funding to reimburse spending on fighting the fire, she said.
Adell said firefighting teams across the West are faced with a similar problem: a lack of resources to combat the high number of wildfires brought on by drought and above-average heat levels. Large fires are burning in California, he noted, and Idaho’s largest wildfire—the 123,000-acre Moose Fire northwest of Salmon—continues to grow.
“The number of resources is at a very, very low drawdown,” Adell said.
To gain more control of the Ross Fork Fire, Adell said, the team has a three-, seven- and 10-day outlook with associated plans. A cold front with northwest winds was scheduled to move into the region Thursday, though temperatures would likely only drop from above average to average, and conditions would likely remain very dry, fire officials said.
With the fire growing and minimal containment established, the Forest Service has set an estimated containment date for the fire at Oct. 31. ￼