Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fire managers say containment likely

Time estimates given for two to five days at various spots

Express Staff Writer

Flames burn through heavy timber Saturday below Carbonate Ridge, near Flying Heart Ranch north of Hailey. Photo by Willy Cook

     Incident managers began their work day Tuesday with a sense of confidence that the Beaver Creek Fire is on the way to containment, though stubborn pockets of resistance remain and new fire starts throughout the West began to siphon off resources.

     “I do think we’re turning the corner,” U.S. Forest Service Incident Commander Beth Lund said during a staff briefing at the incident command post north of Hailey.

     “If we get a couple of these areas locked down, I think we’ll be OK,” she said.

     Lightning ignited the fire Wednesday, Aug. 7, about 12 miles northeast of Fairfield and it quickly spread north through the Sawtooth National Forest.

     On Friday, Aug. 9, it made a spectacular run of eight miles into the headwaters of Deer Creek and Warm Springs Creek. Thereafter, it spread into the Greenhorn Gulch drainage where it destroyed one home and damaged another.

     On Saturday, Aug. 17, at about 2:30 a.m., flames appeared over the top of Carbonate Mountain, threatening the city of Hailey.

     The fire is still burning in pockets on the east face of the mountain while firefighters hit it with water and retardant from the air and wait for it to reach the Big Wood River before battling it on the ground.

     More than 1,700 people are fighting the fire, which has burned 166 square miles and is now 30 percent contained.

     Lund said resources are in demand by other fire-fighting efforts, including a new one in the Sequoia National Forest in California commanded by Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, who was incident commander for the Castle Rock Fire that hit the Wood River Valley in 2007.

     “We do still have a lot of work to do,” Lund said. “I don’t think they’ll take any crews from us, but I don’t think we’ll be getting any more.”

     Operations Section Chief Jeff Surber said Tuesday that firefighters would try to hold a scraped and bulldozed fire line at the Norton Lake Road to keep the fire from moving down the Baker Creek drainage. He said they would also try to tie a line from the East Fork of Baker Creek to the Castle Rock Fire burn area, to keep the fire from moving down the Oregon Gulch-Fox Creek area toward State Highway 75.

     “We still have that backup [another line near the highway] that’s all been prepped, but we want to try this while the weather’s moderated,” Surber said.

     He said aerial attacks would continue on a pocket of fire still burning in Timber Gulch south of Ketchum, aided by additional resources moved up from the effort in Croy Creek Canyon.

     “They’ll have all the water and retardant they want,” he said.

     In the Croy Creek area, he said, there was “a huge air show” Monday in an effort to hold the fire at the top of Wolftone Creek.

     Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman said local departments still have a “large presence” in the Croy Creek Canyon for home protection.

     “I’m feeling better and better about the Croy area,” he said.

     Lassman said mop-up actions would be going on mid-valley in the Starweather-Zinc Spur area.

     Incident meteorologist John Jacobs said weather is expected to be more humid and cooler today and Thursday. However, he said potential rainstorms are likely to be more scattered than was earlier forecast. He said those storms could also produce lightning.

     Incident Liaison Officer Bill Bryant said power was restored Tuesday to all Idaho Power customers except those from the Sawtooth National Recreation Headquarters north.

     Intermountain Gas District Manager David Nelson said Tuesday that gas would probably be restored to all customers in the area by that evening.

     With rainy weather in the forecast, the burned area is, ironically, possibly susceptible to landslides.

     Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said Monday that a burned area emergency rehabilitation team from the Forest Service would assess which areas are most vulnerable and make recommendations on appropriate actions.

     Even after the Beaver Creek Fire is tamped down, Wood River Valley residents are likely to be suffering through smoky skies for some time as other wildfires continue to burn to the west. At least a month of fire season remains.

