MOUNTAIN HOME, Idaho -- It's almost too easy to ignore the blackened stumps and hollowed-out logs that mark nearly every turn in the winding dirt road that leads to Trinity Ridge.
Hikers could be tempted to dismiss the ankle-deep straw and ash that clings to their boots while walking the myriad trails that zig-zag the area.
However, the sight of acres-upon-acres of charred pines sweeping down almost every ridge near 9,536' Trinity Peak is evidence of lingering destruction.
That's because more than 140,000 acres burned here from July through September of 2012. The Trinity Ridge Fire was the second-largest wildfire to burn through Idaho in what has become known as one of the worst fire seasons in state history.
From the smoldering wreck of an off-road vehicle, what first began as a small wildfire grew into a giant wall of flame that nearly consumed the rustic mountain town of Featherville, along with dozens of vacation properties in the surrounding area.
Hundreds of firefighters worked to save the town. Rain and snow finally extinguished the fire.
AREA TO REOPEN EARLY
While the damage remains, it's hard to argue the area's beauty has been spoiled.
The snow-capped peaks along the 9,000-foot ridge still contain swales of beautiful lodgepole pine. Secret pockets of wildflowers still poke out from rocky hillsides. Icy creeks still boil over hidden rapids fed by more than 15 small mountain lakes.
There's still plenty of hiking, biking, fishing, ATV riding, and other activities to be done.
What's more, the public can now enjoy the recreation opportunities here even earlier. That's because due to low snow levels, the Boise National Forest will open the Trinity Lakes Road on July 2nd of this year, a full two weeks earlier than its usual July 15 opening date.
Big Trinity Lake
The early opening is extended to all campgrounds, roads and trails in the area, with the exception of the Trinity Mountain Cabin, which won't open until July 15 due to repair work.
Despite the relatively safe conditions, visitors are warned to watch for dead snag trees falling, rock slides, and flash floods during heavy rains.
Jake Strohmeyer is the Acting Mountain Home District Ranger for the Boise National Forest. He says the Little Roaring Campground adjacent to Big Trinity Lake is the most heavily fire-impacted site, but should remain usable throughout the season.
"The point we're trying to get across is that it's not a wasteland," Strohmeyer said. "There's some spots that got cooked pretty good, but I think it's still a beautiful place."
RESTORING THE FOREST
Terry Hardy coordinates the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) program for the Boise National Forest.
Hardy's crew analyzes how wildfire affects human life and safety, property damage, and important natural and cultural resources.
He says the 146,832-acre Trinity Ridge Fire ranks among the most severe fires he's been charged with cleaning up. That's because nearly 44 percent of the entire acreage burned was classified as "moderate and high severity."
Hardy says that means complete loss of tree canopy, understory, and loss of soil cover, which can lead to significant problems with erosion and water quality in the surrounding area.
"With this fire, 60,000 of the total acres burned were moderate and high," Hardy said. "When you have your live green trees, that intercepts rainfall. When the canopy is gone, the rainfall hits direct soil."
WATER QUALITY AT STAKE
More than a dozen mountain peaks funnel snowmelt from Trinity Ridge into three drainages that eventually flow into the Boise River.
Hardy says the Lost Man Drainage and the Buck Creek Drainage go directly to the Middle Fork of the Boise River and are the most heavily impacted by fire. Picturesque Trinity Creek drains to the South Fork of the Boise River, and is a designated Bull Trout stream. That drainage faired much better.
Some of the most important threats here include erosion and sediment build up. That's because these waterways, which flow directly into the Boise River, could impact water quality in the Anderson Ranch Reservoir, Arrowrock Reservoir, and other downstream locations.
Still more threats include localized flooding, mudslides, and rockslides that could threaten forest service roads and campgrounds, and prevent seeds from taking hold on the fire-scarred land.
STOPPING EROSION FROM THE SKY
Crews with the Boise National Forest assessed the damage caused by the Trinity Ridge Fire in September of 2012. In early June, Hardy's team returned to the mountain to treat between 1,100 and 1,300 acres of the most heavily-damaged areas with straw bales to help anchor the damaged topsoil.
That's when firefighting helicopters equipped with huge nets scattered 800 to 1,000-pound straw bales over the blackened ground, spreading about three-quarters to a ton of straw per acre.
A caveat: because of dry conditions, the program did not include seeding and reforestation efforts.
Hardy says the cost of straw-bale restoration was estimated at $4.5 million, and the national forest is still calculating the actual cost of the program.
He says in three to five years, the blackened forest floor will be stable again, supporting grasses, shrubs and seedlings to anchor the land.
It will be decades before larger trees return.
Another catch: Hardy calls the reforestation efforts "an insurance policy," but says it's a policy that won't protect against major storms, floods, and huge snowmelts.
He says it's events like these that could easily strip the forest of new growth in the wake of the Trinity Ridge Fire.