Fire burns into Montana, threatens U.S. 93, 9/3/12, 210,000 215,000 221,000 acres in size-

9/3-2012. Update: check with Inciweb for latest evacuations along or near U.S. Highway 93, North Fork, or in the Montana portion of the fire (such as Hughes Creek). These evacuation levels have been increased.

There are now 933 960 personnel, including 13 hand crews, 77 engines, 5 dozers, 10 water tenders, and 2 helicopters on the fire.

Next year, visitors who head down the Salmon River Road from North Fork, Idaho (assuming the highway crossroads of North Fork still exists) are going to find a transformed landscape. Burn will stretch from the Salmon River north, rising up 4000 to 6000 feet to the mountain crest north that runs east-west for many miles.  There might be a burn along the canyon bottom from North Fork westward all the way past the mouth of the Middle Fork to the Corn Creek put in and well beyond. In fact, this is already almost a given. 

Mustang Fire burns along the Salmon RIver, Idaho. Courtesy USFS.

Here is the web page for the fire at InciWeb.

Lighting strikes started this fire in a number of spots on July 30. They were on the tops of the ridges, well in the backcountry. They soon burned together, and over the month + 3 days have burned in all directions.  The fire seems to expand by roughly the same percentage each day, meaning in absolute acres, a greater acreage each day. The fire did not stay on the mountain tops for long.  It burned down the steep, rugged ridges and canyons to reach the Salmon River far below for many river miles.  Next year you might enter a burnt roadside from North Fork on the east downstream perhaps all the way across the Frank Church Wilderness going west.  The fire is also spotting a long distance. This has caused it to continually move closer to the Idaho/Montana highway artery U.S. 93 to the fire’s east.  The Mustang complex now includes Montana. It burned over the state line in the backcountry several days ago and is now well into the Montana. In addition, ” The Mustang Complex and Lost Packer Fire have now grown together and continue to spread toward the Cabin Springs Fire to the west. There is a future potential threat to West Fork, Sula and Darby Ranger Districts on the Bitterroot National Forest of Montana. Today 9/3 a spot fire started on the south side of the Salmon River downstream from the last road. Instead of a much feared conflagration deep in the Frank Church Wilderness, it was extinguished.

For those who remember protected area boundaries from back in the day, it looks like the fire might burn out what was before 1980 the old “Salmon River Breaks Primitive” area, plus additional partially developed backcountry.  Lightning strikes and spots continue to ignite and the Mustang Fire Complex has at least six eight satellite fires now burning well to the west of the main fire.

Wildfire has a number of wildlife benefits and harms, with most of the harm coming in the first few years after the burn. The Salmon River Mountains where the fire is burning are granitic mountains, eroded out of the vast Idaho Batholith. This is usually a soft granite  — quite subject to erosion into large grained “sand” particles.  A burn over such an immense area and of such amazing relief will certainly release huge amounts of sediment into the main fork of the Salmon River from its deep and steep tributaries such as Horse Creek, Big Squaw Creek, Spring Creek, Indian Creek, Colson Creek, etc.  This will have a large effect on boating (river running) , fishing and trying to conserve the struggling salmon and steelhead trout.

Idaho’s other two big forest fires, Trinity Ridge and Halstead are now 145,000 and 131,000 acres and burn fiercely. Update  9/3 on the Halstead Fire. The fire has burned to the ridge just above Idaho Highway 75 in the upper Salmon River Canyon and the Salmon River. The highway has been closed off and on. Beginning at 7:00pm September 2, 2012 traffic on Highway 75 between Stanley and Challis will be escorted by a pilot car. The affected section is from Lower Stanley to Peach Creek (mile marker 206.6). Smoke, fire equipment and potential falling debris from the Halstead Fire has necessitated this action to protect motorists’ safety. Escorted traffic will continue until fire conditions change.

The Halstead Fire’s “progress” is being hindered by relatively recent burns adjacent to the fire’s perimeter. These old burns, of course, usually have a lot less fuel  to sustain the fire. In the last day or so, however, the fire has burned deeper into the southeastern part of the Frank Church Wilderness and burning at surprising high altitudes in the Pinyon Peak and Vanity Lakes country. The fire often just barely ignites snags or downed logs at the very top of the cirque basins. These smoulder, catch fire and roll down into the adjacent cirque basin, thus spreading the fire despite sparsely timbered and rocky ridgetops.

Yesterday firefighters did an innovative kind of back-burning to stall the advance of the Halstead Fire on the west. They started back-burns from the air by dropping plastic spherical devices (PSDs)  a.k.a. “ping-pong balls.” These are made to get a  back-burn going in  a random and so a scattered pattern. The effect is to do the back-burn without burning so many trees and creating a desirable mosaic of burn and unburned, rather than a complete burn.

