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The Lost Summer

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Photo from the Lee White Collection, provided by the Bonner County Historical Society Photo from the Lee White Collection, provided by the Bonner County Historical Society

"It seemed like the world was on fire." Revisiting the Sundance Fire of 1967

 

It was a summer like no other; a summer like every other. Snowy winter. Wet spring. Hot, dry July. Windy, parched August. Fire.

It was the summer when all eyes were on North Idaho.

It was 1967, and it was the year North Idaho burned.

“It seemed like a long, wet spring,” recalled Bill Stockman, “that suddenly dried up.” Stockman, age 74, worked on the Bonners Ferry Ranger District of the Kaniksu National Forest 35 years ago. During an interview this past spring he vividly recounted how the woods heated up, dried out, then burned with a ferocity seldom seen anywhere.

The result is well known today as the Sundance Fire. But it wasn’t alone. Lightning pounded the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains from mid-July until late August 1967, causing dozens of forest fires. Most were extinguished by a burgeoning firefighting force before they could escape and grow; some weren’t. By late August thousands of firefighters from across the country had converged on Bonner and Boundary counties to battle the fiercest blazes in the nation.

“The fire season in northern Idaho developed quite normally (in 1967), and in the first three months showed characteristics of an average fire season,” wrote Hal E. Anderson in a report for the Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station in Missoula. He authored a study of the Sundance Fire to figure out what happened and why.

The first critical date was August 11 when, Anderson observed, the fire danger index reached its highest level in 13 years on its way to a level rivaling the storied 1910 fire season. Also on August 11, a thunderstorm shattered the serene North Idaho skies and left five smoldering fires on the flanks of Sundance Mountain straddling the county line west of the Selkirk Divide.

Two of the five were spotted and contained that same day; a third was declared out four days later. A fourth fire from that storm wasn’t discovered until August 20 and it too was extinguished promptly. Those four strikes accounted for less than three acres of charred terrain. Then three days later a fifth smoke was spotted on Sundance Mountain near the lookout. Because of increasing fire danger due to severely dry conditions, the fire sprang to 35 acres by the next afternoon, but was quickly surrounded by fire lines and crews worked on suppressing the blaze for the next five days.

While other fires in the Panhandle had raced out of control – Trapper Peak at more than 18,000 acres, Plume Creek on another 1,200 acres and Kaniksu Mountain which threatened to burn into Canada in the Upper Priest (“We were afraid it was going to cause an international incident!” Bill exclaimed) – Sundance seemed to be well in hand on August 29.

A little after 10 o’clock that night, however, word came into the headquarters of the Priest Lake Timber Protective Association at Coolin that fire activity had increased throughout the evening – a rare occurrence on wildland fires - and Sundance had jumped its containment lines. Over the next eight, dark hours it grew to more than 2,000 acres.

From the town of Dover, the initial blowup of the Sundance Fire was “an awesome sight,” remarked Bud Moon, 78, who lived there at the time. “Smoke was coming up over Schweitzer and you could see the glow in the dark sky, a dull red glow.”

That night’s fire activity, however, proved to be only a spark compared to what was coming on the wind two days later.

Vern Eskridge, 67, was transportation dispatcher for many of the North Idaho fires in 1967. He was up Pack River doing reconnaissance the day before Sundance first jumped its perimeter. At 3 o’clock on the morning of the 30th he got word that it was making a run. Strengthening winds pushed embers into Lost Creek that afternoon where a spot fire roared across the lower part of the drainage. Residents in Naples far to the northeast reported ash falling from the smoky skies.

Sundance had doubled in size by early morning on the first of September, the second critical date in the life of this fire. Though the flames were still confined to Sundance Mountain south of Soldier Creek at noon, the temperature was climbing, the relative humidity was dropping and a strong southwest wind blew in.

Two hours later one of the most spectacular fire runs ever witnessed began its deadly tear to the northeast.

On the back of fire-induced winds gusting to as much as 95 mph as the brewing firestorm angrily churned smoke and dust 30,000 feet into the atmosphere; it took only nine hours for the Sundance Fire to travel 16 miles. Once it crested the Selkirk Divide, a wall of hungry flames four miles wide burned across the entire Pack River drainage and over Apache Ridge – a distance of more than ten miles - in a matter of three hours. The radiant heat from the marching inferno was so intense that the west side of Roman Nose erupted in spontaneous combustion so violently that entire trees were ripped from the ground and hurled over the top of the mountain into the tinder-dry forest below.

It was during the height of this firestorm that Luther P. Rodarte of Santa Maria, Calif., and Lee Collins of Thompson Falls, Mont., were killed while hiding beneath a bulldozer, seeking a safe place where there was none.

Stationed at the lookout tower on Roman Nose high above Pack River, young Randy Langston, just 18 years old and a graduate of Sandpoint High School, was forced to seek cover from the rapidly advancing wall of flames. He was quoted in National Geographic a year later describing his hiding spot: “The rock shelf had an overhang, and I wedged back under it as far as I could. Flames began roaring over it. I saw blazing branches as long as my arm fly past the overhang and down into the forest around the Roman Nose lakes.”

He was rescued by helicopter the next day amidst the smoldering ruins of a vast blackened landscape while Bud Moon, as county coroner, traveled up Pack River to transport the dead men’s bodies back to Sandpoint. Overwhelmed by the desolation, he exclaimed, “It was an awesome sight, like lava hot springs. Everything was denuded. Pack River Bridge was just a mass of twisted steel. The heat must’ve been tremendous.”

Miraculously, the advancing flames died in the fields a mile southwest of Bonners Ferry and on the slopes west of Naples that night as the winds blew themselves into the Cabinets to the east. No serious damage was done to private property and no other injuries were sustained from the monster that devoured so much of the Selkirk Mountains those fateful days 35 years ago.

In the end, the Sundance Fire consumed 55,910 acres. Yet it was just one of a host of fires that threatened homes and lives throughout the summer of '67, demanding heroic actions of thousands of men and women day after day.

“It was a lost summer,” sighed Vern Eskridge, “when it seemed like the world was on fire.”

For seven straight weeks people like Eskridge and Stockman worked long, hard hours in the battle against Mother Nature at her fiercest. Twice Stockman remembers putting in 36-hour shifts and he had not a single day away from the fire effort for seven consecutive weeks.

For years following the blaze, the area burned by the Sundance Fire sprouted new life in the midst of the death and devastation it brought to North Idaho. The blackened forest produced millions upon millions of mushrooms – particularly morels, which typically follow the path of wildfire. Bumper crops of huckleberries are still harvested today in the upper Pack River, and the vast landscape in the high country of the Selkirks made naked by the flames has become a premier destination for backcountry snowmobilers and skiers.

The effects of the Sundance Fire were tragic, in that lives were lost and a forest was blackened beyond recognition. But life springs anew, and though for many the summer of 1967 was lost to Mother Nature’s fury, the memories remain and with them the hope that a fair wind will blow and the thunder will be silent.

 

An abridged version of this story first appeared in the Summer 2002 edition of Sandpoint Magazine. For a copy of the magazine, please call 208-263-3573.

 

 

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Author info

Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

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Sundance Fire, history, forest fire

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