RBC | At the Himes Peak Fire, 46 miles east of Meeker, the Herald Times had an opportunity to see firsthand some of what goes on behind the scenes during a firefighting operation in the wilderness.
On Friday, Sept. 1, authorities received a report of smoke in the Trappers Lake area. Crews responded, but did not find the fire.
Over the next few days, the source of the smoke became more apparent. Firefighters identified a lightning-caused fire burning mostly within the burn scar of the 2002 Big Fish Fire in the Big Fish and lower North Fork drainage.
On Wednesday, Sept. 6, the fire reached a predefined priority level necessitating additional support. Several engine crews and aircraft were at work on the fire when a seven-person team of smokejumpers from Pocatello, Idaho, parachuted in via plane to take charge of the fire.
“We function as another asset on the line,” said Bill Cramer, chief of the Alaska Smokejumpers for the Alaska Fire Service and incident commander on the Himes Peak Fire. It’s his 28th year as a smokejumper, and his 30th year fighting wildfires. A 20-person hand crew also arrived that day.
According to Curtis Keetch, District Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service Blanco District, wildland fires are addressed based on location, conditions, fire behavior, and the safety of personnel. When a wildfire reaches certain predefined levels, additional help in the form of air support, ground crews and sometimes smokejumpers like Cramer’s team, can be requested. Sometimes those teams and crews require additional support to do their jobs: communications specialists, supply specialists, and people who provide food and water and sanitation services.
By Sunday, when the fire was mostly contained, there were more than 100 people working together to fight the fire. An infrared scan of the area by plane determined the fire to be 112 acres.
That acreage equates to more than three miles of perimeter line that has to be monitored. A single spark can smolder for days before it turns into a full-fledged fire. When conditions allow, firefighters use a three-step plan in cases like the Himes Peak Fire: anchor (the start of the fire), flank (go around the sides), and pinch (get to the front of the fire’s growth and pinch it off).
Planes bring in fire retardant, which Cramer says lives up to its name—it slows the fire’s progress, but doesn’t stop it. Retardant gives ground crews time to flank the fire, deal with “hotspots,” and dig firelines for containment purposes. Dropping retardant or even water doesn’t put the fire “out.” It just means the ground crews can get in and establish a fire containment perimeter.
Firefighters, who expend up to 6,000 calories a day on a fire, were removing hazards, taking out heavy fuels, and encircling the fire with water hoses.
Behind the scenes, a small village had popped up at the Himes Peak Campground, with water trucks, portable toilets and hand washing stations, a food truck, a supply trailer, and a mobile communications unit. Every firefighting team requires basic essentials: food, water and shelter. Rudimentary tents provide shelter. The food is provided by caterers, most of whom are contracted with national fire responders. Water and sanitation supplies are trucked in from the nearest source. The Himes Peak Fire was something of an anomaly, Cramer said, thanks to the location and cooperation with local landowners. Most fire sites don’t afford firefighters such “posh” accommodations as a tent in which to eat meals.
“It takes a whole team to have a successful operation,” Cramer said. “We couldn’t do it without our partners.”
As of press time, local, regional and national firefighters are addressing numerous large wildfires throughout the Pacific Northwest and Montana, and several wildfires are burning in northwest Colorado. How those fires are treated depends on location, size, safety for fire personnel, risk to structures and other high value resources, and more.
“We have to weigh wilderness values with public safety. It’s a judgement call what tools we use,” Keetch said. “Where there’s a fire on my district everyone’s lives are in my hands.”
Blanco District Public Information Officer Lynn Lockwood said they expect trail closures surrounding the Hime’s Peak Fire to be lifted on Friday, Sept. 15, barring unforeseen changes to the fire situation. Call 970-878-4039 for further information.
Here’s a video of the smokejumpers coming in: https://www.facebook.com/pg/WhiteRiverNF/videos/