FEATURE: The Heat Is On

By on August 2, 2016

Hole heroes—how firefighters lay it all on the line.

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(Photo: Jayson Coil)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Heroism doesn’t always look like you’d expect it to. Blame Hollywood for creating a swashbuckling example of a shining knight who saves the day. On the line of a raging forest fire, in the heat of a battle against Mother Nature’s fury, bravery is measured in the hundreds of boots on the ground. These soot-faced men and women risk their lives and everything their future might hold to defend drainages with names they’ll struggle to remember next summer and will likely never see again.

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Top to bottom: Kyle Johnson, helitack manager on the Cliff Creek fire; Tony DeMasters, IC on Cliff Creek; ranch manager of Triangle C Jim Moulton and Kim Martin, IC on the Lava Mountain fire.

Make no mistake; there are gallant efforts. A bone-weary hotshot returns to spike camp without the strength to lift his Pulaski—only to eat, sleep, and do it again. It’s 16-hour days, 14 on, two off, then headed for the next forest afire. Smokejumpers parachuting and rappelling into the heat of battle, their yellow Nomax shirts blackened with grime, and the intense heat of nearby torching firs melting anything on their body made of plastic.

Trail crews hiking miles to a perimeter, clearing understory until their backs and knees give out while a constant drone of aerial support pounds the countryside with water and retardant (scoop, circle, drop; scoop, circle, drop) for hours until their fuel gives out.

From the inglorious toiling of grunts between college semesters, to the shrewd deployment of resources and gutsy backburn orders given by high command. Every firefighter eats smoke for breakfast and sleeps when the fire sleeps—a few short hours in the dead of night, when both inferno and infantry rest to make another run in the morning.

And yes, it’s still dangerous to fight fires. Better communications, more accurate forecasting models, and improved technology and techniques keep firefighters safer than ever before. And yet they die—13 in all last year. Nineteen at once on one Arizona fire in 2013. One of the deadliest fires ever claimed 15 lives in 1937 on the very forest aflame now near Dubois.

Wind shifts, downslope air funnels, uphill runs, and spotting for more than a mile can bring flames on a crew with little notice. Burnovers, rollovers, snags (the loose tree limbs hung up on other tree limbs that firefighters sometimes call widowmakers), and firenados (or fire whirls, and, yes, they’re exactly what they sound like) are just some of the dangers lurking in every wildland blaze.

The West has never been more combustible. The numbers bear evidence of decades-long, ill-advised practices of managing forest fires (we used to try to put them out). As Western States become more and more populated, wildland-urban expansion puts an increasing number of people and homes at risk. Prolonged drought, reduced snowpack from climate warming, and longer summers are also to blame for the trend toward larger and more complex forest fires. And the latest nemesis—the pine beetle—has left Rocky Mountain woodlands ripe for incandescent regeneration.

Last year was quiet for Wyoming, but the nation burned like never before. A record 10.1 million acres was torched. It took an astronomical $2.1 billion to manage the 68,151 fires in 2015. A hot, dry spring/summer has the Cowboy State feeling the scorch this season. Two significant incidents are threatening major corridors into Jackson Hole—Cliff Creek fire to the south and the Lava Mountain fire at the north end of the valley.

To date, neither blaze has claimed a life, or so much as one structure. Considering the challenging conditions facing both interagency teams on these fires, it’s nothing short of a Hollywood movie script—heroism in the Hole.

Tale of two torchers

The Cliff Creek and Lava Mountain fires were both lightning caused and discovered on the same weekend. Though each has behaved differently, they’ve now consumed a combined 66 square miles of Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton and Shoshone national forests, keeping nearly 2,000 people busy battling the pair of wildfires situated less than 30 miles from each other as the crow flies.

“Could they connect?” some have asked. In a word: no. There’s something called the Continental Divide between the two events. But they are close enough that resources have been shared between the two conflagrations. When Lava was pressing on ranches near Highway 26, it was two super scoopers (Bombardier 415s) based in Pinedale to the rescue with their payload of 1,620 gallons of water.

