OAKLEY — On the evening of Aug. 5, 2012, a bolt of lightning shot from the clouds, striking the northeastern edge of the South Hills. Minutes later, a trickle of smoke climbed from Cave Canyon, near the Big Cottonwood Wildlife Management Area in Cassia County.
The Cave Canyon Fire soon overtook a neighboring fire and turned into a Type 1 wildfire that was met by the interagency Great Basin Incident Management Team 1 with 50 firefighters from Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.
Six years later, the burnt landscape is now showing proof of successful rehabilitation efforts.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management fire ecologist Dustin Smith and wildlife biologist Eric Killoy toured some of the areas damaged in the fire in June while the many shades of green made it easy to pick out which areas had been rehabbed; invasive, non-native mustard plants cover areas that weren’t rehabilitated.
Skeletons of dead juniper line ridges near the head of the Big Cottonwood Trail system. Naked white tree trunks clustered above stands of green juniper show how fast the blaze blew through the area, Smith said.
From Cave Canyon, the fire spread south toward Oakley, where ranchers and BLM personnel plowed fire lines to control the burn, and west into the Sawtooth National Forest. Eventually, the fire jumped Dry Creek Canyon south of Murtaugh and raced west a dozen miles toward Rock Creek, posing a potential threat to distant recreational cabins and Magic Mountain Ski Resort. Campgrounds and nearly 50 homes south of Foothills Road between Murtaugh and Hansen were evacuated.
The scorched landscape worried ranchers who grazed livestock in the hills. When asked about three grazing allotments that were damaged, Scott Nannenga, Minidoka district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, told ranchers that burned grazing allotments would be rested. But in the long run, the fire would be beneficial.
Indeed, it was, Smith said. Native plants and grasses have choked out stands of undesirable non-native plants damaged by the fire.
The BLM broadcast sagebrush and grass seed over areas damaged in the fire. Dozers then dragged chains over the ground to “scuff up” the soil for better germination.
Successful re-vegetation depends on slope, precipitation and elevation. Plants have a better chance of survival if planted on north or east slopes where the hot sun doesn’t scorch the ground, Smith said.
Hundreds of volunteers showed up in April 2013 to assist the Idaho Department of Fish and Game plant thousands of sagebrush seedlings in the Big Cottonwood WMA, a wintering ground for elk and mule deer. With financial aid from the BLM, nearly 35,000 seedlings were planted, along with cottonwood and willow cuttings.
The following April, volunteers planted another 6,000 sagebrush and bitterbrush seedlings. About one-third of the seedlings were expected to survive.
Today, patches of native yarrow, bunch grass, rabbitbrush, longleaf phlox, sego lily, balsamroot and lupine wave in the breeze.
Killoy pointed out evidence that animals have returned to the area. Bending over a bitterbrush plant, he showed where a pronghorn had nibbled on it.
“Bitterbrush is ‘antelope candy,’” he said.
How did he know it was an antelope that had been eating the bitterbrush?
“A deer would have plucked it right out of the ground,” Killoy said.
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