Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Crews contain Sun Valley wildfire

Authorities still investigating cause of 290-acre blaze

Express Staff Writer

A heavy airtanker drops fire retardant on the Trail Creek Fire Saturday. A large air assault Friday night and into Saturday halted the fire?s advance. Photo by Willy Cook

On the heels of a dry winter, Blaine County was ripe for a blaze.

At 2:47 p.m. Friday afternoon, the Sun Valley Fire Department began to receive a slew of calls reporting a fire had been spotted along Trail Creek on property owned by Sun Valley Co. By Tuesday, after a massive fire-fighting campaign, the blaze was contained. It had burned 290 acres at a total cost of $680,000. No homes or structures were lost.

Joe Griffin, the Sawtooth National Forest's Ketchum Ranger District law enforcement officer, said the investigation into the cause of the fire is still proceeding. The fire, however, was certainly caused by people, he said.

The remnants of a small campfire were found in the area where the blaze is believed to have started but investigators have not determined it was the source.

If the fire was an accident, a person or persons could be stuck footing the bill for the cost of extinguishing the blaze. If the fire was started intentionally, criminal charges could be forthcoming.

When Sun Valley Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Pat McMahon and crews arrived on scene, they found a two-acre fire in the wetlands near Trail Creek, just northeast of Trail Creek Cabin. Sun Valley Fire Chief Jeff Carnes was away on vacation at the time.

Local agencies involved in the effort included Sun Valley, Ketchum, Wood River and Hailey fire departments, as well as Sun Valley Police and the Blaine County Sheriffs Office.

When the fire grew and eventually crossed over the Sun Valley city line, fire-fighting efforts were taken over by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

"Thanks to the hard work done by the engines, helicopters and crews from the Sawtooth National Forest and Twin Falls District BLM we were able to contain this fire," said Steven Anderson, incident commander on the fire.

The fire started small, but high winds gusting in the range of 20 to 25 miles per hour, and compounded by 85-degree weather, pushed the fire through the relatively wet Trail Creek basin and into the large expanse of sagebrush and tall grass on the south side of Trail Creek.

"Once the fire got into the cottonwood trees, it wasn't long before burning leaves blew across the creek and into the field," McMahon said. "That's really when we lost it. Safety is always first and foremost. We moved to attack the blaze from the upwind side, but the marshes stifled our movements."

McMahon said his crews fought the fire with "brush trucks," but the wind and random spot fires made it dangerous.

"We had to cut and run on one hose," McMahon said, referring to shifting winds that caused flames to circle around one crew. "It was in an area of sagebrush and grass, it wasn't a life-threatening situation but the crews did have to get out of there."

The afternoon winds on Friday were blowing out of the west, pushing the fire up the valley and away from Trail Creek Cabin and Sun Valley Lodge.

"It's a good thing the wind is not blowing toward the lodge," said Cam Daggett, Sun Valley police chief.

In the morning, the wind was blowing out of the east but switched in the early afternoon.

As the winds gusted and the fire marched up the valley, McMahon notified the Forest Service, and by 3:50 p.m. crews arrived and began to call in heavy equipment.

Four 20-man crews, three from Utah and one from southern Idaho, assisted local firefighters.

"I've called in everything I can," said Kurt Nelson, district ranger for the Ketchum Ranger District, on Friday.

Nelson also ordered the evacuation of the nearby Boundary Campground and began to issue orders to close all trails in the area. Pioneer Cabin was also deemed off limits.

The first single-engine air tanker arrived on scene at 4:20 p.m. and made the first drop of fire retardant. The plane is based in Twin Falls and initially had to return to that city after each drop in order to be reloaded. This led to a roughly 45-minute delay between each drop. By Saturday, the refilling station had been relocated from Twin Falls to Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, dramatically reducing turn-around time, Anderson said.

It was right about this time that the brush fire, which had been ebbing and flowing its way up the valley, lapped against the base of Morgan Ridge and exploded. In an instant, 100-foot pine trees were ablaze under 200-foot flames. Thick gray and black smoke filled the Trail Creek Valley. Within five minutes, the fire reached the summit of Morgan Ridge.

When the fire hit the top of the ridge it "got out of alignment with the wind," effectively stalling the fire, Anderson said.

"We see about 100 percent (tree) mortality" on Morgan Ridge, he said.

Shortly thereafter, the first helicopter arrived out of Hailey and began to drop 144-gallon buckets of water drawn from the Gun Club Nine golf course pond at 4:22 p.m. The first heavy air tanker arrived at 5:32 p.m. and made the first drop 10 minutes later.

By the end of the first day, a Type 3 Incident Management Team was in place and was orchestrating the efforts of four Type 1 Airtankers, one Type 4 Airtanker, two standard helicopters and three heavy engines, said a Forest Service press release.

At roughly 250 acres, the majority of acreage was consumed on the first day. The exact total of burned acreage was 289 acres. From Friday night through Saturday, air support peppered the fire with fire retardant and water drops. Only 39 more acres were burned over the weekend.

"The weather was on our side yesterday, and we accomplished a lot of hard work," Anderson said Monday. By the end of Sunday, Anderson said crews had 40 percent containment by 6 p.m. By Monday they had 100 percent containment.

The fire consumed no additional acreage after Saturday, and on Sunday the fire was manageable enough to send one of the 20-man crews home.

In order to deem a fire fully contained fire crews have to manually walk the perimeter of the fire and cut a "hand-line" around it. This is an 18-to 20-inch line cut into the ground by hand tools, Anderson said.

Throughout the day Monday, crews walked the burned areas to stomp out additional hot spots. On Monday night, the Forest Service flew a plane with infrared cameras over the scene to ensure no hot spots were close to the perimeter. Crews focus on the perimeter where hot spots could potentially send embers into adjacent vegetation.

"It's not economical to spot the entire area," Anderson said.

Fire crews will remain headquartered at Boundary Campground until Thursday to oversee the area. Hikers are asked to avoid burned areas. Burned trees are prone to falling and collapse, and hot spots in the interior could be harmful to hikers as well.

For the remainder of the summer, campers need to be extremely careful, authorities said.

"This fire started in a marsh and burned through wet plants and trees," Daggett said. "If a fire can start there, one can start anywhere."

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