The Nezperce Story
A History of the Nezperce National Forest


"The summer of 1888 was a very smokey one on Camas Prairie, owing to prevalence of forest fires to the southwest," according to a paper article dated September 27, 1889, which describes a serious fire near Mt. Idaho. Probably every year before and since has had its share of forest damage by fire.

Leiberg's report says:

From time immemorial the Indians had three trails from west to east across the region now embraced within the limits of the Bitterroot Reserve. Two of these trails were used for through travel between the Rocky Mountain regions and the Plains of the Columbia. These trails were what are now known as the Lolo and Nez Perce trails. The former was a northern route, the latter a southern. The third trail extended eastward to the summit of the Bitterroot Mountains and was used principally as a hunting trail. Its course was along the crest of the Lochsa-Selway divide, and, as it ran through the heart of the game region in the Clearwater basins, must have been very largely traveled. Most of the fires that can be traced to Indian occupancy appear to have originated along the lines of these trails.... It is difficult to state with absolute certainty the reason why Indians burned the forest. An educated Nez Perce, with whom I conversed regarding the matter, stated that forest fires were never started through design, but might have accidentally spread from signal fires.... The probability is that many fires spread from their camps and others were purposely set to destroy the forest and encourage grass growth.

The fires kindled by white men have ravaged the forest areas of the reserve in thousands of places. They have not been confined to any particular locality. Early discoveries of placer diggings at Florence, Elk City, and Pierce had the effect of sending many prospectors to the most remote corners of the Clearwater basins, and wherever they went fires and blackened ruins of the forest were left behind to mark their trails and camps. That the responsibility for fires of modern date lies mostly with prospectors admits of no doubt.

Fires devastated considerable areas of the reserve during the later portion of July and August of the present year (1898) notwithstanding the rules and regulations promulgated by the Interior Department for their prevention. The heaviest and most widespread fires in Idaho were in the Selway basin and in the upper South Fork of Clearwater Basin around Elk City.... There were also many minor fires in scores of widely scattered localities. That these fires owed their origin to carelessness or design can hardly be doubted. The fires in the Selway basin were by far the most serious and destructive. I cannot state the total of the areas actually burned over, as my party passed through the region ravaged by fires before their final extinguishment, but those seen by me reached an aggregate of over 20,000 acres. They burned without serious check until partially extinguished by rains in the beginning of September.

It was clearly evident that the regulations of the Interior Department were not being very generally observed. After the middle of August the roads and trails in the more accessible and generally traveled portions of the reserve were well posted with the department circular calling attention to the penalty provided for the setting of fires. In 2 days travel on the road from Clearwater Post Office to Elk City, six camp fires were seen that had been left burning when the campers departed and were slowly eating their way into the adjacent forests.

The Bitterroot Reserve is a difficult region to patrol effectively. Especially in this case with the Idaho portion, where the country generally is extremely rugged and broken. A much larger force of rangers than was stationed there last summer will be needed. Each one of the mining centers requires fully as many rangers as were assigned to the entire Idaho portion, and a considerable number could be scattered through the interior areas to advantage. With the present trails it requires from 6 to 10 days of hard travel to cross the reserve in Idaho, rendering it quite impossible for a party of rangers patrolling the western sections to exercise at the same time a supervision over the regions at the head of the Lochsa and Selway basins. Each summer, as soon as the snow has disappeared sufficiently to allow travel, prospectors and hunters flock into the region. There can be little doubt that these classes are, in the main, responsible for the fires. A system of registration and license of all persons entering the reserve would accomplish far more toward abating the fire evil than a large force of rangers could possibly do. The conditions of last summer were such that a score of careless or malicious persons could have fired the forest on the reserve in a thousand places, without the least chance or fear of detection and subsequent punishment.

The Idaho Bitterroot area about which Leiberg wrote included a portion of what is now the Salmon Forest, the Magruder District of the Bitterroot, the Powell District of the Lolo, a goodly portion of the present Clearwater, as well as a major portion of the Nezperce. Even with the present transportation facilities and smokejumpers, the control of fires in such an area would be a formidable task.

It is to be noted that nowhere does Leiberg mention lightning as a cause of fires while he places the entire blame on people. It is almost certain that lightning caused some of the damage.

While no specific report on the 1910 fire season is available to the writer, it is likely that it was a severe one. Ray Fitting told him that he spent a night somewhere in Moose Creek in order to escape a fire during that season. This could be where the name Fitting Creek came from, although Ray's uncle, Lew Fitting, was a ranger in the area at that time and he could be responsible.

Verne Collins has this to say about the 1919 season on the Elk City and Castle Creek districts:

The Kirks Fork fire was the first to take off. There was some confusion about who was responsible for fighting fire in the Elk City township so no action was taken in early stages. The fire eventually spread through much of the area to French Gulch. Other fires broke out on the Castle Creek and Elk City districts about the time Kirks Fork got to going good. On a day early in August I had just had a big blowup on the Erickson Ridge fire up American River and got out where I could look around. Saw seven big mushrooms in sight at the same time on the two districts. Each looked about like a nuclear explosion.

