Tags: Effects of fire on backcountry ski terrain, Living with forest fire, Sawtooth Fire Bitterroot National Forest
Last Monday, September 10th the fire storm arrived from the Sawtooth Fire on the front face of Downing Mountain driven by 50 mile an hour gusts on the upper elevation ridgeline. The day before driven by similar winds the weeklong fire which had been slow to develop after discovery on August 30th, had made it to the upper mountain bowls one and a half miles from the Downing Mountain Lodge. The Sawtooth Fire started as a lightning strike near the summit of Downing Mountain about three miles by line from the Downing Mountain Lodge. By Labor Day a crew from Minnesota had responded to the lodge to begin preparing the fire line as the fire still lay miles away and was slow moving. These fire managers knew that a dry cold front would be likely this time of year and wanted to try preparing for the worst. By September 10th the hand line was complete from Switchback 12 up to the lodge and to the towers but not beyond. Sunday night we could see the fire in the upper elevations burning the heck out of the upper mountain. With winds continued in the forecast it was not hard to predict Monday’s conflagration as the winds drove the fire out of the sparse timber and rocky talus of the south face and onto the well developed forests and soils of the east face of Little Downing Mountain adjacent to the lodge property. With irrigation from surface development in Spring Creek we had been watering the green space around the lodge all summer and had a beautiful patch of safety around the lodge to the south and east and northeast and the gravel parking lot to the west and north. By 12:30 p.m. the fire was on the ridge between the forks of Owings Creek with flame heights at 200′. It was time to leave, but before doing so we hooked up a few more sprinklers, switched the roof top sprinklers to draw from the spring well out of the North Fork of Owings creek rather than the surface irrigation. By the time we left the crews were all down below and the fire spotters were all who were left, anxiously asking us to leave. We did.
The fire roared across the North Fork Owings Ridge and Creek within the hour, burning the A-Frame cabin in the draw and continuing, slightly moderating on the south face but still reaching the green space around the lodge as a moderate crown fire. The sprinklers and green space were able to hold the line and the fire broke north and west around the lodge and parking lot, diminishing significantly to the northeast, but continuing hot to the west where it race over the fire lines, over the retardeant lines and into the towers facility where being the ridge the crown fire died to a moderate ground and brush event. WOW!
Continuing up the the ridge above the lodge, the fire found its way across the ridge and into thick north facing timber on the FS lands adjacent to the lodge property and resumed burning as a crown fire event burning hot and fiery all Monday night as it crawled down the hill eventually consuming the hillside to an elevation just below the lodge and burning up the irrigation line which had served its purpose so well. Now passed midnight with only the well on which to depend, the roof sprinkler and south side parking lot sprinklers continued unabated for the next 30 hours when I arrived at the lodge, to find the Prineville HotShots had turned it off as there was an eighth of ice coating the roof and decks from our first hard frost Wednesday morning.
Since Monday night the fire has skunked around in the brush, occasionally torching individual trees and downfall. The entire north east face above the 2010 fire seems to be mostly intact below the 7,600′ bench, where again the hot fire seemed to be burning for a couple of days. Tying the final road grade to the lodge and switchback one together with some old skidder roads heading into the Spring Creek draw and crossing the creek and building handline up to the Big Rock Outcrop where the fire made it to in 2010 has been the work of several Hot Shot and other fire crews from Oregon in Prineville and over near Burns by the Snake River and another crew from the Idaho panhandle and the Flagstaff Hot Shots. This is the frontline of the fire where it has remained unburned to the north of this line.
Already I have had a meeting with the Resource Advisor and head hydrologist with the Bitterroot Forest, Ed Snook about rehabilitation and fire effects mitigation in the North Fork of Owings Creek and with the forest in Spring Creek. It looks fairly good for getting some work done on the roads, lines, trails and gullies to help prevent the inevitable erosion that powdered earth on steep ground presents. I will be working the chainsaw more than ever before and harvesting loads of firewood as well as working the trails for burned deadfall. With half of the mountain burned and the other half not, overall this has been an incredibly beneficial experience and opportunity for us at the lodge. We survived the conflagration and now have the safety of the burn and the beauty of watching and working with the forest towards restoration and regrowth. Sometime when the rains come we will certainly have another celebration, this time of our survival amongst our most frequent natural disaster: FIRE!