The wildfires are reminiscent of past blazes that threatened both Wilson and Dubois. In 2001, the Green Knoll fire elicited an unprecedented air attack that was made available largely at the reported request of then-Vice President Dick Cheney. The flames were halted short of the town of Wilson after weeks of overhead bombardment filled the valley with smoke and ash. A monument to the efforts of firefighters stands in downtown Wilson commemorating the incident.

In Dubois, residents lived in fear of the massive Purdy Fire that funneled through the Gros Ventre Range toward the small mountain community until a Type 2 team led by Marc Mullinix, now deceased, was able to hold off the wildfire. Mullinix was a promising incident commander under the tutelage of the legendary Kim Masters who now is in command of the Type 1 team battling the Lava Mountain fire.

Cliff Creek Fire

Acres burned: 29,429. Personnel: 692. Containment: 84%. Cost to date: $11.1M.

The Cliff Creek fire didn’t start first but it started fast. Reports came in around 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 17 of a fire in Cliff Creek. Before local Sublette County fire responders could even get rolling the flames had shot across Highway 189/191 and were skirting Bondurant. The highway was closed and remained so for days.

“Pray for our home and our neighbors. Pray for a miracle,” Nicole Uhl posted on her Facebook page that fateful Sunday. “We are all evacuated on the north end of Bondurant. Will keep you all posted throughout the day. Thank you to all the brave men and women fighting this fire. You guys are incredible people.”

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High winds, low humidity, and a blistering hot day pushed the fire into erratic behavior. It marched toward uninhabited wilderness area in Shoal and Dell creeks, but it also took a course toward popular Granite Creek where numerous summer homes and the hot springs area were at risk.

A Type 2 incident team was called in. Tony DeMasters and his Great Basin 7 unit took control of the fire and began immediate aerial bombardment of the ridge shielding Granite from the advancing inferno. If the fire got in the drainage there would be no stopping it. A mandatory evacuation was ordered for all Granite Creek residents.

One homeowner, George Warren, told a local TV crew, “Mother Nature’s pretty tough sometimes. You grab your tennis shoes and fishing rods and get the hell out. And let me tell you something, these firefighters out here, local [and] federal … they go to work. When they tell you something, you do it. You don’t question them.”

“We wanted the keep the fireline on the ridge above Granite Creek,” DeMasters said. “But with the amount of snags in that country, and the rough terrain, we couldn’t risk putting hand crews in there.”

With the ready availability of water from Granite Creek, aviation was able to cycle and reload quickly. They soaked the ridge with a barrage of bucket drops.

“We were doing two- to three-minute turnarounds in there early on when we were dipping from Granite,” Kyle Johnson said. He manages the helitack team on the Cliff Creek fire. “We just cycled like that doing salvo drops for two-and-a-half hour shifts until we had to refuel.”

When team meteorologist Mark Loeffelbein forecasted lighter winds for a few days, DeMasters went for broke. He ordered a backburn, a risky controlled fire that the 30-year veteran commander hoped would create a defensible space between where the fire was and where it could not be allowed to go.

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“We are probably six weeks ahead of schedule for when things like to typically burn in this area. Fuels are very dry. We knew that with burning conditions, it was eventually going to start easing its way into Granite Creek so we needed to come up with a plan to be on the offensive side of things and fight the fire on our terms,” DeMasters said. “We had an opportunity to go direct, to bring the fire up out of the headwaters of Granite Creek and down to the southwest.”

The gamble worked. For seven straight days, Great Basin 7 intentionally lit fires with helitorches and aerial ignitions plastic devices. Slowly, carefully, firefighters blackened tinder dry forest, creating a 10-mile barrier between the main fire and the dozens of structures in Granite Creek.

“We put fire on the landscape in a very slow, methodical fashion so that way we were in control of it. We had patience. We just didn’t throw fire on the hillside and let it go,” DeMasters said. “The folks in there and all the overhead resources did an absolutely wonderful job. Granite Creek itself was a great success story.”

Not only was DeMasters able to save the drainage, he was thoughtful enough to consider homeowners.

“We really wanted to concentrate on the watershed and the view above all those homes. We didn’t want to just slick it off and make it just hard black,” DeMasters said. “So we used tactics in the sense of we wanted to keep the aesthetic view so the homeowners didn’t have just a blackened hill to look at. Granted, there will be some black; there will be some dead trees, but it’s the best we could do under the given circumstances.”

