THE BUZZ 3: Red Flag Summer

By on July 26, 2016

Wildfires continue to plague western Wyoming.

The Cliff Creek fire being managed for its resource benefits.

The Cliff Creek fire being managed for its resource benefits.

Cliff Creek Fire

JACKSON HOLE, WY – For 10 days now Jacksonites have awoken to a smoke-filled valley and a habit of casting a wary glance to the southwestern horizon each afternoon. The Cliff Creek Fire, started by lightning and discovered on July 17, roared across Highway 189/191 before Bondurant firefighters could even think about throwing water on it.

By the time Tony DeMasters’ Great Basin Team 7 crew arrived, flames were licking at Bondurant and headed for Granite Creek. But Team 7 battled the blaze at the base of Battle Mountain—more than 600 Pulaski-swinging grunts backed with an impressive helitack crew have held the line and steered the wildfire into the Gros Ventre Wilderness where it has consumed a dry and brittle forest decimated by pine beetle kill.

Weather has been a nightmare for firefighters. Hot and breezy conditions have been the rule, humidity practically nonexistent. The endless drone of chopper traffic overhead is a constant reminder of the aerial assault, as up to seven helicopters take turns scooping water out of the nearby Hoback River to pour on ridges targeted for protection by DeMasters.

When winds calmed enough Monday, DeMasters ordered the riskiest of moves: A backburn. Fighting fire with fire is always a gamble, but the opportunity to create a burned out area on the southeast ridge of the Granite Creek drainage was too good to pass up. Monday’s burnout operation was a success.

“From what I’m hearing from our operations people is we are having really good success lately. The firing yesterday was productive,” spokesperson Julie Thomas said. “Unless weather or winds do something unpredictable, we are feeling really good about what we are seeing out there. We may be able to transition to another team. We are still about eight days away from our current crew’s 14-day assignment. Next Tuesday, we will ask ourselves, ‘Who does this fire belong to now? What type team should be on it then?’”

The Cliff Creek Fire is still considered 10 percent contained—a statistic that is sometimes misleading or irrelevant—and is estimated at about 16,863 acres. Thomas said some aerial support is being lent to a nearby fire, where conditions on Togwotee Pass are worsening.

“We sent some super scoopers up there the other day to help them out,” Thomas said.

Lava Mountain Fire

The Lava Mountain Fire has been moving more slowly than Cliff Creek but it has managed to confound firefighters so far. The blaze began sometime on July 11, approximately 20 miles northwest of Dubois and due south of Brooks Lake Lodge. A week later, the fire still wasn’t much to look at but its proximity to several ranches, including Triangle C and Highway 26, prompted officials to call in a Type II national team from Montana on July 16.

Slurry bombing the Lava Mountain fire.

Slurry bombing the Lava Mountain fire.

Impossible terrain thick with downed timber, along with gusting winds, has challenged incident commander Rick Connell and his crew. When the fire quadrupled in size last Sunday to more than 8,000 acres, the decision was made to call in a Type I team, expected to be in place by midweek. Governor Matt Mead announced over the weekend he was calling in the National Guard to help with evacuations that include several ranches and private homes in the Union Pass, Porcupine, Warm Springs, and Hat Butte subdivisions. Long Creek subdivision, Sheridan Creek Cow Camp, MacKenzie Highland Ranch, Timberline Ranch, and Teton Valley Ranch Camp have also all been evacuated.

Governor Matt Mead is working closely with FEMA to determine if the fire meets the criteria for emergency financial assistance.

At press time, 643 personnel—including 14 crews, six helicopters, two water tenders, two dozers, 41 engines, and three skidgines—were fighting the Lava Mountain Fire. The fire is zero percent contained. PJH

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