THE BUZZ 2: Fire Good, Fire Wise

By on October 5, 2016

Understanding how to live and let burn in the West after GTNP’s largest fire in history.

The Berry Creek patrol cabin is wrapped and ready. (Photo: GTNP)

The Berry Creek patrol cabin is wrapped and ready. (Photo: GTNP)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The Berry Fire began as most Western wildfires do: with little fanfare, unseen and unknown, it smoldered for days after a late-July thunderstorm.

First, passing commercial pilots overhead spotted a trifling column of smoke. At night, the flames could be seen. Pilots flying 30,000 feet overhead reported them to FAA air traffic control. Original longitude-latitude readings had the fire pegged somewhere around the Grassy Lake area—some 10 miles from the actual fire’s genesis. Officials searched but couldn’t find it.

Then the pilot of a tanker on its way to fight a nearby forest fire noticed flames jumping out of a drainage between Berry and Owl creeks. On July 25, park officials confirmed they had a wildfire in Grand Teton National Park. Immediately they did what fire managers do when a fire is sparked on public land. They pulled maps, studied fire history data, and built computer simulation models.

Where would the fire go and how fast would it get there? What valuable resources were at risk? What would be the benefits of allowing the fire to play its role in the ecosystem? They didn’t know then they were writing the story of the largest fire to ever burn in Grand Teton National Park.

First run

Interagency fire managers felt confident the fire was in a good place. Northern movement was possible but the blaze would likely be held in check by a 2,700-acre fire scar called the Dave Adams Hill Fire that ignited in 1987. The Hechtman Fire of 2006 also had the potential to limit growth to the north and northwest.

Diane Abendroth, a fire ecologist with Teton Interagency Fire, said the west side of Jackson Lake where Berry got started is pocked with old burn areas that usually retard or stop fire growth. “When a fire burns into an area that has already been burned in the past, the fuel is different and therefore the fire’s behavior is a little bit different. And the more recent the fire was, the more likely [a current fire] is to slow down and sometimes even stop when it comes into a burned area,” she said.

So everything looked good for a “let it burn” policy even with one of the driest summers on record in full swing and area blazes like the Cliff Creek and Lava Mountain fires plaguing communities in the region. The Berry Creek Patrol cabin was wrapped with fire protection and crews performed a successful burnout around its perimeter to save the structure as flames licked at its doorstep late July.

Then came August—each day hotter than the last and no rain in sight. Winds picked up after three weeks of no measurable precipitation. Red flag warning days were forecasted for the valley. On August 21, when the perfect firestorm of high winds and tinder dry conditions met, everyone braced for the worst.

Wind whipped the Berry Fire into frenzy that Sunday. Firefighters were pulled back, treetops torched and swayed in the gales. Embers were tossed into the air, easily sailing across Jackson Lake and the Snake River, igniting beetle-killed Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, and lodgepole pine on the east side of Highway 89. Lizard Creek campground was evacuated, the highway was closed, and Flagg Ranch was put on notice: get ready to go.

The fire made a five-mile run on August 21, tripling in size. Each day the counts were staggering. August 22 (1,785 acres), August 23 (6,319 acres), August 24 (12,279 acres). Access to Yellowstone from the south was cut off for next eight days. A Type 2 incident management team was called in to make sure the fire didn’t run all the way up the John D. Rockefeller Parkway to the south gate of Yellowstone.

The National Park Service’s celebration of its 100 birthday on August 25 was an inauspicious one. There were too many candles on the cake. Yellowstone managers were battling several blazes within their 2.2 million acres. Birthday party invitees for Grand Teton included six helicopters, 18 engines and 278 total firefighters.

Déjà vu all over again

Park officials reopened Highway 89 August 30. One finger of the fire had blown through and headed northeast into the forest. There was little at risk in that direction other than the Huckleberry Fire Lookout, a historic cabin built in 1923, and later rebuilt in 1933. The other fork was creeping north toward Flagg Ranch.

As some breathed a sigh of relief, firefighters knew better. They continued fire protection efforts at Flagg—wrapping buildings in an aluminum-Kevlar insulated mesh and setting up sprinkler systems. They cleared brush and understory, and delimbed nearby trees. Their efforts were enhanced by previous wildfire mitigation conducted for several years in the mid-2000s. In fact, fire officials credit this preparation as the key reason Flagg Ranch is still standing.

Even as fire growth stagnated and weather forecasts showed an early fall cold front moving in, firefighters never let up. Chain saws buzzed day and night as ground crews made sure anything that could burn at Headwaters Lodge and Flagg Ranch was removed or as wet as they could make it. The fire perimeter was still more than five miles to the south, but officials had seen Berry make a run that big before.

Then another Sunday, another red flag warning on 9-11. As 40 mph gusts blew new life into smoldering hotspots, fire crews at Flagg Ranch made last-minute preparations and retreated to the Headwaters parking lot where they would be relatively safe from the wildfire’s expected push.

On September 11, extreme fire behavior closed Highway 89 again and people at Flagg Ranch evacuated for the second time. The fire swiftly gobbled six miles of mature tree stands on its way north, ballooning to more than 20,000 acres in size. Flagg was an inferno as the blaze popped and crackled all around the lodges and employee housing. Firefighters couldn’t sleep that night. It was wild, they said.

Their efforts paid off, though. Firefighters jumped on a few hotspots in and around the cabins at first light. By September 13 the worst was over and the highway reopened. In all, The Berry Fire consumed 20,800 acres—90 percent of that inside park boundaries. It still isn’t out. It won’t be until winter.

Fire behavior

The use of natural fire as a resource management tool in national parks began in earnest in the early 1970s. After decades of aggressive fire suppression, extreme fuel loads were worrying park officials. The first fire Grand Teton administrators allowed to burn was the Waterfalls Canyon Fire in 1974. They were encouraged by the results. In the 17-year period following the 3,500-acre WCF, post-fire succession included forest rejuvenation and enhanced habitat for many species of wildlife.

Grand Teton fire management officer Chip Collins is pleased with the way Berry burned, even if it inconvenienced park visitors and made for some pretty smoky days.

“Having these additional acres burned this year just adds overall to the ecosystem resilience that we hope to see in future years,” Collins said. “It’ll restart the natural cycle of the forest regeneration. We’ll see younger trees in starting next year. Lots of forest and wildflowers, and a whole host of species will come in immediately post-fire that you do see in an older forest.”

If there is one takeaway from the Berry Fire, officials want the public to know it’s the importance of developing a “firewise” attitude. Homeowners, in particular, whose properties are nested in forested areas, should learn to interface safely with their surroundings. That includes replacing shake roofs with metal ones. Removing stacked firewood off decks and away from the house in the summer. Clearing or trimming brush and trees close to structures, and keeping a property well-irrigated and green is essential if a homeowner wants to protect their investment and ensure the safety of firefighters.

Teton County fire marshal Kathy Clay said a good wildfire barrier around property can often mean life or death for a firefighter, and increase the odds a home can be saved in the event of fire.

“If you have a shake roof [for instance] and it’s more than 20 percent burned, firefighters will give up on it. It’s a waste of their efforts and not worth saving. They will move on to another home that has a chance,” Clay said. “We have to learn to live with natural events like wildfire. If we practice good preparedness, we might see a fire blow through a forested subdivision and everything is fine. No structures or lives are lost.”

As climate change exacerbates the burning season, larger and more numerous wildfires will be the norm in the coming years. PJH

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