From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 104, Number 27 - July 5, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Horse Creek Fire is fully contained

by Alecia Warren

The Sublette County Library held an informational meeting about the Horse Creek Fire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest on Sunday evening, just as the Great Basin Incident Management Team (IMT) was nearly finished battling the fire that was contained on Monday, meeting the deadline predicted last week.

Greg Clarke, a District Ranger at Big Piney on the Bridger-Teton National Forest hosted the meeting with Merrill Saleen, who led the IMT efforts.

The 20 locals who attended the meeting learned that firefighters began demobilizing on Sunday after 11 days of fighting the blaze that burned 8,580 acres. IMT, a coalition of crews from across the Great Basin area that assist with emergencies beyond local capabilities, turned the firefighting responsibilities back to Bridger-Teton crews on Sunday, though two IMT crews will remain to monitor conditions until the end of the week. No structures were damaged, but fire danger rating on the Bridger-Teton remains very high, and the park urges visitors to remain careful with fires.

Three separate investigators have yet to pinpoint the cause of the fire. Saleen presented a slideshow of fire pattern maps and photos of smoke billowing out of trees at the meeting as he described difficulties with the fire and how the IMT crews, working with local firefighters, struggled to contain it.

Every day of fighting the fire, Saleen said, the 420 personnel were unsure in which direction the blaze would turn and how far it would spread, and they were faced with rare circumstances that often defied prediction.

For instance, firefighting crews usually rely on nighttime conditions to quell burning, when humidity increases to 80 or 90 percent. Every night of the Horse Creek Fire however, the humidity never rose above 60 percent, and averaged at 18 percent. “This burnt day and night, straight through wind and timber,” Saleen said. And this wasn’t the only phenomenon. “What was utterly amazing about this fire was we had three consecutive days of Haines 6 in a row,” he said, explaining that 6 is the highest level on the Haines dryness and atmosphere scale that indicates the potential for large wildfires to experience extreme fire behavior.

“Only 6 percent of the days in summer have Haines 6,” Saleen said. “This is the first time at this elevation to have three Haines 6 days in a row in June. It’s just unheard of.” The cost of firefighting reached about $2.3 million, Saleen estimated, and he said it would have been far more if the crews hadn’t managed to block the fire with natural barriers like creeks and low-vegetation areas, where personnel could fight the flames directly.

Fire burning in completely forested areas was otherwise unstoppable, he added, because the heavy timber stands fueled flames as high as 300 feet that were impossible for firefighters to put out.

Sometimes even low-vegetation areas proved so dry that the fire carried through, and the firefighters used back burning techniques timed to wind flows that carried the fire back onto itself.

Firefighters also used back burning in between the natural barriers, and were careful to turn the fire away from the northwest, where residential areas, as well as their base camp, lay vulnerable with few natural barriers to block the blaze.

To firefighters’ surprise, in many areas, spot fires — fires started outside the perimeter of the main fire by sparks and embers carried on the wind — passed over natural barriers, often across “sizeable distances,” Saleen said, and created pockets of intense burning. This occurred at south Horse Creek, where spot fires crossed the 600-foot-wide creek in two places.

“The fire was battling against the wind — for it to cross the creek was quite a phenomenon,” Saleen said. The audience gasped at some spot fire photos featuring fierce orange and yellow flames.

Clarke added that he had never seen spot fires burn so much in half an hour in the 20 years he had worked for the national park. Saleen agreed that this was only the beginning of fire season in Wyoming this summer. “It’s very unusual to see fire this vast and this intense at this time of year, and there’s still increasing risk,” Saleen said.

The moisture for the winter was down, he said, and followed with an early spring that dried out fuels quickly. Since June 15, the Bridger-Teton area has been at record high temperature and dryness levels that have only been experienced in 10 percent of Wyoming’s history.

“We’re in historical highs, and we’re going higher,” Saleen said. “You all know what it was like in ’88 — these conditions are very, very similar. So looking down the road, if we don’t get additional moisture, we should see increasing fire severity.”

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