The Moose Fire was ignited on July 17, 2022 by sparks from an unattended campfire burning next to the Salmon River. A careless camper started what would become the nation’s largest wildfire in Summer 2022.
The sparks created a wildfire in Moose Creek canyon, on the south side of the Salmon River. Fanned by high winds and hot temperatures, the fire raced into the crowns of trees in Moose Creek canyon, causing a giant plume of smoke.
Carmen Creek Ranchers Jay and Chyenne Smith saw the smoke from their ranch, north of Salmon. Their cattle were grazing in the Diamond-Moose Grazing Allotment, high above where the fire started, in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
“We see a plume of smoke, and get a phone call, there’s a fire on your summer range,” says Jay Smith. “From that point on, the summer was a whirlwind.”
Initially, forest roads were open. The Smiths drove up into the forest to check on their cattle. They staged a lot of the cattle in Moose Meadow, a large, open grassy area next to their family cabin, hoping to keep them out of harm’s way.
“Very first guy I talked to was in structure protection,” Smith says. “He was up here doing sprinklers and pumps and thinning trees to protect our private property. We had a great meeting with him. I told him, my objective was, honesty and transparency, just tell me what to expect.
“He told us there was no chance of getting ahead of it, and that we were going to be dealing with it all summer long, but he gave us 95-98 % odds that our private property would be OK. And he was right on every point.”
Salmon-Challis National Forest officials called for fire crews, engines and air attack resources in hopes of stopping the fire with initial attack. First priority was to protect private property, and threats to people’s lives and safety. Forest officials also notified local ranchers about the fire and asked them to remove as many cattle as possible, immediately.
“It was a situation where the fire was growing very fast. We needed to get people on it right away to try to keep this thing small,” said Eric Platz, North Zone Fire Management Officer for the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
Within minutes, the fire had grown from a quarter-acre to 300 acres on the first afternoon. By Day 2, 12,000 acres. Day 3, 16,500 acres, mainly in the Moose Creek drainage – the Smith’s summer range area.
“It’s running through the crowns and pushing up a whole drainage,” Platz says.
The Smiths were told the fire would likely burn up the Diamond-Moose grazing allotment. For most of the summer, they had to wait on the sidelines, hoping their cattle didn’t get killed by the blaze.
“It was horrible, watching your life go up in smoke,” Chyenne Smith says. “It was frightening, it was stressful, you feel helpless.”
The Moose Creek fire ended up growing to about 130,205 acres in size. It burned for 4.5 months, from mid-July until Oct. 31. At times, it was the nation’s largest wildfire, with 1,500 firefighters engaged. Fire suppression costs: $100 million.
Big picture, on Day 1 of the fire, there were many factors at play that put livestock and grazing permittees at a lower priority than immediate needs.
Initial attack focused on protecting the small roadside town of North Fork, extinguishing the fire on the north side of the Salmon River canyon, and protecting structures immediately threatened by the wildfire along U.S. 93.
“It had jumped the river. And jumped the road. Now we had fire on both sides of the river. Fire moving to the north and fire moving to the south,” Platz says.
Fire crews and aerial attack succeeded in stopping the fire on the north side of the Salmon River canyon. Helicopter water drops on a ridgeline above Moose Creek canyon, however, did not hold the blaze. Sixty mph winds fanned the fire. Burning debris from tree crowns were causing spot fires five miles away, downwind.
“I knew it was going to be severe fire behavior and we couldn’t put any firefighters in there, otherwise it would kill them,” Platz says.
The Salmon-Challis National Forest has had a history of ferocious fire behavior. Dead and dying trees littered across the forest floor have been accumulating for more than century. When wildfires combine with high winds and hot temperatures, it’s a lethal combination.
Five firefighters have been killed fighting fires in the Salmon-Challis National Forest. Emergency shelters have been deployed 163 times as a last-ditch effort to save their lives from wildfires. On Day 4 of the Moose Creek fire, a helicopter crashed into the Salmon River, killing two pilots on board.
“Mother Nature was angry,” Platz says. “It kicked our butts. It didn’t matter what we did or what we threw at it. We still couldn’t catch this (fire). We gave it everything we had to try to stop it from getting as big as it did.”
The fire kept spreading. The Smiths learned that the first anchor point that the Forest Service would try to defend and prevent the fire from moving further south was on Diamond Creek.
That was tough to hear.
“The issue we had, there was 60,000 acres of prime grazing between where the fire was at that time and the anchor point,” Smith says. “We took that to mean we were going to be sacrificial lambs to defend that anchor point.”
“We had to pick a place to take a stand. And Diamond Creek is where we chose to take that stand,” says Chuck Mark, Supervisor of the Salmon-Challis National Forest. “By doing that, that bought us time, that bought us weeks of time.”
Forest officials wanted to prevent the fire from burning south toward the town of Salmon and the Salmon City Watershed. The Diamond Creek anchor point was key in protecting those areas.
Forest officials also were trying to keep the busy Salmon River Road open to outfitters and private float parties. The road is the primary access for launching Main Salmon River float trips at Corn Creek and finishing Middle Fork Salmon River float trips at Cache Bar.
