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Eighteen miles of Salmon River closed due to wildfire, rafters being pulled off river

Rafters camp along the Salmon River, upstream from where a wildfire forced an unprecedented 17.78-mile river closure on Thursday, in this file photo. (U.S. Forest Service)
Rafters camp along the Salmon River, upstream from where a wildfire forced an unprecedented 17.78-mile river closure on Thursday, in this file photo. (U.S. Forest Service)

Rafters are being pulled off the Salmon River in Idaho in an unprecedented nearly 18-mile river closure due to the approaching Tepee Springs Fire.

The rafters are being loaded into hastily arranged shuttles and buses for a two-hour ride down a bumpy dirt road to McCall. “It’s the only way out,” said Suzanne Endsley, spokeswoman for the Cottonwood Field Office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

“We’ve been working with outfitters and guides to contact the shuttle buses, the trailers,” Endsley said. “Right now the Idaho County Sheriff is staffing at French Creek Road and Vinegar Creek. They are actually pulling folks off the river.”

According to the U.S. Forest Service, 275 people have current rafting permits with scheduled take-outs in the stretch today, tomorrow or the next day. If the closure extends longer, even more people could be affected. The stretch of river from the Corn Creek put-in to Riggins is a six- to eight-day float, according to the Forest Service; the closed area is about four miles downstream of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area.

Authorities are keeping a close watch on the fire, as the current escape route, Road 246, could be threatened. “We’re really monitoring the situation, because that option of that 246 road may disappear,” Endsley said.

The Salmon is the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states. Its whitewater thunders through narrow canyons and towering stone cliffs, and meanders through pine forests with white, sandy beaches and abundant wildife; people come from all over the world to raft it.

“Limiting access and recreational opportunities for the public is a difficult decision for the BLM and one that is not made lightly,” said Will Runnoe, manager of U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Cottonwood Field Office. “In this situation, the extreme fire behavior being displayed by the Tepee Springs Fire poses an exceptional threat to the public so we have got to take these precautions. As soon as the threat of the fire lifts, the temporary emergency closure will be rescinded.”

The river closure, which applies to all recreation and all uses, is part of a huge area closure due to the fast-growing Tepee Springs Fire, which is expected to reach the river today; it had grown to more than 25,000 acres by last night, and as of this morning, it was just 30 percent contained.

Endsley said, “That Tepee fire, within the last couple of days it ran about 8 miles in the wrong direction, toward Riggins, and we don’t want it going there.”

The wildfire-caused river closure is unprecedented on the Salmon, she said. “In 2012, when we had the Sheep Fire, a large fire that broke out down by Lucille, we did have to do an emergency closure of a very, very short section of the river, just to facilitate the helicopters dipping,” she said. “But this is a 17-mile stretch.”

The closure extends from French Creek to the mouth of the Little Salmon River in Riggins, a distance of 17.78 miles.

Endsley said, “They’re trying to catch people further up the river so that they can just stay there, take an extra camp day or something like that. We’re hopeful this situation goes away pretty quick.” But, she added, “We can’t predict what the fire’s going to do. … The closure is definitely necessary, but the minute that any threat is alleviated, we will rescind this closure order.”

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