Ten months after the largest wildfire in Sawtooth National Forest history burned more than 40,000 acres in the White Clouds mountains north of Ketchum, color and life are erupting from the black, suggesting recovery is well underway.
Morel mushrooms, heartleaf arnica, native grasses and wildflowers are emerging from the charcoal-colored soil, which is also checkered with elk, deer and coyote tracks. The rivers, still not supporting life, are running clear and cold, and otherwise dead, charred woods echo with bird songs, as mountain bluebirds and black-backed woodpeckers are returning to stake their claims.
"I know this is natural, but the power of Mother Nature, whoa," gasped Lynn Stone, executive director of the Boulder White Clouds Council, as she walked through a section of forest near the Champion Creek trailhead that burned at an estimated 1,000 degrees.
While life is returning, hazards still loom in the burned area, as cooked and dead trees collapse in slight breezes, or with no warning at all.
"I guarantee the top of that tree could end your life," Joe Harper, a ranger with the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, said as he peered up at a scorched lodgepole pine. "We're surrounded by killers,"
Camping in the Fourth of July Creek drainage is prohibited until further notice.
The Valley Road Fire, which flared up Sept. 3, 2005, and was contained a week later, was massive by Sawtooth National Forest standards, but miniscule compared to the awesome blazes that charred more than a million acres in the Yellowstone ecosystem in the late 1980s.
And perhaps that is the most intriguing aspect of the Valley Road Fire and the Sawtooth National Forest, for that matter. Fire has never before been the primary agent of change.
While other forests rely on fire to instigate new growth and regeneration, that is not the case in the SNRA, Harper said. That honor belongs to the mountain pine beetle, which is usually recognized more for its power to turn a healthy, green and lush forest into a dead, dry shade of red.
Harper said a massive beetle outbreak occurred in the 1930s and that the plight of the insect was also documented in miners' journals in the 1800s.
"The forest had to develop its own system, because there's no fire," Harper said, adding that an ongoing core sample study at Redfish Lake has so far uncovered beetles, and no ash.
"It looks like the beetle has been the change agent in the lodgepole pine chain here," he said.
What that means is that there's uncertainty over how and when the lodgepole pine will reproduce in the burned area.
Lodgepole pines in forests that rely on fire for regeneration produce serotinous cones, which have a waxy coating that opens from the heat of a blaze and later scatters seeds onto soil fertilized by nutrients in the ash.
The lodgepole pine in the SNRA produce non-serotinous cones, meaning reproduction is not stimulated by fire and the future of roughly 40,000 acres of lodgepole pine is, for now, a big mystery.
"They could evolve and become serotinous," Harper said. "But we'll just have to wait and see.
"We were wondering if mushrooms would grow up here this summer, and now we're seeing them everywhere."