Friday, August 31, 2007

Growth on Castle Rock Fire seen daily

In only 15 days, blaze has grown to 46,087 acres

Express Staff Writer

Express photo collage by Gavin McNeil

Since a single bolt of lightning struck a lone tree 10 miles west of Ketchum in the Warm Springs drainage on Thursday, Aug. 16, the stubborn Castle Rock Fire has been a blaze that won't quit. Every time firefighters working the blaze have gained the upper hand in one particular area, Mother Nature has seemed intent on challenging fire crews tooth and nail.

From the very beginning, windy conditions were the bane of firefighters who were hard at work trying to control the steadily growing blaze. Fierce ridge-top winds blew the blaze across miles of dense timber and sagebrush-covered hillsides, sometimes in as little as a few hours.

Days one through five

It was 5:51 p.m. on Aug. 16 when smokejumpers Dale Springer, Ben Oakleaf and a third unnamed jumper lept from their Twin Otter turboprop airplane into the warm summertime air 3,000 feet above the valley floor of Warm Springs Creek.

Descending into the valley below, the trio spotted a haze of smoke from a small wildfire near the intersection of Castle Gulch and Barr Gulch south of the Warm Springs Creek Road.

Touching down near Castle Rock 10 miles west of Ketchum, Springer led his team to the perimeter of the small wildfire.

There, they quickly found the single lightning-struck tree from which the fire originated. Springer said things looked promising when they first arrived.

"I thought we could get it," he said.

That optimism quickly turned to concern as high winds fanned the flames, which soon into contact with north-facing timber south of the Warm Springs Creek Road.

The flames quickly took off.

"It got in the timber and there was not much we could do," he said.

From just three to five acres the first day, the Castle Rock Fire increased to 150 acres by the evening of Friday, Aug. 17. Over the following weekend, fierce winds whipped the fire into a fury and sent it north over the Warm Springs Creek Road. From there, the blaze made a startling run up the length of Rooks Creek, which is eight miles west of Ketchum.

What began as a voluntary evacuation order on Saturday, Aug. 18, became a mandatory evacuation order west of Ketchum city limits in the Warm Springs Creek area a day later at 4 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 19. Included in the closure were numerous year-round residents in the Frenchman's Bend and upper and lower Board Ranch neighborhoods along Warm Springs Creek.

While most followed the county's evacuation order, a few did not.

Lower Board Ranch resident Will Caldwell, with his wife, Julie, chose to stay believing the greatest threat to his home was not an approaching wall of fire, but burning embers dropping onto his roof.

"I feel like if any threat to my home materializes, I want to be there to protect my house from being enflamed," Caldwell said.

By daybreak on Monday, Aug. 20, the stubborn blaze had grown to 10,726 acres, and was threatening three neighborhoods north and northwest of Ketchum, which were at varying levels of mandatory or voluntary evacuations. By that time, the blaze was firmly entrenched in upper Adams Gulch and Eve Gulch, as well as in Fox Creek, where a large spot fire was burning.

Day six

Calming wind conditions allowed firefighters on the now 12,058-acre Castle Rock Fire to finally go on the offensive on Tuesday, Aug. 21. In an effort to rein in the blaze, some of the nearly 600 firefighters assigned to the blaze initiated a series of controlled burn-out operations to clear flammable materials and create a safe buffer between the approaching fire and Ketchum.

Around 4 p.m., a column of gray smoke became plainly visible on the north side of Heidelberg Hill near the terminus of the popular Shadyside Trail in Adams Gulch. Douglas fir trees occasionally went up in flames, but for the most part the controlled burn appeared to be going along as the firefighters hoped.

Despite the fire's decreasing distance from the renowned Sun Valley ski area, incident commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley said constructing fire line between Ketchum and the advancing fire remained her top priority.

"We've got to get around this community," Pincha-Tulley said.

Days seven through nine

Burn-out operations on the Castle Rock Fire continued to take place between Wednesday, Aug. 22, and Friday, Aug. 24, with the bulk of the burns occurring in the Adams Gulch area north to Fox Creek and near Penny Lake in the lower Warm Springs Creek drainage.

Viewed from state Highway 75 north of Ketchum around 1 p.m. Wednesday, large columns of inky black and gray-colored smoke and bright orange and yellow-colored, intentionally-set flames towered over small groups of firefighters.

Facing an approaching cold front that was predicted to arrive in the area over the weekend, fire officials encouraged firefighters to safely complete as much of the burn-out operations as they could.

"Today is the day we have to lock down as much of the east line as possible," Pincha-Tulley said on Friday morning.

Days 10 and 11

The weekend of Aug. 25 and 26 was a dark time for Wood River Valley residents watching the Castle Rock Fire steadily advance over the Smoky Mountains landscape.

From an estimated size of some 18,015 acres Friday, Aug. 24, the blaze had exploded to 41,100 acres by the end of Sunday, Aug. 26. Fueled by fierce winds that blew a wall of flames down Greenhorn Gulch and right up to several homes, the rapid growth represented a remarkable 56 percent expansion in as few as two days.

The grim situation led county officials to place up to 1,000 mid-valley homes under mandatory evacuation orders.

The fire's extreme run also sent it racing north to within 50 yards of Sun Valley Resort's $12 million Seattle Ridge Lodge, where more than 40 firefighters helped stop the advancing flames, fire information officer Jim Whittington said.

"They are in very defensible positions and have all the equipment and resources needed to battle this," he said.

Days 12 through 15

After a relatively calm day Monday, what many called the worst-case scenario came to pass on Tuesday, Aug. 28. Buffeted by gusting winds, flames near the bottom of Bassett Gulch one and a half miles west of Bald Mountain raced east to the top of the 9,151-foot summit.

"What we hoped would not happen did happen," fire information officer David Olson said.

The ensuing column of smoke sent embers showering down on Bald Mountain's north and east-facing slopes. But due to a fast response from firefighters and retardant and water dropping helicopters, spot fires ignited by the falling embers were quickly knocked down by day's end Tuesday.

Considering the dire situation, officials again issued mandatory evacuation orders, this time for 1,400 homes in Ketchum's Warm Springs neighborhood.

In the two days since, fire crews working night and day have carefully ignited backburns along the western boundary of the Sun Valley ski resort next to the International, Upper Cozy and Cozy ski runs. The crews are racing to complete the burn outs in preparation for another anticipated wind event the National Weather Service has forecasted for this weekend.

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