It seared 51,000 acres in a single night, charring as much as a square mile of trees in as little as three minutes.
A bulldozer operator and a fire boss were killed after futilely digging themselves a trench that they covered with the dozer blade. Bonners Ferry was nearly evacuated as a result of the lightning-sparked fire.
If firefighter camps had been established the night the inferno made its long charge, many more would have died.
Such was the Sundance fire of 1967, a summer of five North Idaho fires and the last significant fire season in the area.
Sundance’s 56,000 charred acres and Trapper Peak’s 16,600 charred acres accounted for 64 percent of that year’s burned acreage in Region One of the U.S. Forest Service, which stretched from North Idaho to North and South Dakota.
Prior to that, the Idaho Panhandle National Forests hadn’t seen a big “stand-replacing” fire since 1910, said Del Mitchell of the Forest Service.
Then, what started as a lot of smaller lightning fires ended up as a monumental fire that covered 3 million acres in Idaho, Montana and Canada and consumed a substantial portion of Wallace.
It laid open several thousand acres that burned again from 1919 to 1931.
Before 1910, fire ripped through about 30,000 acres of the Coeur d’Alene River basin an average of every 19 years, Mitchell said. That left open stands of large ponderosa pine and large white pines generally resistant to the frequent blazes.
North Idaho barely escaped a repeat of the 1910 fires in 1994, said Leon Neuenschwander, a fire scientist at the University of Idaho. There were hundreds of starts, but luck and good fire suppression kept all but about 2,500 acres from burning.
While the danger of a huge fire isn’t any greater than it was a decade ago, “it’s coming of age where it could burn,” Neuenschwander said. “We will have big fires in this basin.”
Something has to be done to reduce the chance of fire in the city/ forest interface in North Idaho, Neuenschwander said. The area “is poised for a set of fire catastrophes because of the power lines and because of all of the people,” he said.
Fixing that requires controlled burns, thinning followed by fire or logging that leaves the largest, most fire resistant trees untouched, Neuenschwander said.
Trying to bring back the more fire-resistant white pine ecosystem, in the rest of the Coeur d’Alene basin, also will require the hand of man.
“We need a restoration effort that conserves the last remaining old-growth and plans for reforestation to go out for 150 to 300 years,” Neuenschwander said.