On the 10th of June 1919, I was in a telephone camp on Anderson Butte in about 8 to 10 inches of new snow on the ground. On the 6th day of September in another camp on Sheep Hill winding up any further action on the Bargaman Creek fire in about the same amount of snow. The weather station at Elk City between those two dates has recorded 12 inch of moisture accumulated in several little sprinkles.

On August 29, 1919, Chas. Dunham lost 1,350 sheep in a forest fire near Adams Camp (Dome Hill). Two hundred and fifty were saved.

Fred Thieme made an inspection trip to the Nezperce about 1950 and, while there, related his experiences on fires in the Elk City and Upper Meadow Creek areas in 1919.

The writer was involved with fires on the Oxford District of the Clearwater that year and sometime about the middle of August Jim Girard drifted in to assist. He had just come from the Nezperce and told about hiking a crew from Elk City to a fire somewhere in the vicinity of Salmon Mountain. Upon arrival at the fire the IWW element of the crew demanded bonus hours, like 16 hours' pay for 12 hours' work, or no work. It was against the policy to grant such demands so Jim said, "No." He told them he would hike back to Elk City with them as there was no use for him to stay at the fire alone, and he did. The pay scale that year was 25 cents an hour for common firefighters; foremen, cooks, and packers were paid by the day with a $6.00 top.

While it did not happen on the Nezperce, this is a good place to relate Jim Girard's experience on August 19, 1919. He was hiking down river from the Bungalow in the afternoon. In the vicinity of Cave Creek he met a solid wall of fire coming upriver. It was not exactly a favorable place. He had little choice and made for the river. Time was short, but he wrote out a brief will on a page of his notebook, cached it under a rock near the edge, and took to the water. Jim spent some uncomfortable hours there before daylight the next morning; but he survived in good shape, except for being hungry. He hiked back to the Bungalow, but everything there was burned, so he joined a few other stragglers and continued on to the Oxford, where he made no bones about being scared and believing that his time had come.

From available records it would appear that 1919 was the "granddaddy" of all fire seasons on the Nezperce. Some 15 major fires burned an area of approximately 175,000 acres, a sizeable percentage of the forest as it existed at that time.

Of course, 1934 cannot be ignored when that portion of the Selway that came to the Nezperce later is considered. The Pete King fire, starting in what is now a part of the Clearwater, burned a huge area in the Selway River drainage. There were also a Meadow Creek fire and a Martin Creek fire that season, but it is understood that these were later overrun by the Pete King fire. There is a special report in the forest files on the Pete King fire which is suggested reading for those interested in the details of what can and did happen during a major conflagration. Title of this report is A History of the Pete King, McLendon Butte and Eighteen Other Selway Forest Fires, 1934, and was written by C. B. Sutliff, regional fire inspector.

Forest Fires in the Northern Rocky Mountains, by J.S. Barrows shows that, for the 15-year period 1931 to 1945, the Nezperce ranks second for the highest fire occurrence per million acres. Her next door neighbor, the Clearwater, is first. The Nezperce had the largest average annual percentage burned per million acres during the 1931-45 period - 0.76%. Lightning is by far the greatest fire starter in spite of what Leiberg wrote about guilt of people.

For those years when complete records are available and without making any adjustment for changes in boundaries, 1940 had the greatest number of fires - 331. The Red River District had 102 fires that year, likely the largest number for any one district. Howard W. Higgins was the ranger at the time. In 1946 there were 310 for second high. The season of 1948 was somewhat of a freak; smokechasers had to step lively if they wanted to get to a fire before it was rained out. Only 22 blazes occurred that year, an alltime low.

Here are some of the major fires that have occurred in later years:

NameYear Acres burned
Kelley Creek193917,000
Little Mallard Creek19406,300
Wild Horse Lakes19454,800

There have been numerous and sizeable grass fires in the Salmon and Snake River Canyons but, while troublesome, they do little permanent damage.

The first actual parachute fire jump in the region was made on July 12, 1940, by Earl Cooley and Rufus Robinson on Martin Creek. Fred Reimler was a member of the ground party and gear-retrieving crew. This historic event marked the beginning of a major change in the fire suppression work in the back country areas of the forest. Instead of a smoke chaser walking miles and arriving more or less wornout, the jumpers arrive fresh and eager to get the fire out and return to home base to be ready for the next call. In 1951 a subbase for jumpers was established in Grangeville, making them more readily available and saving valuable time in long haul travel.

No two fire seasons are ever exactly alike, nor do statistics always accurately reflect the severity. Any time there is a string of hot, dry, low-humidity days, the tenseness builds up in the organization and things get serious regardless of how many fires do occur or how big they get. There are a very few seasons that aren't tough; even one fire can often mean the difference between a good and a bad season.

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Last Updated: 11-Nov-2008