3. Valley Complex Fire, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Montana
The Valley Complex fire west of Hamilton and Missoula, Montana, was the second largest blaze of 2000, charring many of the eastern approaches to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. “We ended up with about 350,000 acres burned, 44,000 of them in the wilderness,” says Dixie Dies of Bitterroot National Forest.
Hot Hike: Enter the Bitterroot Range from the east entrance and get on Blodgett Canyon Trail. “For the first several miles, you’ll see intensely burned forest,” says Dies. “Beyond that is a patchy, much lighter burn. Most trails going on to the western side of the Bitterroot Range, into the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness, are cut into granite, so we don’t expect them to wash out.” (Visitors should call ahead for current conditions.) Blodgett Canyon Trail runs 12 miles to the ridgeline, making for an aggressive overnight or a more relaxed 3-day excursion. Or, hop onto one of numerous side trails from the spine of the ridge to extend your stay.
Kick Some Ash: Clearing away blowdown and stabilizing soil will go on for years, as will noxious weed-control efforts, since invasive weeds compete with native vegetation much more intensely after a fire. Contact: Bitterroot National Forest, (406) 821-3269; www.fs.fed.us/r1/bitterroot.
4. Helen Creek and Lewis 2 Fires, Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Montana
“We had about 25,000 acres burn in the Bob this past season,” says Al Cost, wilderness manager for the Spotted Bear Ranger District in Flathead National Forest. Cost says of these two fires, “In some areas, it burned hot, but in areas with lighter burn, the bear grass will sprout back, and we’ll have a good shot at a really nice wildflower season in 2001.”
Hot Hike: “You get good views of the burns from the West Side South Fork Trail (#263) between Black Bear Ranger Station and Salmon Fork,” says Cost. “You can clearly see the mosaic pattern. The fires would climb a ridge, but skip the low points in the drainages, where it was wetter.” The Main South Fork Trail (#80) along the eastern bank of the South Fork of the Flathead River runs about 6 miles before entering roughly 10 miles of on-and-off burn, then continues for almost 40 miles, offering round-trip options of from 3 to 10 days or longer using spur trails.
Kick Some Ash: “We’ve got 2,500 miles of trail in the Bob,” says Carla Cline of the Bob Marshall Foundation, “so there’s a continual need for maintenance. The 1988 fires still require us to clear blowdown and keep lodgepole saplings from filling in the trails.” Contact: Bob Marshall Foundation, (406) 758-5237; email@example.com.
5. Clear Creek Fire, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho
The Clear Creek Fire was second only to Montana’s Valley Complex in size. “Four hundred miles of trail burned in the wilderness,” says Ken Wotring, wilderness coordinator for the immense Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The Clear Creek fire frustrated 1,500 firefighters for nearly 4 months, burning 206,379 acres along important tributaries of the Salmon River.
Hot Hike: “Hiking the trails will be tough in spots,” says Wotring, “but it’ll be a vivid example of what happens following wildfires.” For a backpack through the Clear Creek burns to the Bighorn Crags, start at the Clear Creek trailhead and hike the high Grant Ridge Trail past Indian Point-about 16 miles one way to the Crags. Bighorn Crags are also reachable via a 5-mile hike from Cathedral Rock, accessed from Panther Creek Road. From the Crags, head east down Clear Creek to see the burns. Four days should give you time for an overview of the area.
Kick Some Ash: “We’ll have to do noxious-weed control in the burns,” says Wotring. Replanting of game forage and erosion control also rank high on the list of rehabilitation priorities. Recovery efforts will be funneled through the Student Conservation Association, (360) 752-2479; www.sca-inc.org.