     The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Tuesday reported nine large fires burning in Idaho. Those burning in south-central Idaho are:

  • The Elk Complex fires, which were declared only 65 percent contained Tuesday morning after having burned 130,000 acres in the Boise National Forest near Anderson Ranch Reservoir since they were started by lightning Aug. 8.
  • The Little Queens Fire at the southwestern corner of the Sawtooth Wilderness about four miles north of Atlanta. Estimated at 8,000 acres with no containment Tuesday, the fire has spread to the north and to the south, and is backing down into the main Queens River. The Elmore County Sheriff's Office has downgraded an evacuation of Atlanta issued Monday to a pre-evacuation. Residents and property owners will be allowed in and out of Atlanta, but the public is barred. Two 20-person hand crews and three engines are on scene. A Type 2 incident management team was scheduled to arrive Wednesday.
  • The Papoose Fire, which is still burning slowly on the west side of the lower Middle Fork of the Salmon River after being started by lightning July 8.
  • The Leggit Fire in the Sawtooth Wilderness, the McCan Fire, northwest of Fairfield, and the Pony Complex fires, northeast of Mountain Home, have been declared contained.

Map by E.B. Phillips

 Click to enlarge

Federal fire resources nearing exhaustion

     The National Interagency Fire Center reports that there have been 877 wildfires in Idaho this year. A total of about 970 square miles has been burned—an area more than half the size of Rhode Island.

     Due to the large fires in Idaho and other Western states, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group on Tuesday increased the National Preparedness Level to 5, the highest on the scale, for the first time since June 2008.

     According to the National Interagency Fire Center, Level 5 is reached when the accumulation of fires has the potential to exhaust all agency fire resources.

     NMAC consists of representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Federal Emergency Management Administration, and the National Association of State Foresters.

     The center on Tuesday was reporting 51 large fires burning in the West and eight significant new starts. It stated that 264 large fires have been contained so far this season.

     Despite the current extreme situation, this year’s fire season to date is only the eighth most destructive of the past 10 years. According to the National Interagency Fire Center website, fires throughout the country have so far burned 3.4 million acres, compared to a year-to-date average of 5.4 million acres.


Wagons Ho!

The city of Ketchum announced Tuesday that the annual Wagon Days celebration will go on as planned. Events start Wednesday, Aug. 28, and conclude on Monday, Sept. 2. The Beaver Creek Fire, which displaced many of the Wood River Valley’s residents last week, left many wondering if Wagon Days would go on as scheduled. “Safety is our first priority,” said Mike Elle, Ketchum fire chief.  “We feel very confident at this time that the Beaver Creek Fire does not pose an immediate threat to the residents or visitors.” 

A day in the life of a firefighter

    In a small tent set up at the edge of the sprawling incident camp north of Hailey on Tuesday’s hot afternoon, a firefighter lay sound asleep about 30 feet from two idling semi-trucks and a beeping forklift.

     “They don’t get a lot of sleep out here,” Fire Information Officer Jonetta Trued said. “It’s rough.”

     Trued said firefighters work every day that they’re on the fire, usually for 16 hours whether they’re working day or night shifts. During their eight hours off, they need to eat, shower, resupply, maintain their equipment and sleep.

     She said that while they’re out on the line, they carry 25- to 30-pound packs plus their tools.

     Trued said an unusually high number of people in the Wood River Valley have been wildland firefighters, including the owner of property in Deer Creek who allowed a retardant base to be set up there.

     “This community is really hard-body,” she said. “They seem to identify with the people out on the line. It’s different than at most incidents.”

     Trued said residents can make life easier for firefighters by making their homes fire-wise—building their houses of fire-resistant materials and clearing trees and other flammable materials away from walls and roofs.

     “On this fire, there have been times when they’ve had to wake up at 2:30 a.m. to do structure protection,” she said. “These firefighters were working in really drastic fire and wind conditions. They were literally running to protect homes.”

Most pets make it through fire

     Despite the fact that many people have had to evacuate from their homes, Hailey Animal Control Officer Forrest Danielson said Tuesday that he had heard of only one recently lost pet—a cat.

     The Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley says that it cannot act as an impound facility, but anyone who finds a stray pet with tags can call 788-4351 and the shelter will look it up in its database.

     The shelter reported that all its animals were evacuated and are safe in temporary homes. The shelter in Croy Canyon was not burned.

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