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As containment reached 84 percent earlier this week, DeMasters shifted efforts toward the east at a place he called Elbow Draw. It was a brazen attempt to coax the fire north into the Gros Ventre Wilderness where it would eventually run out of available fuel as it approached Tosi and Hodges peaks.

“Elbow Draw is kind of the bottleneck where if we don’t do something in there this thing had the ability to keep marching its way east into the headwaters of Jack Creek,” DeMasters said. “If it got in there it would be a game-changer. There is no other control point for miles where we could safely engage the fire. We would have to back off a considerable distance and think about what lies out in front of this thing several miles away until it got into private lands again.”

The efforts of Great Basin 7 have kept the Cliff Creek fire in check. Despite red flag warning days last week and more forecasted for this week, DeMasters was able to control the fire enough to hand it off to Russel Bird’s Great Basin 5 as his squad demobilizes for their next assignments. Right now the big concern is not letting up.

“We’re starting to turn the corner on this thing,” the incident commander said during a 6 a.m. briefing on July 30. “Watch out for ankle biters. Keep your head on a swivel. Don’t let your guard down now.”

Lava Mountain Fire

Acres burned: 14,339. Personnel: 817. Containment: 50%. Cost to date: $16M.

A thunderstorm on July 11 sparked a small fire near Lava Mountain on Togwotee Pass just east of the Continental Divide. Initially, forest rangers searched for the fire but couldn’t find it. Shoshone Forest supervisor Joe Alexander said, “We pounded the ground for six days, looking for that thing.”

“We knew they were looking for it but that’s a large complex in there,” said Triangle C Ranch manager Jim Moulton. “Then, two Saturdays ago, we were sitting here out on the deck having lunch and we saw the smoke on the hill. That’s when I called it in. The ranger I spoke to asked what color the smoke was. I said, ‘black.’ He said, ‘That’s not good.’”

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By the end of the day, walls of flame were barreling down the mountain and straight for the ranch. Moulton said he felt confident the fire wouldn’t be able to jump the Wind River but he wasn’t so sure when the blaze came within 50 yards of a guest cabin and the helicopters and fixed-wing bombers showed up.

“We tried to function as a dude ranch but the smoke got so bad most of the guests left,” Moulton said.

Then, on a day the fire quadrupled in size, driven by 40 mph wind gusts, life at Triangle C became more than just a smoky hassle.

“The fire is really close now,” Jessica Camilla O’Neal said in a Facebook video posted July 20. O’Neal is the daughter of ranch owner Vickie Garnick, who also owns and operates the Jackson Hole Playhouse. “Firefighters seem to think the ranch is really well-prepared for whatever is going to happen. We are hanging in there. Lava [Mountain Ranch] is hanging in there. We got all that’s important. The dogs, the horses, the little humans—and that’s all we’ll probably leave here with if things go down.”

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And down things went. First the cell towers. Then word the ranch would have to bug out.

“I watched a guy walk up the drive in his little fire suit. He strode with a purpose, with intent. ‘It’s time you guys go,’ was all he said,” Moulton recalled. “That was it. There were seven or eight engines here later and we evacuated.”

Employees were able to return to the ranch on July 24 but Moulton fears the season is lost for him, economically. He’s had to lay off some of the staff as cancellations piled up. Still, he can’t help but feel fortunate, and his gratitude for the fire suppression efforts he witnessed is enormous.

“My hat’s off to Fremont County fire, Craig Haslam and that bunch were amazing. Their professionalism, the way they treated the property and dealt with us, the care they took with what was important to us … and the fact that they have not lost a structure in this sucker. I mean the stuff they did down in MacKenzie Highland was, whoa, that’s a story right there.”

As flames neared the Highway 26 corridor and were literally at the backdoor of several ranches on the Winds including MacKenzie, the decision was made at the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center in Denver to bring in the big guns. Kim Martin’s Great Basin 2 team—one of the best in the country—assumed control of the fire on July 27. The fire was, and still is, considered the state’s top priority incident. As Martin was briefed, the fire made another dangerous run toward Union Pass and more than 300 private homes in that area. The race was on.

