Open Roads: Idaho – Burning Turns

Idaho has more roadless territory than any other state in the lower 48, most of it mountainous.  One-hundred-fourteen different ranges make Idaho a backcountry ski and snowboard paradise.  Altitudes are mostly high enough to see precipitation in the form of snow during winter months, yet not so high and exposed to upper level winds that strip snow from the high alpine peaks.  Most the states moisture falls during winter months, while summer is typically arid and warm in the high country.  Recent drought years have been followed by impressive wildfire events that have sizzled the landscape, leaving behind a stark and stunning playground, especially when winter returns.

The Smokey Mountains of south-central Idaho get their name for the frequent forest fires that occur in this remote part of the state.  Until 2012, the National Forest management plan for this area did not recognize fire as a natural part of the ecosystem. After decades of active fire suppression, the predominant lodgepole forests have become overcrowded and full of fuel, increasing the potential for large, uncontrollable fires.

On August 7, 2013 a lightening strike just 12 miles northeast of Fairfield ignited a fire that would become an historic event.  High winds and low humidity stirred the Beaver Creek fire into a massive inferno.  The fire was quickly called out as a Type 1 incident and declared the nations highest priority on a long list of wildland fires across the drought-stricken West.  Residents of Hailey, Ketchum, and Sun Valley were asked to evacuate their homes as firefighters desperately tried to contain the blaze with numerous helicopters, air tankers and smoke jumpers.

Nearly a month later, Incident Command declared the fire 100 percent contained.  Remarkably only one house had burned, but over 100,000 acres of national forest were scorched. Local residents praised the valiant efforts of those firefighters who worked vigorously day and night to fortify the western boundary where flames lit up the skies and poured smoke over the valleys day after day. Despite a tourist economy that had imploded during an otherwise busy month in the Sun Valley area, people seemed optimistic. Only seven years earlier, this area survived a similar event when the Castle Rock fire burned over 50,000 acres in the Smoky Mountains.

Skiing Smokey Mountains, Idaho backcountry; Photograph by Alex Obrien

Skiing the Smoky Mountains, Idaho backcountry; Photograph by Alex Obrien

What at first seemed tragic quickly became magic when the snows of winter arrived. A blanket of pure white covered the ground in between black monolithic trees without branches.  It is one of nature’s most elegant displays to see both ends of the color spectrum with nothing in-between.

Where the fire burned hottest, conifer skeletons stand like fragile statues unaffected by wind.  Choreographed by wind and fuel, the burn follows a mosaic pattern through the lodgepole forests, leaving behind large swaths of steep terrain unobscured by the branches and needles of before.  For skiers and snowboarders, it’s a visual feast worth traveling for.