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Sharps Fire Fighters Dig in As Wind Howls
 
           
 
Saturday, August 4, 2018
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

VIDEO BY TREY SPAULDING

The 30-mile per hour winds strafing the ridge top overlooking Cove Creek pushed my 120 pounds around as if it were one of those Gumby-like balloons.

I couldn’t hold my camera still enough to take an in-focus picture of the fire helicopter flying overhead.

And UFO-like lenticular clouds above told me that the winds were probably worse higher up.

It made me appreciate the work of the firefighters who were in the canyons below trying to combat the Sharps Fire in the Baugh and Fisher Creek Canyons.

The uncharacteristic wind, a forerunner of a cold front, had been rollicking all day, buffeting people in Ketchum and along the Wood River Bike Path.

We knew we were heading into the worst of it as Fire Information Officer Lori Iverson drove Trey Spaulding and I and a KTVB camera crew to the northwest corner of the fire, which by then had consumed 57,263 acres from Bellevue to an area four miles south of East Fork Road.

We turned off East Fork Road onto Cove Creek Road, heading towards the northwest corner of the fire—an area that had been giving firefighters trouble the past couple days.

“We don’t care if it’s Adam West’s house or a famous tennis star’s house. We don’t care how large a house is or how expensive it is,” Iverson said, as we passed a handsome ranch. “We look at how defensible it is—what the roof’s like, how much vegetation it has around it, whether firewood’s stacked up on the porch, whether there’s a propane tank next to the house.

“When it comes to saving homes, it’s like triage,” she continued. “We try to defend those that are most defensible first. That’s the reason for pre-evacuation orders—it gives people a chance to do what they can so in the heat of the moment they’re ready to go.”

We continued our drive down the dusty, rocky Sawtooth Forest road past a creek that had dried up weeks earlier. We passed places I’d hiked just a month ago—places like Finley Gulch and Driveway Gulch where gurgling creeks and gorgeous yellow wallflowers had fed our souls.

Dust devils stirred up by the wind darted in front of us and buckwheat flowers waved in the wind.

As we approached a sheep corral on the left, we could see a blackened hillside beyond and a steep hillside where a dozer had dug a fire line.

“The fire runs up a steep slope quickly because the flame is preheating what’s in front of it,” Iverson told me. “It runs downhill slower.”

As the iconic rocky outcroppings overlooking wetlands came into view, I breathed a sigh of relief. The  area, which boasts meadows full of large showy mule’s ears daisies in early summer, was untouched, although we could see one blackened hill after another in the distance.

Smoke rose from numerous canyons but, thankfully, it was blowing to the east—not to the west where one run up a mountain slope would have sent it spilling into Indian Creek, Ohio Gulch and other neighborhoods.

Iverson, a former schoolteacher who now helps manage the Elk Refugee near Jackson, Wyo., volunteered for duty after she saw that the National Interagency Fire Center had raised the National Preparedness Level to 5—two days before a Bellevue man started the Sharps Fire by shooting explosive targets.

When the nation’s firefighting resources are stretched so thin that they reach Level Five, the Secretary of Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture send letters ordering federal agencies to let anyone with fire experience to report to firefighting duty, she said.

“We have 10 geographic areas in the United States, and the two busiest areas right now are the Northwest and the Great Basin. And the Sharps Fire is the No. 1 fire priority for the Great Basin based on complexity—the rugged terrain—and the value, meaning its closeness to homes,” Iverson said.

She paused. “Eighty three jobs were unfulfilled on the Great Basin list on Saturday. We’re asking people from other countries to help us.”

On Friday 495 firefighters were fighting the Sharps Fire, including the Cedar City Hotshots, the Swan Valley Heli-Tack team and a couple crews from Oklahoma.

Iverson was only too happy to report to duty in the Sun Valley area where, she recalled, she and her husband had had a wonderful time biking the new bike trails around Galena Lodge a couple years ago.

By Friday morning firefighters had contained 21 percent of the fire--the same as the day before. But that was misleading, Iverson said, because the fire had grown 4,000 acres overnight.