Martin ordered immediate slurry bombers to protect Teton Valley Ranch and others on the front lines. The retrofitted DC10s are in high demand across the country. Martin says he’s been able to secure pretty much everything he has needed on the Lava Mountain fire so far. After feeling confident the perimeter at the highway corridor was fairly secure, Martin knew everything depended on holding the line at Warm Springs Creek. If the fire spotted out ahead of the northeast flank there, it would gobble up everything in Union Pass.

160803CoverFeat-8_origAfter evacuations of Union Pass and Porcupine subdivisions were complete, Martin gave the go-ahead for burnout operations at Warm Springs.

“Yesterday we used a PSD (plastic sphere dispenser) machine from helicopter,” Martin told The Planet Saturday. The PSD method of firing uses spheres that look like ping-pong balls, filled with 3.0 grams of potassium permanganate. It’s considered safer than heli-torching or drip-torching by ground crews. “That was real successful because the winds were in our favor and the fuels were just right. We had a real expert in the helicopter supervising that operation.”

The burnouts have helped perimeter crews get a fireline established along the northeast flank. Combined with dozer and trail work, the line is holding enough to let some homeowners back in this week.

At a town meeting in Dubois last Saturday, evacuated residents wanted to know when they could return to their homes. PIO Brandon Hampton pleaded with them to be patient. He explained the rigorous process firefighters employ before they declare a private property safe for reentry.

“We have 20 guys form a chain link and go over your property, literally on their hands and knees, feeling the ground with the back of their hand for potential hotspots,” Hampton said. “We are also using new palm IRs (the latest in thermal imaging camera technology) to assist with this process. We will let you in when I feel safe enough that I would let my own family back in.”

Hampton also told Dubois residents who have been asking how they can help out to please fill out cards for the firefighters. He promised he would get every one of them into the boxed lunches firefighters take with them each day. He shared a story of one such card he received a few months ago while fighting a fire near Boise.

“I got a card from this six-year-old named Abby. She drew a picture of what looked like a deer, and it was on fire. ‘Please protect the animals,’ it read, and ‘thank you.’ I carry it with me now on every fire.”

Both Martin and DeMasters, who fought the Teepee Springs Fire (Idaho) last season—a 95,709-acre monster that defied firefighters for two months until the first snows fell—say they have “turned the corner” on their incidents and are expecting to deploy elsewhere soon as their fires near full containment.

The strategy of fighting fires

Ex-wildland firefighter-turned-comedian Drew Miller made some spot-on observations for a piece in Cracked a couple years ago.

“The planes and helicopters you see on the news dropping water or chemicals? As bitchin’ as it sounds, they aren’t trying to kill a fire by bombing it to death. They’re just trying to buy the folks on the ground some time so they can light most of the landscape on fire before the real fire gets there,” he wrote.

True. Today’s wildfires are simply too big and too costly to put out. Fire managers merely attempt to control them and coax them into areas that are OK to burn. Every once in a while, given enough money and resources, they can and do actually defend structures or save a town. But for the most part, they carve out sections of public land that have been identified by land administrators as beneficial to burn so that regeneration can take place and a future fire might meet up with large pockets of fire-scarred forest and stop itself.

160803CoverFeat-9_origAnd while aviation firefighting has become the preferred method of tackling tough burners in nasty terrain, some question whether the practice isn’t cost-prohibitive and hazardous. Heavy-duty helicopter tankers cost in the neighborhood of $6,000 an hour to operate. And that red slurry? It averages about two bucks a gallon, and the Forest Service used a reported 9 million gallons of it in 2014.

Safety is an issue as well. Ground crews are often passed over as an option when conditions are too risky to put them on a fire, but flying is no picnic. Thirty-seven pilots were killed in action over the past decade.

Fighting forest fires is really just coming to a shaky truce with a natural disaster long enough to let winter chill it out. When started organically, many blazes provide benefits to the landscape as fire managers have learned since the epic 1988 fire season.

“Overall, this fire has been very good from a management basis,” DeMasters said of the Cliff Creek fire. “It’s gotten rid of a lot of dead and down. It’s burned in a patchy, mosaic pattern and the regeneration and general health of the forest will reap the benefits from this.” PJH


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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