Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Terrain, weather briefly subdue Valley Road Fire

Evacuations continue as threat of spread persists

Express Staff Writer

An enormous mushroom cloud, as seen from Base Camp along Valley Road, forms above the fire on Sunday evening. The cloud was visible from the Wood River Valley. Photo by Willy Cook

Crews fighting the Valley Road Fire, which has charged through 13,000 acres of beetle-killed lodgepole pine about 15 miles southeast of Stanley, were aided by weather and terrain on Tuesday and containment was estimated at 5 percent.

An inversion over the area on Tuesday morning coupled with the fire's travel into steep, rocky terrain minimized its spread, but winds were increasing again as the inversion lifted in the afternoon, according to Bob Brady, fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

The human-caused fire started Saturday afternoon on private property east of Highway 75. Despite aggressive fire-fighting efforts, the blaze rapidly ran northeast through sagebrush, dry timber and deadfall, exploding to 9,000 acres by Sunday evening. Reports from some firefighters that the blaze was sparked by a rancher's burn barrel could not be confirmed by authorities.

The fire created an enormous plume over the Sawtooth Valley that was visible from as far away as Hailey.

A Type 1 Incident Command Team, which is the largest, is managing the fire.

The Great Basin National Incident Management Team responds to various natural disasters and was poised to assist Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. It instead arrived in the Sawtooth Valley on Sunday to fight the Valley Road Fire.

"The type-one team was brought in because of the level of complexity of the fire," said Carol Brown, NEPA administrator for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, who was on the scene Monday.

Eight helicopters continued to drop water¾drawn from the Salmon River and other sources¾on the flames Tuesday. About 300 firefighters, including 18 hand crews, were attacking the blaze on the ground. More crews have been requested.

Two engines from the Ketchum Fire Department and one each from Wood River Fire and Rescue, and the Sun Valley and Hailey fire departments had been sent to the fire over the weekend. One of Ketchum's engines returned Tuesday morning, according to Ketchum Fire Chief Greg Schwab.

The blaze has prompted numerous home and backcountry evacuations. Residents of Fisher Creek, just north of the fire, were evacuated over the weekend and have not been allowed to return to their homes. An evacuation center has been established at the Stanley Elementary School. All backcountry travelers in the area have been accounted for and evacuated.

Numerous road closures are also in effect (see below).

No homes had been lost and only one minor injury had been reported by Tuesday.

Clear skies, low humidity, winds and dry fuels have created what Schwab called "extreme fire behavior." Despite calmer fire conditions Tuesday morning, Brady said the lifting inversion could fuel the blaze with winds and promote spread.

"We could have a surge in the fire, kind of like a backdraft," Brady said.

Schwab believes valley winds will continue to increase the fire's spread and he doesn't expect his crew of five firefighters and their engine to return home before Sunday. He added that recent grants to the Ketchum Fire Department are paying off.

"It really allowed us to train and equip our firefighters a lot better," Schwab said.

There were reports of massive walls of flame engulfing entire hillsides with incredible speed on Sunday, when winds were at their worst. Anita Harper, an information officer with the SNRA, said smoke along Highway 75 combined with curious motorists resulted in three car accidents on Sunday. Fire officials are urging travelers along Highway 75 to turn on their headlights and avoid stopping at roadside pullouts.

A fire-fighting camp had been established on Valley Road by Saturday afternoon, complete with a caterer from Burley. Since that time, additional resources have flooded into the fire, which is the state's top fire-fighting priority. Ten other fires are burning throughout Idaho, almost twice as many as in any other state¾Montana has six¾in the country.

The Valley Road Fire continues to threaten homes, commercial property, wildlife habitat, campgrounds and recreational areas. Harper said she had not heard of any cattle or sheep perishing in the fire. There are measures in place to protect spawning salmon habitat and to prevent the fire from crossing Highway 75 to the west, where massive amounts of beetle-killed lodgepole pine exist.

A community information meeting will be held at the Stanley Community Center every day at 6 p.m.

Road closures: Forest Road 209 (Fourth of July Creek Road); Forest Road 197 (Pole Creek Road); Forest Road 194 (Valley Road); Forest Road 132 (Fisher Creek Road); and Forest Road 412.

(Express reporter Matt Furber contributed to this report).

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