Idaho March 15, 2016
The 5 Most Horrifying Disasters That Ever Happened In Idaho
Idaho is a relatively seismic state, but in terms of weather is blessedly mild with regards to devastating acts of nature. While natural, large-scale events impact the state every year, only a few events across the country receive formal Federal Major Disaster Declarations from the President, a program which was created in the ’50s. Since the program began, 23 major disasters have been declared in Idaho, along with two federal emergency and 10 fire management assistance declarations.
Idaho is a wonderful place to live; however, the same natural and geologic forces that make it so beautiful can often result in natural disasters of epic proportions. These five events, while they may or may not have been registered as Federal disasters, were devastating enough to Idaho’s population, landscape, and industry that they make notable historical moments. They also mark incredible moments of our state coming together to help those in affected communities recover and promote healing across the Gem State.
1. Borah Quake, 1983
It was one of the most powerful temblors to strike North America during the twentieth century at 7.3 on the Richter scale... but did you know Idaho is
for more just like it? The Borah Quake struck the middle of Idaho's wilderness, rattling Challis and the Lost River Valley. Two were killed, with total damages exceeding $2.5 Million - not including the irreplaceable and inexplicable disappearance of natural spring water which was used to maintain local livestock.
The quake made global headlines not only for its magnitude, but simply because its faulting was up and down, whereas most other quake zones shift side to side. Most notably, this horrific mass-scale quake caused the mountain -- already Idaho's tallest peak -- to grow by around six inches, while also dropping the entire valley anywhere from five to nine feet. Also created? One giant rift, and a number of sinkholes, some 10 feet across, pocking the valley floor, caused by "liquefaction"– the violent shaking of loose soil until it compacts into a quicksand-like material. The 21-mile long scarp that was created by the Borah Quake raised at points as much as 14 feet and is still visible today. You cross the scarp on the west side of the mountain en route to the trailhead.
But be warned: Idaho has two other "natural wonders" in its landscape that are a
waiting to happen.
2. The Plague, 1985
In a plague of Biblical proportions, and with infestations so bad in parts of the state that the ground was literally crawling, according to reports, Idaho's grasshopper epidemic in 1985 caused severe crop damage to more than 6 million acres in the state. The insects would enter the edge of a field and munch their way through from start to finish, leaving not one stalk left untouched.
The grasshopper swarms occurred throughout the Northwest, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture specifically declared four counties in Idaho to be disaster areas -- total damages exceeded $11 Million in the first year alone. The disaster was compounded by the state's drought conditions and simultaneous hatching of Mormon crickets. Fortunately, heavy aerial pesticide attacks and a lucky break of cooler-than-normal weather in 1987 finally enabled farmers across the state to get an edge against the crop-devouring adversaries. Factoid: Seventeen grasshoppers per square yard can devour one ton of alfalfa per day.
3. The Big Burn, 1910
The Big Burn, 1910 - Idaho was home to the largest forest fire in US history in 1910, which burned through Northern Idaho on August 20 and 21. A dry summer, sudden lighting, and intense wind combined to create the incalculable inferno, which scorched three million acres of virgin timberland were destroyed across three states, and took 87 lives. Horrifyingly, most of the damage was due to to hurricane-force winds that turned the immense wildfire into a venerable blowtorch, with flames shooting straight into the air.
Red balls of fire rolled up mountainsides; crown fires, some up to 10 miles wide, streaked through treetops while the central blaze consumed everything in its path at an incredible 70 miles per hour. The sky was pitch black with ash that mid-afternoon, save for the blinding red glow of the blaze. Since the area had received only an inch or so of rain that season --- a mere 2% of the normal rainfall -- the crisp, withered trees made perfect tinder. Meanwhile, thousands of other fires burned nearby and were all left to die out of their own accord as all resources were allocated towards combating the behemoth flames.
With US military assistance, the flames seemed to be contained. Then, on Aug. 20, the red-hot forest exploded into "The Big Blowup." A cold front moved in and fed the flames with new oxygen, combining multiple smaller fires into one incinerating vortex. The fire was only placated by the arrival of rain, and ultimately, was the first test of the newly established U.S. Forest Service (1905).
4. Salmon Flood, 1984
Where the Salmon and Lemhi rivers meet, unusually cold temperatures in 1984 caused two ice jams to form along the river. An ice jam is caused when a build-up of ice blocks the river’s flow, causing the water upstream to slow down and rise higher. If the jam suddenly breaks apart, rapidly releasing upstream water and causing large-scale flash flood conditions. That chilly winter, freezing temperatures allowed the formation of "frazil ice," a slushy ice that formed in turbulent open waters, which began sticking together in two separate instances only a week apart in December. They reached 22 and 30 miles long, respectively. Frigid waters flooded the small town of Salmon, causing mass evacuations and rescues, with relief and cleanup efforts hindered by emergency funds depleted by the Borah Quake the year before.
No lives were lost, but the damage was severe. When the floodwaters receded, residents found nearly 3 feet of ice inside their homes and 5 feet of ice outside. The subzero temperatures had literally left the town encased in ice. Ultimately, a Presidential disaster declaration was made.
5. Mount St. Helens, 1980
Mount St. Helens - In 1980 (a decade of disaster for the state), Idaho was plunged into darkness when Washington's landmark volcano collapsed and erupted in a lateral explosion of magma and ash. The state was coated in around two inches of volcanic ash, which is composed of tiny shards of pointed glass and rock that form a concrete-like material when wet and can significantly damage a person’s lungs. Washington was immediately declared a natural disaster area, and Idaho was declared one the following day.
While the eruption and subsequent ash didn’t cause severe injury or loss of life in Idaho directly, it was a disaster of its own accord projected to have cost tens of millions of dollars in loss of business, clean-up, and vehicle damage. Thousands of residents also suffered lung damage from inhaling the dangerous substance.
Wow. Idaho is incredibly fortunate to have have not only recovered from these devastating events, but to have quite literally “grown” from them. Our state’s sense of community is unrivaled, and had Idahoans not banded together in these times of need, the damage could have been much worse.
Were you or a family member nearby when any of these disasters occurred? Feel free to share your stories and pay tribute to the countless organizations and individuals who played roles in the aftermath.