Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Baldy battle continues

Fire crews, Sun Valley Co. staff get creative to protect ski mountain

Express Staff Writer

A plume of dark smoke rises high into the sky as timber on the back side of Bald Mountain burns Tuesday. Photo by Dana DuGan

Bald Mountain continues under siege from the Castle Rock Fire but tremendous effort and expertise by fire crews until Tuesday had managed to keep flames at bay. By mid-day Tuesday, no structures had been lost and the communication equipment that lines the ridge between Seattle Ridge Lodge and Lookout was safe.

At around 1 p.m. fire officials reported flames lapping out of the East Fork of Bassett Gulch on the top of Baldy and teams were preparing to begin chasing "spot" fires across the mountain. Concerns abound the fire could wrap around Baldy and into the Warm Springs area.

Indeed, by 3 p.m. the situation had worsened and spot fires started encroaching on the face of the mountain.

Two groups of firefighters were battling the flames. One is the Bassett Group (focusing on the western slopes of Baldy) and the second was the Ski Group (stationed on the ridges and within the ski area). In total, there were four crews comprising roughly 80 people, 14 engines each manned by three to four people, and a number of helicopters—the exact number working on these fronts vary.

"Today is a big decision day," said Jim Whittington, fire information officer. Expecting strong winds to again be a factor starting Friday, Whittington said that depending on the progress made Tuesday, "we will consider forcing the issue tomorrow (Wednesday)."

Good news is that following the fires' march Sunday into the Seattle Ridge area of the mountain, that area is "no longer a huge concern," Whittington said.

"Fire did come really close to Seattle Lodge," said Carol Brown, fire information officer for the Sawtooth National Forest. "Fire came out of Bassett Gulch and spots came over the ridge around the Broadway Saddle area. Fire crews were able to jump on them and stomp it out quickly."

Brown credited a bulldozer line and the efforts of the fire crews on the mountain for saving the communication tower located just to the northwest of Seattle Ridge Lodge.

Initial reports from fire officials that a spot fire had started burning in the Cold Springs area of Baldy were unsubstantiated. Fire crews were being posted in that area to extinquish any "spots" that could pop up.

"We created such a stinking fog up there," said Peter Stearns, Sun Valley Co. assistant operations manager on Bald Mountain.

Stearns helped execute the plan to turn on the company's snowmaking guns to spray water in vulnerable areas to protect the ski mountain.

"We were fighting the fire right next to the (Seattle Ridge) Lodge. So far the guns have been used to assist in structure protection."

Stearns went on to say that Sun Valley Co. staff, and himself in particular, are there to help with mountain topography and offer help to the fire crews. Whittington said fire crews are working with Sun Valley Co. to determine when to turn the snow making guns on, if at all.

On Tuesday morning the Bassett Gulch area was the focus of most fire-fighting efforts.

"We are doing everything we can, particularly with helicopters, to slow that area down," Whittington said. "That area is hemmed in by two ridges, and right now it's too hot to put crews down there. The fire's creeping up the slope and we don't want to put crews above the fire. We've got a dozer line going around that part of the fire."

To the south, ground crews and helicopters continued to battle flames in the Timber Gulch and Clear Creek areas.

By Tuesday afternoon, the battle to save Baldy had escalated and the county ordered a mandatory evacuation for the entire Warm Springs area west of the Warm Springs Bridge in Ketchum.

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