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Fire burning in roadless wilderness causing problems for the Forest Service

A fire has been burning in remote wilderness straddling the Washington-Idaho border north of Priest Lake for the past six weeks.

The North Fork Hughes Fire is believed to have started from a lightning strike June 28 and was first discovered July 4. It has since grown to 1,150 acres.

Smokejumpers were sent to the fire after it was found but there were immediate problems, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kari Maddox. The firefighters had to hike five hours to get to the fire, and soon reported it was burning in cedar trees 8 feet in circumference and the huge trees were falling down steep slopes toward them.

“It’s a roadless area,” Maddox said of the decision to send in smokejumpers rather than fire crews. “It was decided, for firefighter safety, to pull them off the fire.”

Since then, the Forest Service has been trying to come up with indirect methods to fight the fire that doesn’t require boots on the ground. It was also determined that using helicopters to drop water on the fire wouldn’t be effective due to the large size of the trees and thick forestation in the area, Maddox said.

Instead, crews have put protective wrapping on a couple of historic buildings in the remote area, including a fire lookout. They have used pack mules to bring in a sprinkler system that is being set up in advance of the fire in hopes the fire can be held at the wet line.

“There’s hasn’t been a lot of extreme fire behavior,” Maddox said. “It’s growing slowly.”

The Forest Service is using airplanes to monitor the growth.

Priest Lake resident Steve Phillabaum said he’s frustrated the fire wasn’t put out when it was first discovered. It’s releasing a huge plume of smoke that affects his asthma and clouds the air. “Everyone is saying the smoke is coming from Canada,” he said. “We’re making our own smoke, too.”

He’s afraid of a repeat of 2015, when the Kaniksu Complex fire shut down roads near Priest Lake and prompted the Bonner County Sheriff to limit traffic on Highway 57, the only road in and out, to local residents only.

Phillabaum said he fought fires when he was young and knows battling flames in steep terrain is difficult and dangerous. “Early on, that fire was small,” he said. “Now, it’s hard to fight. Why can’t it be fought, when it’s endangering the health of people?”