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Biologists Assess Wilderness Fires

The implications of massive wildfires in the central Idaho wilderness were assessed by wildlife biologists Mike Scott and Greg Painter September 18. Their report: Yesterday afternoon, we were able to arrange a two-hour helicopter reconnaissance flight over the wilderness fires, courtesy of the Salmon-Challis National Forest. Departing from Challis, we toured the Pistol Creek, Norton Ridge, Sheep Creek, Flying B, and Big Creek burn areas, returning to Challis via Camas Creek and the Aparejo Fire. Our general overall assessment is that we probably had some animal losses in the fast intense fire runs in Pistol Creek, Brush Creek, Sheep Creek, and Big Creek; but that winter ranges remain at least adequate (Big Creek) to relatively unaffected (Pistol Creek). At least in Unit 27, there does not appear to be a strong biological justification for re-arranging the big game survey schedule to include Unit 27 this winter instead of the regularly scheduled survey in winter 2001-02. Pistol Creek The lower third of the Pistol and Little Pistol drainages burned with a moderate to high intensity, as did the west face of Little Soldier Mountain (across the Middle Fork from Pistol Creek.) The fire burned lightly across the face from Pistol Creek to Indian Creek, due in part to a controlled burn conducted around the Indian Creek airstrip by the USFS this spring. There was some fire on the south side of the Indian Creek drainage, producing a nice mosaic of burned and unburned areas. Overall, this fire was located on the upper fringes of where big game can winter; winter range impacts were insignificant. Shellrock Fire This was an intense, fast-moving fire that burned through the Flying B and Mormon Ranch. At the heads of the drainages, the fire tended to produce a mosaic pattern; in places, it burned in apparent wind-driven streaks across the slope, rather than up and down slope. As the fire moved downslope toward the mouths of Sheep and Brush Creeks, it apparently became more concentrated and more intense; most of the lower ends of these drainages did burn. High intensity burning occurred in the lower ends of Sheep, Brush, and Warm Spring Creeks and across the Mormon Ranch property from Warm Spring Creek to Reservoir. Although the fire reached as far as Soldier Creek, fire intensity appeared to taper off through Bernard Creek and into Soldier Creek. Although winter range within the fire area burned fairly completely, the actual fire area is a relatively narrow strip from about Sheep Creek on the south to Pole Creek on the north; about 3 air miles wide. Big game animals should have little difficulty moving that short a distance to unburned ranges. Big Creek The south side of Big Creek from about Soldier Bar to Fawn Creek (where we turned back down Big Creek) burned intensely and fairly completely. Overall, this was the largest intensely burned area we have seen this year. At least at the lower elevations, mosaic burn patterns were scarce. The north side of Big Creek burned much less intensely and much less completely. Burn areas are minor and of light intensity from the mouth to Cougar Creek. Although the Cliff Creek to Cabin Creek area burned more completely, unburned bighorn sheep winter range should still be more than adequate to carry the Big Creek sheep herd through the coming winter. Elk winter ranges from Cabin Creek to Coxey Creek (the western limit of our survey) received some light intensity fire on the grasslands with spots of more intense timber burn. Overall, our impression was that unburned elk range should be adequate for this winter. Lower Camas Creek Although the Aparejo Fire burned into the lower north side of Camas Creek, fire activity was actually very minor from Yellowjacket Creek to the mouth of Camas Creek. The only significant burn area was in Dry Gulch east of Yellowjacket Creek; that area historically has wintered about 100 elk that will now have to move elsewhere. Photos from of the areas mentioned are available on the Fish and Game web site at http://www.state.id.us/fishgame under "Fire Information" in the "What's New" section. An earlier assessment of the Clear Creek and Maloney fire areas is also available there.