Incident: Halstead Wildfire in the Yankee Fork
Released: 1 day ago
There are 9 small spot fires that are all within half of a mile of each other that have spotted across to the east side of Yankee Fork Road. All 9 fires are being staffed with the support of helicopters making bucket drops. There are 3 handcrews (25 firefighters each) that have responded to that area. The wind was blowing straight west across Yankee Fork road. Yankee Fork remains under an evacuation order.

The Trinity Ridge Fire (9/2) has been stopped on the south (South Fork of the Boise River) by fireline construction and back-burns in the Featherville area, apparently saving the homes (mostly second homes) in the popular area. People can come home. The huge fire  is also being held so far from crossing the North Fork of the Boise.

Regarding the fire’s continuing spread and some containment, InciWeb says, “Fire continues to back down from Sheep Mountain to the west in the Sheep Creek, Pete Creek and Repeat drainages to the confluence of the North Fork Boise River and Middle Fork Boise River. Fire continues to spread toward Green Creek. Fire behavior is minimal where it runs into old burns.”

Rocky Barker at the Idaho Statesman has covered and written extensively (articles and books) about forest fires and their effects on the management of Western public lands. He has a good article today (9/2) on these Idaho fires in historical context. Don’t be misled by the article’s headline. It is a very poor description of the article’s content which is broader and more interesting than the unfortunate “Old burns slow new fires across Idaho”

One point he makes and many people should be making is that the numerous central Idaho fires in recent years is reverting forests back to a considerable degree to what they were like after the great inferno of 1910 and after. After that gigantic burn which had immense political effects on forest management and fire control, Idaho’s central forests slowly became terrific elk habitat in many places. It didn’t become so immediately, but over a generation it did.  The abundant elk from that period’s early to mid-term forest regeneration is in part the dream that some hunters are still chasing.  Unfortunately, they let wolves keep turning their dreams into nightmares, but regrowth to a younger forested condition will (assuming there is no radical climate change) restore the elk, not predator control.


About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

37 Responses to The Mustang fire complex in Idaho grows by leaps and bounds (updated 9/3/2012)

  1. Derek Farr says:

    We watched the Forest Service back burn the north side of Corn Creek on August 17 from the beach across the river — a surreal “Apocalypse Now” night for sure. The fire stretched from near Shoup to Smith Gulch. Along that stretch, much of the river-right landscape has been burned (not to mention another recent fire on river right near Big Mallard Creek). Many trees have fallen into the river while many others have been weakened by the blaze. I would suggest using extreme caution when camping on river right above Black Canyon.

  2. timz says:

    A fire specilaist with the forest service told me last week these are the types of fires that can smolder under a snowpack and re-ignite in the spring.

  3. Nancy says:

    This very fast moving fire was reported just yesterday near Butte (wasn’t big at the time but in an area not easily accessible) its since grown to over 3,000 acres at last report. Very dry conditions, high winds the last couple of days and no moisture over the last month:

    Crews worked hard through the night working on the eastern and western side of this northern moving fire. Additional firefighting resources have been ordered and are arriving this morning to assist. Crews are preparing as red flag warnings for high winds and low humidities have been predicted for today. The fire is currently located one mile south of I-90 and firefighters are working on structure protection in the Whiskey Gulch area. Fire officials and Jefferson County Sherriff are currently assessing the fire to determine damage to private property.

    The 19 Mile Fire was first reported around 3:50 p.m. Tuesday. Firefighters from County, State and Federal agencies are working together to manage this fire. The fire is burning in the Radar Creek and Toll Mountain area north of Highway 2. It is burning in grass, brush and timber. A Type 2 Incident Management Team under the direction of Gary Benes has been ordered to assist with management of this fire beginning this afternoon.

    Structures are threatened and Jefferson County Sherriff has conducted evacuations in the Upper Rader Creek and Toll Mountain area. Residents are asked to check in at the Whitehall Ambulance Barn (406) 287-3914 and if they need other assistance to go to the Catholic Church in Whitehall. Small animals may be taken to the Whitehall Ambulance Barn, however they will need to be in cages. Large animals may be taken to the Rodeo Grounds in Whitehall.

    Officials are asking people to avoid driving in this area to provide for the safety of firefighters and publics

    Inciweb has yet to post this latest Montana wildfire:

    • elk275 says:


      ++This very fast moving fire was reported just yesterday near Butte (wasn’t big at the time but in an area not easily accessible) its since grown to over 3,000 acres at last report. Very dry conditions, high winds the last couple of days and no moisture over the last month:++

      Most of that 3000 acres is 20 arce subdivisions. There are roads everywhere. Been there many times.

      • Nancy says:

        Elk – “burning in a remote location” came up often when there was an update on the local radio news yesterday and eariler today, regarding where this fire was burning.

        Two different takes on it?

  4. CodyCoyote says:

    Some related news. Wednesday 6pm. Facebook friends are reporting a nasty fire has broken out south of Livingston MT on Pine Creek this afternoon . It has destroyed several houses and structures, some number of horses have perished along with other livestock , and it’s getting awful. The photos are downright ugly.

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      CodyCoyote, that sounds like the Millie Fire near the scenic area around Storm Castle in the Gallatin Canyon, but this isn’t south of Livingston except indirectly.

      Millie fire south of Bozeman expected to grow today, community meeting tonight Bozeman Chronicle.

      • Salle says:

        Ralph, Pine creek is a little settlement along East River Road about halfway between Livingston and Pray. I wrote a comment about it on the “news” thread a little while ago. Lots of air tanker activity coming out of the Yellowstone Airport. I have seen several departures since 5pm headed in that direction. It’s a populated and historic little town and it’s been really windy and hot all day… not a good mix.

        • Ralph Maughan says:

          Salle, Yes I know. I couldn’t find any info on a fire there, however; but the one on the Gallatin River at Storm Castle was certainly putting up a huge cloud at sunset (I saw it on the satellite map).

          The Pine Creek fire certainly looks for real though!!!

          • Salle says:

            I couldn’t find any info on inciweb and the few satellite sites I use after I read Cody Coyote’s comment. But even so, it’s sad that the place is burning up. Maybe it’s not a “large” fire so it isn’t in the roster, or… the website is so busy with posting updates for the really big ones that the Pine Creek one hasn’t been posted, maybe.

            Dang! I just looked at inciweb and they’re showing an update, ten minutes ago, that shows it’s up to 10K acres already.

            • Salle says:

              Millie Creek fire was at 10K acres, that is.

            • CodyCoyote says:

              InciWeb reports on wildfires on public lands , Interagency stuff. Fires on mostly private lands, such as rustic Pine Creek , are not immediately platted in InciWeb

            • Salle says:


              I was under the impression that Pine creek was adjacent to National Forest and so I thought it might be included in the inciweb reports, which is why I was trying to find it on that site. Haven’t looked this morning yet. I guess it started down in the valley and worked it’s way east. In one of the photos, it looks like there’s a FS tanker dropping retardant on the valley floor.

              All the same, it’s unfortunate that the lodge was destroyed. I hope that little farm along the creek survived, as well as the old schoolhouse and church. Maybe find out today.

            • elk275 says:


              Check the Livingston Enterprise web site or better yet find the Livingston Enterprise on Facebook. The cafe and church were damage but not destroyed. Pine is a small community with private property all around it.

            • Salle says:

              Pine Creek fire now at 5,000 acres with high growth potential as it heads up into the mountains.

              I don’t do facebook but there is good coverage on the NBC local news out of Livingston. Link is in a post above.

              It’s also now an incident on inciweb:


            • Mike says:

              The Livingston area is about an inch behind the average for August.

              What a disaster out west.

              As global warming worsens, and people keep driving gas guzzlers, it will only get crazier.

          • alf says:

            Storm Castle sounds familiar. I don’t have a Gallatin NF map, and can’t remember the exact locations, so I’ll ask : Is Storm Castle up Squaw Creek, just a few miles upstream from the old Squaw Creek ranger station, on the east side of the river ? If it is, a then-friend of mine was a hack site attendant for the Peregrine Fund there in the summer of 1986. Most of the trail up to their camp and the hack site was through an old burn on the south side of the mountain.

            • elk275 says:

              Storm Castle is a mountain on the north side of Squaw Creek it is visible from form the Gallatin Canyon Highway. It is upstream 1/2 mile from the old Shenango Ranger Station.

              • Ralph Maughan says:

                There are a lot of parts of the movie, “A River Runs through it,” that were filmed on the Gallatin River near Storm Castle.

    • Mike says:

      Started by construction. Idiots.

      • WM says:

        According to all reports, including recent ones, this was a lightening-caused fire, Mike.

        Not that there aren’t idiots out there in construction, smokers or soon to be early season hunters, capable of carelessly starting fires. Unless there is rain, unaccompanied by lightening, and cooler temperatures we may be in for nearly another month of fires.

        Large forest fires release huge amounts of CO2 which has the potential to exacerbate the climate change scenario. Blackened forest floor also absorbs heat for several years which may not be helpful for some microclimates either, as vegetation, with less available moisture tries to get a foothold in drier summers. I expect there are folks studying this, or will be soon since so much forest/rangeland is being burned in some areas.

