A dramatic plume of smoke reminiscent of a mushroom cloud burst into the sky Wednesday over Fourth of July Creek, the scene of the Valley Road Fire in the Sawtooth Valley.
"It looks like an A-bomb went off," said a fuel truck driver pumping gas for some of the more than 900 professional firefighters and volunteers who have arrived on the scene since the fire started Sept. 3. Hotshot crews from around the country have joined the fight.
"There are a lot of fuels in there," said Carol Brown, NEPA administrator for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, who has been on scene most of the week. The reflected glow of flames and burning balls of gas in the smoke clouds were visible south of Galena Summit and in Stanley on Wednesday.
Public information meetings led by representatives from the Great Basin National Incident Management Team about the status of the fire and the fight to contain it are being held nightly at 6 p.m. at the Stanley Community Center.
During Wednesday's meeting, officials estimated that the fire had grown to about 18,000 acres, but the total mosaic of the fire includes areas that are still blazing and other areas that have already burned.
According to reports on Thursday, the "fire is exhibiting extreme fire behavior, burning in heavy fuels containing bug-killed lodgepole pine timber in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area 15 miles south of Stanley. The fire continues its growth to the northeast in the upper Champion, Fourth of July, Mountain Home and Fisher Creek drainages."
"I really appreciate you guys and your patience," said Custer County Sheriff Tim Eikens, addressing both the firefighters and Fisher Creek residents who were evacuated from their homes on Sunday. "The entire county is being so gracious with one another."
Carl Pence, a former SNRA area ranger and on-call public information officer, said the sheriff allowed him to enter the Fisher Creek area for 20 minutes on Tuesday to help residents George and Estelle Cook retrieve some of their valuables.
"We never thought the fire would come from (Fisher Creek)," said George Cook, who attended the Wednesday meeting with his wife and estimated that the fire was about 2.5 miles east of their home, which has been spared so far because the prevailing winds have been blowing northeast. "We always thought it would come from (the Sawtooth Mountains to the west) and jump the highway. If it had gone (north) we'd have been toast."
The Cooks rescued valuables that included photo albums, George's Vietnam War medals and a yo-yo quilt with kite designs. The quilt took Estelle three years to make.
Predictions of a change in weather, including cooler temperatures attached to a coming front, prompted authorities to estimate that Fisher Creek residents may be able to move back into their homes as early as Friday, Sept. 9.
"But, you can never say for sure," Pence said, noting that the area has an excess of heavy fuels. "Beetles (typically) kill older trees. After two to three iterations the forest is ready to burn."
Drought and warmer-than-normal winters have contributed to an overwhelming increase in the success of the lodgepole beetle, Pence said.
Authorities have not confirmed reports from some firefighters that the blaze was sparked by a rancher's burn barrel. But Pence said that although the cause of the fire is still under investigation, it was human-caused and started on private property east of Highway 75 on Saturday afternoon. Despite initial fire-fighting efforts, the fire progressed rapidly northeast through sagebrush, dry timber and deadfall. The wildfire mosaic had grown to 9,000 acres by Sunday evening.
Thursday's incident report said the fire was 15 percent contained. Next, crews hope to secure control of the fire before they begin to mop up remaining sparks.
"This is a heavy fuel fire." Pence said. "It'll take winter to put it (completely) out."
Seven helicopters are still dropping water to fight the flames as 29 ground crews using 36 fire engines battle the blaze. The fire response is tapping federal, state and local resources.
Area weather remains hot and dry. Highs on Thursday were in the upper 70s with humidity down to 6 percent. Winds were out of the west at approximately 8 to 12 miles per hour. A chance of rain is forecast for the weekend.