FIRE IN THE FRANK CHURCH RIVER OF NO RETURN WILDERNESS

Release Date: Sep 11, 2018  

Contact(s): Amy Baumer


The Central Idaho Dispatch Zone is at HIGH Fire Danger.

The United States Congress designated the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho in 1980 and it has a total of more than 2,300,000 acres.  The Frank Church-River of No Return, the largest contiguous unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System in the Lower 48.  It is second in size only to California's Death Valley Wilderness, which consists of many non-contiguous pieces.  This area combines the old Idaho Primitive Area, the Salmon Breaks Primitive Area, territory on in two Forest Service Regions and six national forests, and a small swath of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.  It is a land of clear rivers, deep canyons, and rugged mountains.

For most of the 20th century, any form of wildland fire, whether naturally caused or otherwise, was immediately suppressed.  Standards regulating wildfire suppression in the 1960s changed because ecological studies recognized fire as a natural process that was necessary for new growth.  Today, policies supporting complete fire suppression have been replaced with those that encourage wildland fire to be used as a tool.

Fire management activities within wilderness are executed in a manner compatible with overall wilderness management objectives.  Preference is given while using methods and equipment that cause the least alteration of the wilderness landscape, disturbance of the land surface, disturbance to visitor solitude, reduction of visibility during periods of visitor use, and adverse effect on other air quality related values.  Whenever possible fire camps, helispots, and other temporary facilities or improvements are located outside of the wilderness boundary.  Disturbed areas within wilderness are rehabilitated to as natural an appearance as possible.  “Our firefighters on the Kiwah Fire have welcomed the opportunity to interact with recreationalists and outfitters on the Middle Fork Salmon River to help share how to learn to live with fire while ensuring a safe recreational experience near an active fire area,” said Riley Rhoades, the former Incident Commander of the Kiwah Fire.

The lightning caused Kiwah Fire, was detected at approximately 5:30 p.m. on July 17, 2018.  Operations for the Kiwah Fire are logistically a challenge.  Firefighters are flying into a remote airstrip to assess and protect values; including private property and mining infrastructure, Forest Service Guard Stations, Middle Fork Salmon River boat traffic, road and trail improvements, lookout buildings, communication sites, and cultural resources.  The cultural resources are abandoned, historical mining structures. 

A wilderness is recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.  An area of wilderness is further defined to mean an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed to preserve its natural conditions.  The Wilderness Act states there shall be no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act.  Additionally there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.  The use of motorized equipment and mechanical transport is only allowed for in emergency situations, such as fire management, where there is an inescapable urgency and temporary need for speed beyond that available by primitive means. 

Given, past, current, and expected fire behavior on the Kiwah Fire, in order to successfully implement a point protection strategy, motorized equipment has been approved for use.  A point protection strategy is a wildfire response strategy, which protects specific assets or highly valued resources from the wildfire without directly halting the continued spread of the wildfire which takes in to account exposure to firefighters, values at risk, impacts to area user groups, and in the case of the Kiwah Fire, wilderness values.  The selected point protection strategy was determined to best balance protection of values and firefighter safety along with administration of the wilderness and its resources in the Wilderness Management Plan.  The Line Officer approving the use of motorized equipment, aircraft, or mechanical transport specifies what uses of that equipment are suitable and will have the least lasting impact to the wilderness resource.

The thick smoke outside is not only coming from the Kiwah Fire, it is coming from the many other fires around the region.  Nationally, there are 26 uncontained large fires in the west managed under a full suppression strategy, and 59 large fires managed under a strategy other than full suppression.

Fire managers goal is to allow fire to play its natural role in the ecosystem while preserving wilderness character and maintaining access to popular areas that contribute to our sense of place and local economy.  This requires a delicate balance of maintaining public and firefighter safety while still providing visitors with the wilderness experience they came for.

The Salmon-Challis National Forest understands the inconvenience that fire, and the impacts associated with it, like smoke causes for people.  However, we can either deal with isolated pockets of smoke and short-term displacement from recreational values such as trails and roads or long-term and potentially devastating impacts in the future.

The impacts of escalating wildfire in many regions, the lives and homes lost, the expense of suppression and the damage to ecosystems, have led us to the conclusion that sustainable coexistence with wildfire is absolute.  Climate change and continued development on fire-prone landscapes is and will continue to be a challenge.

When recreating in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness travel plans should be flexible, call the local Ranger District office for current conditions before you go, as well as a safe place to go (a safety zone) when fires are burning.  Know Before You Go! Contact the Salmon-Challis National Forest for current fire information in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

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