Both rivers are national destinations. Seven float parties were coming off the Middle Fork every day. Eight float parties were hoping to launch on the Main Salmon every day. That turned out to be a big logistical issue for two months.
“Yep. That was another logistical challenge we were dealing with,” Mark says. “Tried to keep the rivers open for the river traffic. So they looked at what the fire was going to do each day, and route the river traffic accordingly. It was definitely a challenge.”
And then the Moose fire burned to the west toward Panther Creek.
“Once the fire, especially to the south, came out of the Salmon River Breaks, it ran almost 10 miles up and over the top of the mountain,” Mark says. “That presents a whole level of complexity because now you’ve got the Bear Track Mine site, got the powerlines to not only Bear Track, but also the Idaho Cobalt project and Blackbird Mine site.”
Every day, the Smiths rode up into the forest below the fire line to gather cattle.
“I went out every day, brought one cow home, 5 cows home, whatever I could find,” Chyenne Smith says.
“From the middle of July to the middle of August, we gathered about 50% of the cattle in a month,” Jay Smith says. “Worked on it daily for a month. It was our main project. Find as many cattle as we could to get them out of harm’s way.”
Many of the cattle they had pushed up the mountain onto summer range in June decided to retreat to the valley. That was a blessing in disguise.
“I had the worst year ever trying to get cows to go over the mountain. They fought me tooth and nail,” Chyenne says.
The Smiths made quick decision to find safe harbor for their cattle in the valley below. They had purchased some new deeded ground where they could pasture animals near Carmen Creek.
“We had friends who reached out and took 100 head in Leadore,” Chyenne says of the small town about 60 miles east of Salmon.
On the night of Sept. 7, the Moose Fire took off once again.
“We had winds of 40-50 mph. It ran 17,000 acres and seven miles that night. That was the biggest run,” Mark says.
The fire blew over the top of a big fire break intended to protect the Salmon City Watershed. And it burned a portion of the watershed.
“It easily jumped the fire break. And we knew it might,” Mark says.
After the big run, the fire began to lose intensity with shorter days and cooler nights. In early October, the Smiths received permission to go look for their cattle.
“It took a lot of work to get to places. There wasn’t a road or a trail that didn’t have a tree or 400 across it. Took a lot of work to get to where we could look for cattle.”
They were overjoyed to see their family cabin had survived the blaze.
“We lucked out that way. Made us feel hopeful,” Chyenne says.
For Chyenne it was tough to see the fire’s devastation.
“It’s just a roller-coaster – from not so bad, to horrendous,” Chyenne says.
By the end of October, a snowstorm snuffed out the Moose Fire. Luckily, the Smiths were able to retrieve all of their cattle.
“We found every cow, so we got the cows home,” Jay Smith says.
The USDA Farm Service Agency has a program for the loss of grazing range due to catastrophic natural events, such as wildfire. The Smiths had to bring a lot of cattle home early, so the FSA reimbursement plan will help with that.
A bigger concern now is how the wildfire will affect the Smith’s access to the Diamond-Moose Grazing Allotment in the next two years. The Forest Service often closes grazing allotments for two years following a wildfire to allow plants to grow back.
“We’re standing in a devastating spot,” Jay Smith says. “I don’t anticipate any cattle grazing here next year, this got burned hot.
“There are lots of places on this mountain that did not get burned at all, or got burned lightly, that would be excellent cattle habitat next year and in the future. So we’re going to work on a management plan to try to graze the areas that are grazable and avoid these devastating areas that need time to heal.”
“Might be sooner than we think, based on what I’ve seen,” Mark added. “It’s based on how well the grass regenerates, a lot of it was light burning. Even the places where we used the drones to burn out ahead of the fire, it was light burning, so the grass should come back like gangbusters, it should be robust.”
In the meantime, a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team visited the Moose fire and recommended post-fire erosion-control and rehabilitation measures to be implemented this spring.
In the future, both the Smiths and the Forest Service would like to be more proactive about reducing dead and dying fuels in the forest.
“I understand prescribed burning, it should be one tool in the toolbox, not the only tool,” Chyenne Smith says. “I’d like to see logging come back, I’d like to see these trees not just stand there and die. There’s a lot that could be done. Grazing is one of those things, logging is one of those things, burning can be one of those things, we need to have conversations about how we can take better care of our natural resources, that’s for sure.”
Salmon-Challis National Forest officials agree. They advocate for using all the tools available to improve forest management and health – logging, firewood, post and poles, livestock grazing and prescribed burning.
Another wildfire could occur anytime, and we need to be ready, Mark says.
“This whole country has evolved with fire,” he says. “It’s a matter of anticipating and being prepared the best we can, because we know we’re going to get fire, it’s not a matter of if, it’s when.”
By the way, no suspects have been charged in connection with leaving a campfire unattended and starting the Moose Creek Fire, forest officials said.
Steve Stuebner is the writer and producer of Life on the Range, a public education project sponsored by the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission.