Fire Season

Signs like these have grown common this summer in the West.

by Scott Sadil

It started in May. I got up early one week-day morning, drove downriver to the trailhead at a canyon creek that had been closed two summers straight because of the big September fire that left the drainage in a mess. Two years of forest service and volunteer work, however, had at least made the trail safe again – and after it re-opened, in spring, I was eager to hike in and raise a few wild trout as soon as runoff receded.

Instead, that same May morning I found a new chainlink fence stretched across the road to the trailhead: runoff had created dangerous conditions as snags and other deadfall, remains of the fire, littered the stream once more.

Trail closed.

The closure of Silver Creek, in Idaho, and a number of other dour reports of drought and low-water conditions throughout the West, suggested I might be better off, before longer range travels, poking around near home for awhile. 

I was reminded of how much I enjoy creek fishing during a short trip with backpacks into a local wilderness area – and as soon as I was back home I decided I would visit a couple of other such areas, small wilderness drainages with abundant, bantamweight trout.

Closures help to protect both forests and fire fighters.

But a week before my next scheduled outing, July 16 to be exact, the forest service closed the entire national forest in which these three different wilderness areas lie.

Citing extreme fire danger, a weather forecast predicting high winds and lightning, and a 20,000-plus-acre fire already burning, uncontained, the U.S. Forest Service shut down the entire 1.4 million acres of the Umatilla National Forest.

This past weekend I had another idea. A friend and I spent the morning on the western flank of Mt. Adams, in Washington, scouting out a trail that another friend had directed me to, the way into his best source of chanterelle mushrooms come the first rains in fall. 

The trail was steep, hot, buggy; scouting and a bit of exercise behind us, I headed toward the nearby river, an all but hidden access point I had also just learned about, perhaps a way to find those early summer-run steelhead that eventually climb high into the drainage.

Can’t hurt to take a peek.

I pulled my truck onto a dirt access road and into a parking area, a field of beaten-down dry grass. A glimpse at the trailhead sign, while we passed, revealed the need for the ubiquitous Northwest Forest Pass; a glance past my rearview mirror, where I hang my lifetime Senior Pass, allowed that smug feeling I get on arriving at these and countless other public lands.

We slipped on packs, checked our water bottles. I locked the truck and walked over to the signage to see about a trail description – when the big red closure sign finally caught my attention.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources, established in 1957, now manages 5.6 million acres of state land.  All of it, as of Friday, July 23, 2021 is closed until further notice.

“Due to extreme fire danger,” I repeated out loud, meeting said friend halfway back to the truck. “Maybe we should go find a beer instead.”