Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Castle Rock Fire stopped cold

Firefighters pack up and head for next job

Express Staff Writer

A firefighter sprays water on a hot spot next to Warm Springs Road west of Ketchum on Friday. With the Castle Rock Fire contained, fire crews are now focusing on mop-up and rehabilitation work. Photo by Willy Cook

Light rain fell over the Ketchum area early Tuesday morning as firefighters on the Castle Rock Fire achieved what they, federal fire managers and the entire Wood River Valley community have waited for with bated breath for two-and-a-half very long weeks.

Sometime around 6 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4, fire crews put the final touches on the last stretch of fire line and in doing so brought the large blaze to 100 percent containment.

But as consequential a moment as it was, it brought with it little if any fanfare. No ecstatic hoots and hollers could be heard from Ketchum, no honking of horns and, certainly, no celebratory lighting off of fireworks.

While the moment passed with little notice, the news will no doubt come as a great relief to the collective Wood River Valley community, which has dealt with smoky conditions, a nearly constant threat of structural damage by racing flames and the cancellation of most Labor Day weekend festivities.

"We were able to contain the fire," Castle Rock Fire Information Officer John Calabrese said Tuesday.

Calabrese said a combination of hard work by firefighters and generally favorable weather allowed the fire to be brought into full containment and without any loss of life or structures.

"We're real happy. Things have gone really, really well," he said.

At last count, lands falling within the Castle Rock Fire perimeter stood at a combined 48,520 acres. From its origins south of the Warm Springs Creek Road near Castle Rock, the fire burned in multiple directions according to how the winds were blowing and what types of fuels were available.

The blaze's earliest advances sent it burning northeast into the Rooks Creek, Adams Gulch, Eve Gulch and Fox Creek drainages. Blaine County and Ketchum city officials issued a series of mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders affecting upwards of 2,500 homes in response to the fast-moving flames.

Later, the large fire took off to the southeast, burning up and over the major ridge separating the Warm Springs Creek and Greenhorn Gulch drainages. Reaching Greenhorn Gulch, the fire briefly threatened homes there before racing northeast to within 50 yards of the $12 million Seattle Ridge Lodge.

Several days later, a small spot fire burning in the lower Bassett Gulch area 1.5 miles west of Bald Mountain raced to the top of 9,151-foot Bald Mountain, once again threatening the renowned Sun Valley ski area's resort infrastructure. But as they had so many times before, firefighters fought back and were able to keep the advancing flames at bay.

During the fire's fiercest days, more than 1,700 firefighters were assigned to the blaze, which for a time was the number one priority wildfire in the nation. A total of 919 firefighters, nine helicopters, three bulldozers and 49 engines remain assigned to the blaze, fire officials report.

In the 20 days it took to bring the lightning-caused Castle Rock Fire into containment since it began burning Thursday, Aug. 16, fire crews built an astonishing 97.5 miles of fire line, Calabrese said. He said the fire crews also laid down 71 miles, or some 375,000 feet, of fire hose to aid in the suppression effort and to provide for structure protection.

Although the Castle Rock Fire has been fully contained, the blaze certainly hasn't burned itself out, Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle said Tuesday. The large expanse within fire lines is an area of real danger, and will remain so for some time, Elle said.

"There is still going to be burning material inside the containment lines," Elle said. "Especially logs and roots and stuff."

He asked local residents to heed the Sawtooth National Forest's ongoing public lands closure, which covers approximately 150,000 acres west of state Highway 75 to the Blaine County line. The closure area extends from the Baker Creek Road on the north to the Deer Creek drainage on the south.

Inside that area, rolling rocks and falling trees are very real danger, Elle said.

"I would really, really like to stress the importance of the public staying out of the acres that are burned. That area is closed," he said. "We would really like everybody to stay out so they don't create more work for us."

Calabrese said the continued internal burning on the Castle Rock Fire is an indication of something wildland firefighters know all too well.

"We can't control it, but we can contain it," he said. "People may see smokes for a long time."

With imminent containment just several days away last weekend, fire managers were finally able to lift the last mandatory evacuation order and allow residents of the upper and lower Board Ranch back into their homes at noon, Saturday, Sept. 1. The area remained under a voluntary evacuation order as of press time on Tuesday.

The major fire suppression effort apparently behind them, fire crews are now getting down to the business of mopping up remaining hot spots within 500 feet of the fire's perimeter as well as rehabilitating areas impacted by the major fire suppression effort, Calabrese said. He said the work will include placing waterbars on steep slopes, smoothing down berms from bulldozer lines, and camouflaging hand lines and bulldozer lines.

Waterbars are short channels dug in perpendicular or semi-perpendicular fashion along the direction water is traveling to help prevent erosion by diverting running water away from trails and fire lines.

While going about their post-fire activities, firefighters will try to minimize as much as they can the impact the fire suppression effort had on the landscape, Calabrese said.

"Basically cleaning up after ourselves," he said.

Calabrese said the Type 1 incident management team assigned to the Castle Rock Fire since Aug. 20 is scheduled to hand over management responsibilities on the fire to a Type 2 incident management team from Utah at 6 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 6. He said the new management team will oversee mop-up and rehabilitation work.

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