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Burned Out

The fires are almost out. Now what?

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It was a tough summer to be an outdoor enthusiast.

As fires burned millions of acres of Idaho wildlands this summer, Idahoans got used to the fact that any trip, anywhere in the state, could be canceled due to fire. Not even the annual Yellow Pine Harmonica Festival was safe. Neither were Ketchum's Labor Day events, including the town's monthly gallery walk and a host of other events. Campers were forced to reconsider weekend destinations, and mountain bikers and hikers lost trail access all over the state.

With the end of this year's fire season (the season officially ended on September 25 with rain- and snow-fall at higher elevations) and the majority of the land use and access restrictions lifted, Idaho's land management agencies are now assessing the damage and beginning the recovery process of nearly 2 million burned acres. For recreationists who found some of their favorite destinations closed by fires this summer, they'll return to areas that have changed drastically.

Since the start of Boise National Forest's fire season on July 17 until all restrictions were lifted last week, public access was severely restricted in the Cascade Ranger District and portions of the Emmett and Lowman districts, says David Olson, spokesman for Boise National Forest. With approximately 250,000 acres burned in the Boise National Forest this year (the highest since records keeping began in 1908, besting the 1992 record of 207,000 acres), Olson describes the fire season as "very vigorous."

"On July 17, a lightning storm started over 30 fires," says Olson. "We went after those right away, and with every new fire, we took as vigorous action as possible, but we were overwhelmed, and while we got the majority of fires out, there were a few that gained in size quickly and that's what we were faced with the rest of the summer."

With a large number of acres closed to the public this summer in forests all over the state, the Payette and Salmon-Challis national forests joined the Boise National Forest on a Web site created through the Forest Service to show not only where fires were located, but more importantly, says Olson, where they were not.

"The intent was to be able to say, 'You may not be able to go to this area, but there are other areas in Southwest Idaho to go and recreate,'" explains Olson. With the end of the fire season, that site (fs.fed.us/idahofires) now provides safety information for people planning to head into recently re-opened areas. The site also links to information relevant to the upcoming hunting season.

With the exception of the sage grouse season, which has been closed in Owyhee County east of the Bruneau River, a spokesman from Idaho Department of Fish and Game says the agency has not had to restrict fishing or hunting due to fire. However, that's not to say hunters and fisherman won't notice the effects. In some parts of the state, IDFG extended backcountry elk and bighorn sheep seasons to give hunters more flexibility. For summer fishermen, road and trail closures affected access in localized areas, and hunters can expect the same as hunting seasons approach, with several big game units significantly affected, according to the Forest Service's Web site.

In the Payette National Forest, which contains parts of the affected big game units, hunters will find road and trail closures as a result of fire damage, says spokeswoman Denise Cobb.

The closure of the South Fork Salmon River Road, which is expected to remain closed until mid-November after more than 150 of the road's culverts were burned, will affect hunters who hunt in the area. Road and trail closures in the Council Ranger District that fall within the Grey's Creek Fire perimeter will also affect areas popular with hunters.

"Whether you want to hunt or hike in burned areas," warns Cobb, "the fire area is more unsafe with snags, some hot spots and holes. And people can't use the area the way they normally have. It's burned, and hunting is a different experience."

Up in the Sawtooths, Ed Cannady echoes Cobb's comments.

"The burned area will be changed considerably," says Cannady, Sawtooth National Recreation Area backcountry recreation manager. "I wouldn't call any of them destroyed, but they are definitely changed."

According to Cannady, most of the trails affected in the Castle Rock fire in the Sawtooth National Forest saw considerable mountain bike traffic, as well as some motorbike traffic, prior to the fire, and many of them needed to be rerouted anyway. And from a recreational perspective, Cannady doesn't consider changes due to wildland fire to be a negative.

"These trails that burned give people a great opportunity to get in and watch an area come back from a wildfire," he says. "It's a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem, and people can watch the stages of vegetative advance."

Olson, too, says there are positive effects for the forest environment.

"It changes the dynamics when you move from a dense forest to an open forest," he says about burned areas. "You'll typically see many new grasses or growths, which can stimulate new wildlife species to live in those areas, enhance big game [populations], and even next year in river canyons, there will be an immediate response with a lush growth of grasses and shrubs that is very palatable, nutritious forage for deer and elk."

But there is a negative side as well. Olson says that aesthetically, once-timbered and forested green hillsides will have become bare hills with visible snags. More importantly, fires pose a risk of detrimental ecological effects. For example, soil movement due to a loss of vegetation could add sediment to a creek, jeopardizing fish populations. Land management agencies must now assess where those dangers exist and take action to rehabilitate the areas.

In the Payette National Forest, crews are in the field determining such things as how badly Loon Lake and the World War II-era bomber remnants were damaged by the fire that engulfed the area. Some of the damage has already been calculated. The Cabin Creek Campground in the Payette National Forest was closed due to fire damage, and in the Boise National Forest, popular riverside South Fork of the Salmon River Campground was significantly impacted when fire burned through it, as was an outfitter and guide camp south of Warm Lake.

For now, Cobb says, crews are focusing on more immediate concerns, like how to stabilize damaged slopes along the South Fork Salmon River Road.

"Erosion control structures were already in place, and they're damaged," says Cobb. "So they're really going to have to focus on fixing those, as well as put in culverts."

And when spring rolls around and new growth sets in, the healing process will continue.

"It looks different and that can be hard for people," says Cannady, "but it's not devastation."