Above: Thru-hikers, Jess “Dust Bunny” Foster and Joe “Tickled Pink” Loubier were among the last to traverse the Boundary Trail in 2017. Foster snapped a photo of the wildfire still a few miles south while it torched the flanks of Ashnola Mountain. They would be among the last in a generation to see the wilderness before the massive burn.
Assessing the effect of wildfire in 2017 and the outlook for the PNT
In 2017, headlines across the Pacific Northwest chronicled the worst wildfire season in years. Many Pacific Northwest Trail enthusiasts have showed concern for the condition of the trail in these areas. Although some information will not be available until trails melt out this summer, PNTA Trail Crews have already begun to scout and repair the PNT in Eastern Washington.
Looking Back on the Noisy Creek and North Fork Hughes Fires
The first fire of the season to threaten the PNT, the Noisy Creek Fire in Eastern Washington, was ignited by a lightning strike on Colville National Forest on July 15th, and caused closures of the Pacific Northwest Trail the following day.
On the nearby Idaho Panhandle National Forest, a second electrical storm two weeks later set off another wildfire. Twenty trail miles east the first strike, the North Fork Hughes Fire, began to burn on very steep terrain in old growth forest along the Washington-Idaho border.
Together, these fires prompted multiple closures of roads and trails between Metaline Falls and Priest Lake. The rapidly evolving situation stressed the local community and prompted a number of detours–the longest of these added over 55 miles to PNT hikers’ journeys in the 2017 season.
By late September, firefighters with the US Forest Service had contained the Noisy Creek fire. The PNTA’s Performance Log-out Crew was able to take an initial assessment of the fire damage and cleared three of the trails within the fire perimeter.
Over the winter, more fire-damaged trees are likely fall across trails and will need to be removed. Crew leader Forest Reeves’ initial reports are encouraging, but a complete assessment probably won’t be possible until spring or summer of 2018.
Noisy Creek and North Fork Hughes Fire Impacts
In the Colville National Forest, at least eight miles of the popular Jackson Creek/ Sullivan Lake route of the Pacific Northwest Trail sustained fire damage. Sullivan Lake created a natural fire break on the western edge of fire perimeter, and the Lakeshore Trail–which follows the east bank of the scenic lake–suffered significant damage. Trail crews will need to perform extensive tread work to eliminate hazards and to repair holes left by tree stumps and roots consumed by the fire.
The Noisy Creek Trail, which was used as a fire line along the southern perimeter, remains in better condition. Forest Service Fire Crews have already completed some initial restoration work there.
For the upper portion of the trail, considerable resources will be needed to complete repairs in 2018. Our reports show that the steep section of the Noisy Creek Trail near the intersection with the Hall Mountain Trail will need extensive tread and drainage work.
Other affected trails along the Jackson Creek/ Sullivan Lake Alternate, include the Shedroof Divide trail. It sustained patches of burning, and in a two mile area, over 100 trees already block the trail. Fortunately, the burn did not affect the Jackson Creek or Thunder Creek Trails.
Looking Back on the Diamond Creek Fire
While the fires near Sullivan Lake threatened the trail town of Metaline Falls last summer, over 300 trail miles to the west, a new fire began to burn, one which would become a megafire and force the closure of the Pacific Northwest Trail. On July 30th, the Diamond Creek Fire prompted the US Forest Service to close a large area within the Pasayten Wilderness for public safety. For over a month, the Pacific Northwest Trail was cloaked in smoke, but stayed open.
The wildfire followed drainages, torched hillsides, but remained within the large closure–it stayed well to the south of the PNT/ Boundary Trail and to the east of the Pacific Crest Trail.
But on August 7th, flames climbed Larch Pass and gaining access to new fuels. After nearly one month of relatively moderate activity, the fire began to advance north, threatening the Pacific Northwest Trail, just four miles away. Three tense weeks later, the fire prompted a closure of the PNT/ Boundary Trail and within days, the Diamond Creek Fire had reached the trail and continued to head north. A few days later, it had crossed the border into Canada.
Diamond Creek Fire Impacts
Early reports of the Diamond Creek Fire in the Pasayten Wilderness indicate that up to 22 miles of the Pacific Northwest Trail fall within the perimeter of the megafire. The full effect of the wildfire on the wilderness and the condition of the trail is not currently known, but the trail was reopened by the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest on October 20th, with appropriate cautions.
Because the wildfire continued to burn until the first heavy snows of the season put it out, there will be little on-the-ground data about trail conditions until the trail melts out again in late June. Fortunately for PNT hikers, the trail will most likely remain open in 2018, provided conditions do not change.
Restoring the PNT/ Boundary Trail in a massive wilderness, inaccessible by road and without mechanized equipment, will be a challenge—those that feel the call to action can help by making a donation in support of our trail crews and by looking for volunteer opportunities in 2018. Given the challenges of the notoriously short weather window, it will probably take multiple seasons to fully restore the trail. Until then, the wilderness will be even more challenging to navigate, and more rugged to traverse than it has been in recent years.
Looking Back on Wildfires in Montana
Three fires in Montana, some 600 trail miles east, closed trails and threatened communities across the hard-hit state. On the Flathead National Forest, the 13,000 acre Gibraltar Ridge Fire, closed trails east of Eureka including the Ten Lakes Scenic Area and the Pacific Northwest Trail.
Fortunately, that exceptionally scenic area was spared by the fire and has since reopened, but a short four mile section of the Pacific Northwest Trail remains closed. As of September 22nd, the 13,000 acre Gibraltar Ridge Fire was only 27% contained and fire closure orders issued for the PNT/ Whitefish Divide Trail around Mount Locke are still in effect.
Further east, on the Kootenai National Forest, the Weasel Fire burned 4,000 acres and has caused trail closures near Tuchuck Mountain, the highest point on a historic alternate route of the Pacific Northwest Trail, at 7,716.’
Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park saw multiple trail and area closures due to wildfire and extreme fire danger. Six miles of the PNT were temporarily closed between the eastern terminus and the Belly River Ranger Station in September, forcing some thru-hikers to end their eastbound journeys at Many Glacier on the shores of Swift Current Lake.
Tragically, the Sprague Fire, located south of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, burned almost 17,000 acres in Glacier National Park, and despite a heroic effort by firefighters, caused the loss of the park’s iconic Sperry Chalet.
Impacts of the Gibraltar Ridge and Weasel Fires
Currently, portions of the Pacific Northwest Trail remain closed on the Kootenai National Forest. The Gibraltar Ridge and Weasel Fires continued to burn until they were suppressed by the first heavy snow last fall. Buried under many feet of snow, the condition of these trails will likely be unknown until they become snowfree again in June.
Trail Alerts for 2018
For updates on these trail closures and other trail information, visit us online. You can also subscribe to plain text Trail Alerts from the Pacific Northwest Trail Association to get critical up-to-date information about the PNT trail network delivered right to your inbox.