By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A man hiking through a national forest in Idaho suffered severe burns and his two dogs were scalded to death when both canines plunged into a hot spring and he jumped in after them to try to save his pets, authorities said on Tuesday.
The freak accident occurred last week in the Panther Creek Hot Springs, a popular spot in the sprawling Salmon-Challis National Forest, about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of the tourist town of Salmon in east-central Idaho.
Temperatures at Panther Creek, usually mild enough for human bathing, had apparently grown dangerously high, possibly from drought conditions that may have curtailed cool water flows that normally mix with the springs' geothermally heated groundwater, forest spokeswoman Amy Baumer said.
The hiker, who was not publicly identified, was out walking through the mountains with his dogs last Thursday when both pets leaped into the hot springs, killing one animal outright and prompting the man to plunge into the searing water to rescue the other, authorities said.
The second dog later died of its burns after being taken to veterinarians for emergency treatment.
While forest visitors are advised to test the temperature of hot springs before immersing themselves, the injured hiker acted on instinct in an attempt to save his pet, Lemhi County Chief Deputy Sheriff Steve Penner said.
A U.S. Forest Service firefighting crew that happened to be in the area came to the man's aid and arranged for a medical helicopter to fly him to a hospital for treatment of severe burns, according to Penner.
Panther Creek draws dozens of visitors annually, and forest managers were unaware of a similar incident ever occurring in the 107-year history of the Salmon-Challis, which spans 4.3 million acres (1.7 million hectares) and numerous hot springs, said Ken Gebhardt, a district ranger.
“The forest is very interested in doing what it can to better inform the public about this accident in hopes of preventing another tragedy,” he said.
Hot springs, the subject of travel guides and copious online commentary by outdoor enthusiasts, are widely dispersed across the Northern Rockies and other regions where volcanic activity and geothermal features are intertwined.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)