Fire All Around

Fight to Live

By Holly Akenson

Photos courtesy Taylor Wilderness Research Station, University of Idaho

For twenty-one years (1982-1990 and 1997-2010), married couple Jim and Holly Akenson, both biologists, lived and worked at Taylor Ranch, a research facility owned by the University of Idaho and surrounded by the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness. They wrote a book about their experiences, 7003 Days (Caxton Press, Caldwell, 2016), which drew on daily logbooks they compiled and donated to the university. Following are transcriptions of handwritten entries by Holly about ferocious wildfires that swept through the region in August 2000.  These logs may have small discrepancies compared to the more detailed and polished account that appears in their book, but they are remarkable in conveying the immediacy of the moment.

Sunday, August 13, the Day of the Fire

Today started out quietly. The smoke hung in close, less than one hundred meters visibility. Steve Zettel’s crew slept in at the bunkhouse and cookhouse, then came up for breakfast before saddling thirteen head of stock. They decided to ride back to Cabin Creek to finish securing their camp gear on the island in Big Creek, then ride up to their new Whiskey Springs camp at…Papoose Ridge to cut firewood.

Jim used the chainsaw to cut a break in the riparian shrubs along the airstrip. I cut out all of the lilacs, roses, mountain ash, and maple from behind our cabin for fire prevention.

At 2:45, the wind picked up and the smoke cleared. We could see a large mushroom cloud of smoke on the north side of Rush Point. The fire was one-and-a-half miles from us and burning hot. We called the Krassel Forest Service—Fred Dauber and Pete Amell. They were already trying to get smokejumpers in here, but it was too windy. They returned to McCall to come to Taylor Ranch in a helicopter. We saddled up the mules/horse in case we had to evacuate. Minutes later we knew we had to leave immediately.

We grabbed the computer, Taylor logbooks, walkie talkies, address book, air-ground radio, and wallets. I grabbed some crackers and a jacket, but we didn’t get sleeping bags or extra clothes. We left with one full and two empty pack saddles. We didn’t have time to move propane tanks from buildings and the fuel shed. We turned on the water pump and left it blasting at the Taylor Cabin. Sprinklers were still on at other buildings.

Jim tried to reach Arnolds [a couple who ran a backcountry flight company] on the backcountry radio, but had to leave a message with Sharon [Haight] at Yellow Pine Bar that we were evacuating to the Flying B Ranch, twenty-two miles away, and fire was at Taylor Ranch. Jim had already called the Forest Service to say we would probably evacuate before the helicopter arrived, since the fire was moving so fast.

As we left Taylor Ranch at 3:40, a strong wind blew embers ahead of the main blaze and ignited hillsides a half-mile away: Horse Mountain, then the third bench grassland, along the airstrip, then a hundred meters above our cabin. The main fire roared past the mouth of Rush Creek to Taylor Ranch and the entire Horse Mountain–Cliff Creek basin was in flames. A strong east wind sucked air into the fire.

We kept looking behind as we traveled by muleback at a fast walk. I got a few last pictures of Taylor Ranch from the trail. At Dunce Creek an hour later we heard a helicopter but could not communicate with it on our air-to-ground.

We did not know at the time, but six smokejumpers did helicopter into Taylor Ranch soon after we left. They immediately ran to put out a fire next to the hay barn. By the time they got the pump going in the creek, the cookhouse was burning. Six more smokejumpers from McCall came in that night.

The fire made a run from the east, but the jumpers had hoses ready at each structure. They backfired when the fire came over the knob from the east and held the fire line along the east trail to the water box. Steven Bierman of McCall Smokejumpers left us a note documenting their activities.

Meanwhile, Jim and I continued riding until 9 pm, when rafting company Rocky Mountain River Tours encouraged us to stop, have dinner, and spend the night with them. We hobbled and grazed the mules at Wilson Bar…

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Holly Akenson

About Holly Akenson

Holly Akenson moved with husband Jim to a log cabin in the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness in 1982 to manage the University of Idaho’s Taylor Ranch. For more than two decades, the two wildlife biologists embraced simple living conditions while meeting the demands of university research. They now live in eastern Oregon.

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