Friday, August 27, 2010

Regional fires still expanding

High winds, low humidity challenge hotshot crews


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

The Banner Fire burns through lodgepole pines 15 miles west of Stanley on Monday. The area is saturated with dead pines, the result of pine beetles that kill the trees but do not fell them. The beetle kill, along with forecast high winds and low humidity, gave the blaze a high potential for expansion through Thursday. Photo by David N. Seelig

The Banner Fire 15 miles west of Stanley sent up a dramatic column of smoke Wednesday as it hit a ridge of beetle-killed lodgepole pine northwest of Highway 21 and expanded to over 2,000 acres.

The odds of the blaze expanding further are good, according to officials at the scene, as high winds and low humidity ahead of this weekend's expected cold front are creating prime fire conditions.

"Today is going to be a make-or-break day," said Jason Curry, spokesman for the Wilde incident management team, on Thursday. "We've got a bit of a test this afternoon."

The Banner Fire, burning in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, grew 350 acres Wednesday, but Highway 21 remained partially open the whole day. Curry said the crews have made "real progress" in suppressing the fire near the highway and Marsh Creek Road.

Banner is threatening several structures, including the Bradley Boy Scout Camp near Beaver Creek. The Stanley Community Volunteer Fire Department worked to clear brush and soak remaining vegetation to protect the camp.

There are 561 personnel fighting the wildfire, crews Curry said were called in anticipation of today's weather forecast.

Though crews are suppressing the fire near the highway, Curry said it is actually beneficial to some of the open areas and full containment is not yet anticipated. The area is full of beetle-killed pines, which are being cleared out by the fire.

The Long Butte Fire west of Hagerman is now 50 percent contained, but crews will have to contend with Thursday's forecast high winds to prevent more flare-ups.

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"Today is going to be the test day," said BLM spokeswoman Barbara Bassler on Thursday morning.

The fire, burning primarily on land managed by the BLM but also on some private ranch land, is estimated to have burned more than 306,000 acres, a slightly lower estimate than was reported earlier this week. Bassler said the lower estimate is due to better GPS mapping of the area.

Mike Whalen, incident commander for the Long Butte Fire, said the 661 firefighters on the scene would continue working until the fire is under control.

"We have prepared contingency plans for escapes or for new fires that may ignite as a result of the winds and low humidity," Whalen said.

The BLM estimates the fire will be fully contained by Friday night, and has begun releasing fire crews from duty.

The fire was sparked by lightning on Saturday afternoon, and grew explosively to 300,000 acres within a few days.

Long Butte has spread into the home range of the Saylor Creek wild horse herd, which covers an area of 95,000 acres south of Glenns Ferry.

Though the BLM reports that none of the area's 180 to 200 horses were injured or killed, the horses' food supply is threatened.

BLM crews are working to provide the horses with weed-free hay to make up for the forage lost to the fire and to protect remaining vegetation from overgrazing.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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