“So, actually, they had more contained than the day before because the boundaries had expanded,” she said.

The firefighters had buttoned up much of the southern flank of the fire near Little Wood Reservoir and by Friday were leaving it virtually unstaffed, monitoring it by air so that firefighters could move north where the fire was most active, Iverson said. The other hot spot, in addition to Cove Creek area was the northeast side around Sheep Creek.

As we drove on past a picturesque area called the Narrows, we spotted a white pickup truck making its way up the road. It was a safety officer who goes from crew to crew checking things out to make sure everyone’s safe.

“Oftentimes, firefighters get so busy looking at the ground in front of them that they don’t look up to notice a thunderstorm coming,” said Iverson.

The firefighters working the fire can work 14 days before they have to take a break, she noted. They used to work 21 days until a study showed that most of the accidents occurred between Day 14 and Day 21.

As we turned the corner, we saw other trucks, including a water tender truck, making their way up and down roads near the burned-out areas. Likely, Iverson noted, one was a meteorologist who would prepare the forecast for the 6 a.m. briefing the next day.

Finally, we reached a spot where Iverson could pull off the road. I darted out of the truck and headed up the hill, the brown dry leaves of arrowleaf balsamroot crackling under my leather boots.

Several people had told me they hadn’t paid much attention to the fire at first because they thought it was “down there” near Carey and Bellevue. Then, all of a sudden, they had received pre-evacuation notices.

They didn’t realize what I knew—that if you go far enough out East Fork Road it is not that far from the Muldoon Road. Twice I had hiked from trailheads along East Fork Road to areas along Muldoon Road and back in one day.

I stared across the ridgelines I had hiked over, spotting blackened aspen and brush on one hill. But most of the landscape wasn’t totally burnt. Instead, it sported a mosaic pattern of burn mixed with untouched vegetation, including some stands of green trees.

I braced my feet but still had trouble standing upright in the wind. And I breathed a prayer of thanks that the wind was blowing east, instead of west towards the highway as it had been doing when we drove through the nearby town of Triumph.

“People look at a map and say, ‘Why can’t you construct those lines faster?’ That’s why our Incident Commander Beth Lund likes to use Google maps that show the topography. Then you can see the steep mountain slopes, the deep canyons,” Iverson said, as she look into the abyss of Baugh Canyon where a column of smoke was stretching into the sky.

The directives firefighters had been given earlier that morning showed that vegetation above 8,000 feet is currently less receptive to fire because it still has some moisture. Below that, grass is dry enough that fire can run through 160 feet of it per minute. Sagebrush is dry enough that fire can run 260 feet per minute.

“This is peak burning time,” Iverson said, noting that it was 4 p.m.

We drove back, encountering a half-dozen vehicles on a road I very often see no one.

By the time we got back we had found firefighters had made a lot of progress on the fire, containing 43 percent of the perimeter. They were even projecting a time for containment—Sunday, Aug. 12 at midnight.

The battle’s not over, though. The National Weather Service has forecast another red flag warning for today with high temperatures, single-digit humidity and wind gusts of 30 miles per hour from noon to 10 p.m. There’s even an increasing chance of dry thunderstorms.

Firefighters are expecting torching in conifers and aspens near the Kale Creek drainage as the fire expands further up the Little Wood River on the back of Elk Mountain and towards Garfield Mountain along the northeast edge of the fire.

But the Blaine County Sheriff has lifted the mandatory evacuation for the Little Wood Reservoir Road north of the reservoir, including the High Five Creek Campground and Little Wood Recreation Area campground. The Little Wood Reservoir road will remain closed to Hunt Road to non-residents.

The pre-evacuation for the Fish Creek Road area near Carey has been lifted. But pre-evacuation orders remain in effect for residents north of the intersection of Buttercup Road and Myrtle Street in Hailey  through East Fork Road.

Quigley Road and Slaughterhouse Canyon Road also remain closed to hikers, horses and off-road vehicles. And the Forest Service has closed East Fork Road where the pavement ends at Triumph.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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