        • Mike says:

          This site says it was related to construction:

          I’ve been monitoring all the fires, since I will be spending two months in (not in a hotel, but IN the national forest’s themselves) the Gallatin NF, Glacier NP, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and the Lolo National Forest from September to November.

          Very disturbing news about the Pine Creek Fire and the one near Storm Castle.

          Two very special areas we are losing here.

          • rtobasco says:

            Are we losing them or are they undergoing a bit of Ma Nature’s renovation? With all the standing dead timber throughout much of the Northern Rockies, when combined with current drought situation – fires (some of em big) are going to happen. Fire is needed in many areas right now – we just don’t need it all at once. You can choose to mourn the “loss” or rejoice in the re-birth.

        • Ralph Maughan says:


          I fear the most for the rangeland that burn because in any area that has some cheatgrass at the time of the fire, after the fire cheatgrass’ presence will be greatly magnified, so setting in motion the downward spiral to a monoculture.

          • WM says:


            Cheatgrass is nasty stuff and on the rise as an invasive species (It is among my least favorite plants, followed closely behind by Scotch broom). I have picked enough cheat out of my socks and clothing, and imbedded in dog paws, to last several lifetimes. And, if one has ever gotten a dried seed head or two accidentally caught on their mouth, it is an experience not easily forgotten – as it moves its way from the front of the mouth to the back of the throat, all the while eliciting a gag response. What can stop it?



            My error. Pine Creek fire cause unknown or construction related. Mustang fire is lightening-caused.

  5. Salle says:

    A different kind of “Katrina” of sorts yet very much the same thing…

    Northern Cheyenne Reservation Wildfires Ravage Remote Communities

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      Thanks Salle,

      I haven’t covered this huge series of fires because I know almost nothing about this Indian reservation (as is so often the case with non-ethnic folks who write)

      • Salle says:

        Well then… Some history: It is the second smallest reservation in the continental US (I think there is one that may be smaller in Oklahoma). One of the reasons is because it was the Northern Cheyenne who were instrumental in the defeat of Custer… so they were planted next to one of their greatest adversaries in hopes that they would kill each other off… much like at the Yakima Reservation where 14 tribes were placed with the same intent and why the Shoshoni and Nez Perce tribes were “lucky”, so to speak, in negotiating comparatively larger reservations that were primarily for their tribes only.

        That being said, it is one of the most neglected of the “sovereign nations” in the reservation system. So, as I was trying to point out in my claim above, they are in much the same situation as the African American community during and following hurricane Katrina. Now they will eventually be housed in formaldehyde infused trailers to endure the high plains winter(s) in these less than adequate shelters as per FEMA. These people lost everything, what little they did have. I have passed through this reservation on US Hwy 212 many times and seen little in the way of living standard progress over the decades. I have a couple acquaintances from there.

        Remember that grad student from my time in your classes who was from French Camaroon? What he said about the reservations he saw in his internships was very telling… He said to me upon his return while sadly shaking his head, “Salle, those places are worse then third world countries. My country looks like a paradise compared to them. How can this intelligent and wealthy country treat it’s indigenous peoples like that?” I’ll ever forget that conversation. Folks can say what they will based on their lack of information and cultural understanding …I will always argue that the Native American story, post contact, is America’s dirty little secret just like the instigators of WWII is to Germany and other parts of Europe. Nobody wants to talk about it or how it came to be, they just pretend it isn’t there like some ugly ghost (or huge fire-breathing dragon) of times past that leave such a large stain on our own culture that we can’t see the edges thus accepting it as the norm because, collectively, we don’t really want to explore our myopic perspective far enough to find out what the real fabric is supposed to look like. Too ugly, we might have to reassess or set of values that we’ve grown far too accustomed to… “hey, I got mine, to hell with everybody else”.

        • Ralph Maughan says:

          The story needs to be told, Salle. Thank you. Fortunately, things are looking up. I’m sure helping the Northern Cheyenne improve their lot is a high priority for both Obama and Romney (oh, and especially Paul Ryan).

          • Salle says:

            It can only be hoped that a few news stories would bring some long over-due attention to their plight, especially now.

  6. Salle says:

    There’s been plenty of rain passing over the area since last night, with little lightning. Should be enough to put out the Millie and Pine Creek fires by tomorrow morning. A good thing. Idaho fires aren’t seeing any of this stuff so I suspect those will go on for some time.

  7. DB says:


    This 9/3 update has been excellent. Thank you.

  8. Alan Gregory says:

    My brother Bruce was the caretaker of a fruit orchard just down strream from Shoup for several summers in the 70s. He tells me the whole thing is gone now due to the fire. My father, a professor at Idaho State, was on his way to the orchard in August 1980 to help Bruce pack out for the year when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed. I remember my mother calling at about 2 a.m. to our on-base home at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., to tell me and Monica.


September 2012


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey