Firefighters deal with challenges as they battle America's largest active wildfire near Salmon - East Idaho News

Firefighters deal with challenges as they battle America’s largest active wildfire near Salmon

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IDAHO FALLS – At more than 107,000 acres, the Moose Fire near Salmon is the nation’s largest active wildfire.

The human-caused blaze is approaching two months since it started five miles southwest of North Fork on Salmon-Challis National Forest land. It’s 44% contained, as of Wednesday, and officials are still investigating how it started and who is responsible.

To date, $71 million in federal funds have been spent on the fire. Full containment is estimated for Oct. 31 as crews work to put it out.

RELATED | Moose Fire is largest active wildfire in U.S. as it surpasses 95,000 acres

“Fire managers are committed to containing the Moose Fire as quickly as possible, but so far those efforts have been hampered by several challenges,” says fire spokeswoman Rebecca Ladnier.

In a conversation with, Ladnier recalled what happened on July 17 when the fire broke out.

“It quickly jumped the Salmon River, so they were trying to fight fire on both sides of the river. The first day there were two Type 1 helicopters, five single-engine air tankers and large air tankers dropping water on the fire. There were only three crews and one engine on the ground at that point,” Ladnier says.

Wind gusts were as high as 50 mph that day, she recalls, and the resources on-hand were not enough to get control of the flames.

“Within two days, it was over 12,000 acres, and aircraft were limited because of the high winds they were experiencing,” says Ladnier.

By the end of the week, it grew to more than 32,000 acres.

firefighter at moose fire
Firefighter on the scene of the Moose Fire in August. | Salmon-Challis National Forest

Tragedy struck early on as two helicopter pilots, 41-year-old Thomas Hayes of Post Falls and 36-year-old Jared Bird of Anchorage, Alaska, were killed on the Salmon River while assisting with firefighting efforts.

RELATED | Pilots killed in Salmon River helicopter crash

Ladnier wasn’t there at the time of the crash, but she describes the firefighting community as a family. When someone is killed in action, she says the impact is felt by each member of the team.

“From my own experience with a similar incident, I can tell you that the impact is first disbelief, that it doesn’t happen to you, it happens to other people. Then you have a shock (followed) by a really profound grief,” Ladnier says. “It’s a hazardous profession … but we do all that we know how to do to lessen those hazards and risks.”

Memorial services have been held for each pilot in their hometown. Ladnier says people lined the streets to pay their respects as Hayes’ body arrived in Post Falls.

RELATED | Governor orders flags be flown at half staff following fatal helicopter crash

Fortunately, no other injuries have occurred, but evacuations have taken place throughout the summer. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office is urging people in the Carmen and Salmon area to be ready to evacuate. An informational sheet about evacuation status is available here.

No permanent homes are in the area, Ladnier said, but seven rental cabins are in the path of the fire. None of the cabins were at risk as of Wednesday.

During fire season, the protection of people and property remains the priority.

“We need to keep in mind that fires in this country can move extremely fast. In 2000, there was a fire called the Shellrock Fire. It progressed 13 miles in one day,” says Ladnier.

One article points out that the Shellrock Fire stranded 11 workers on the Flying B Ranch near the Middle Fork of the Salmon River after a bridge caught fire during a lightning storm.

“Salmon-Challis National Forest has a history of fires (that have resulted in) firefighter entrapments and fatalities,” Ladnier says. “We can’t forget those things that have happened in the past, and (we must) keep it in mind as we make a plan to go forward with this fire.”

moose fire pic 1
Smoke from the Moose Fire on Tuesday, Sept. 6. | Salmon-Challis National Forest Facebook page

Other challenges

Steep terrain in the area, combined with the ongoing drought and red flag weather conditions have been the most prominent challenges firefighters have faced.

“The weather and fuel conditions are at unprecedented levels,” Ladnier explains.

With fires happening in other parts of the country, Ladnier says there’s a lot of competition for resources, putting more complications in their efforts to combat the blaze.

Though firefighters work hard to put the fire out when it starts, Ladnier says that if it spreads, it’s hard to knock it out with limited resources. Concerns about safety prompt fire managers to be strategic about where to place resources.

“We can’t just fight it on every front that it’s spreading all at once,” she says. “We don’t always directly engage the fire. We may have to go back to a place that is more accessible and more defensible.”

Once the fire operation is underway, fire managers determine where the fire could go and implement a plan to protect buildings, power lines, animals or people that may be at risk. Several mines and wells are in the path of the Moose Fire, so protecting these structures is also part of the plan.

What fire officials have done to protect these things from the Moose Fire include placing sprinklers wrapped in fire-resistant material around buildings, along with removing grass, flammable material and building fire breaks near roads and power lines.

“The idea is that when the fire gets to that fire break, there’s nothing for it to burn, so it’s going to slow down or stop,” Ladnier says.

Spot fires sometimes start near fire breaks, and firefighters have to be vigilant in mopping those up so they don’t spread.

Thousands of acres will have been impacted once the fire is out, but Ladnier says some potential benefits could result. She explains that there have been fires in this area before, which means there are scars and less fuel, which helps slow it down and possibly provide future fire control.

But there are some negative side effects too.

“Some of that vegetation (burns and dislodges) rocks and boulders. We’ve had some rocks and boulders fall on the Salmon River Road,” Ladnier says.

RELATED | Falling rocks and debris creating safety hazard for people on west side of Moose Fire

It all depends on the fire’s intensity.

As firefighting efforts continue, Ladnier is grateful for the support they’ve received from the surrounding community throughout this operation.

“The firefighters have appreciated the hospitality of the community of Salmon. They’ve been very welcoming to us and have expressed their gratitude every chance they get,” she says. “It really means a lot to the firefighters.”

The Moose Fire is one of 37 fires on Salmon-Challis National Forest land this season. Thirty-one of those fires have been put out, according to a news release on Sept. 5.