In a matter of minutes on Thursday, July 3, a microburst snapped and uprooted thousands of trees surrounding Redfish Lake near Stanley. Wind speeds that are confirmed above 50 mph and estimated as high as 70 mph blew down lodgepole pine trees, which decimated tents and camp trailers and injured several people.
"It was just a miracle that nobody was killed," said Greg Jones, who is co-campground manager with his wife Barbara Jones, at Glacierview Campground at Redfish Lake's east end, where acres of lodgepole pine trees were splintered.
The storm hit around 10 p.m. Thursday, the couple said during a Monday interview at their campsite.
"We could see the black over there by the mountains," Greg Jones said. "It was really strange. I've never seen anything like it. Suddenly it just picked up. The trees were just bending. Then we heard snapping and cracking, trees just breaking in half, green trees and dead trees."
The Joneses said screams emanated from throughout Glacierview Campground. In a matter of minutes roads and campsites in certain areas were buried beneath three to four feet of trees.
"It was pretty scary," Greg Jones said. "You just didn't know where to hide."
The result was stunning.
"There were layers upon layers of trees around tents, but no trees on the tents," Barbara Jones said. "It was just a mess. You couldn't even find people."
Sawtooth National Recreation Area crews worked throughout the weekend and are continuing to work this week to clear roads and campgrounds of fallen timber. The Joneses pointed out that campers, too, were very helpful during the initial response time to help clear roads and campsites to make the area accessible to emergency response crews.
"We can plan for natural events, but when a storm like this hits there is little that can be done," said SNRA Area Ranger Sara Baldwin. "Most of the blowdowns in this storm were live, green trees."
Tom Renwick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pocatello, said there was nothing on the agency's radar to indicate anything out of the ordinary in the Sawtooth Valley on Thursday.
"We got reports the next day," he said. "It actually came as a big surprise to us."
Rick Dittmann, the meteorologist in charge at the Pocatello office, said the Thursday event appears to have been a microburst or downdraft, which occurs when a thunderstorm is dying and releases its cold air, which can descend from as high as 40,000 feet.
They're sometimes called collapsing thunderstorms, he said.
"Not all thunderstorms that rapidly decay—they're not always these huge-looking severe weather producing clouds or storms," he said. "There's a tremendous amount of dynamics that go into it. Plus, the terrain plays a huge role."
Ditteman said it appears as though the storm may have decayed over the Sawtooth Mountains, releasing its cold air into terrain that funneled into Redfish Lake.
"As the wind came down it probably got funneled through these canyons down from the top of the Sawtooths down to Redfish Lake," he said.
On the Beaufort Scale, used to measure wind speeds, trees commonly begin to snap at 64 mph, Ditteman said. That's the equivalent of a category 1 hurricane. In this case, however, there is the added issue of torque.
"We've seen strong winds in that part of the state before," Ditteman said. "When you get a downburst it's sudden, and it's from above as opposed to horizontal to the ground."
The sudden nature of the wind event adds torque, and that puts additional stress on the trees.
Baldwin expressed relief in a statement released Tuesday that there wasn't more extensive damage.
"It was a very intense experience for campers at Redfish Lake, one the few people who were there will ever forget," she said. "I am extremely grateful for the efforts of our crews who worked through the night on Thursday and long hours under very difficult conditions over the weekend to get us where we are."
Baldwin said she is particularly thankful for the help campers gave in cutting and towing trees from roads, and for their patience, understanding and cooperation during the clean-up effort.
Visitors are required to obey signs and caution flags in the Redfish Lake area while clean-up crews continue to work.
"We will have chain saw crews dropping hazardous trees and cutting out downed trees as well as heavy equipment removing the debris," she said. "All that activity can pose a threat to public safety if the public does not cooperate. Our crews need room to work."
What's open at Redfish Lake
Sawtooth National Recreation Area crews are working to reopen recreation facilities in the Redfish Lake area following a Thursday wind event that blew down thousands of lodgepole pine trees. The status of campgrounds and picnic sites is as follows:
· Point Beach and Campground is closed for the immediate future.
· Glacier View Campground Loop B is closed for the immediate future.
· Glacier View Campground Loops A and C are open.
· Most of North Shore Picnic Area and the adjacent beach are closed for the immediate future.
· The Dog Beach near North Shore picnic area is partially closed.
· Redfish Lake Lodge is open.
· Redfish Visitor Center is open for its usual Thursday through Sunday schedule.
· Redfish Inlet Campground is open, but crews are working there to finalize cleanup.
· All other Redfish Lake recreation facilities are open.