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Ross Fork Firefighters Prepare to Defend Galena Lodge
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Smoke bellows from the Ross Fork Fire. COURTESY: Sawtooth National Forest
   
Thursday, September 8, 2022
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

Fire crews busied themselves Wednesday assessing ways to protect Galena Lodge and the Galena stables Wednesday as the Ross Fork Fire continued to push its way through the Frenchman’s Creek area at the bottom of the Galena Pass overlook.

They plan to cut away vegetation around the lodge and other infrastructure and cut trees that could hamper firefighting efforts. They also will lay water tanks and hoses in place.

“Galena Lodge is a real concern for the fire management team,” said fire information officer Nathan Leising. “We’re establishing trigger points—if the fire reaches a certain point that’s when they will take action.

“It takes a while to get stuff in place to defend the lodge so we have to plan for a run if and when it happens. We have to create defensible space so, if the fire makes a push up the hill, we can defend it.  We get things in there well before the fire goes because, once it pushes, we don’t have time to do that. If it doesn’t happen, we pack up the hoses and go.”

The 28,874-acre Ross Fork Fire south of Stanley has burned two cabins in the community of Smiley Creek and a small third cabin further out.

On Tuesday the fire jumped Highway 75 a half mile south of Smiley Creek. But crews were able to set a backburn near the road alongside where the fire was headed. The backburn went up against the main fire, stopping forward progress. And the wind pushing the fire abruptly changed directions, allowing firefighters to hold the fire there to about 800 acres.

Firefighters worked Wednesday to secure the area and prevent its spread towards several structures, including a historic ranger’s station. They also issued a mandatory evacuation order for those on Pettit Lake Road and Cabin Creek Road. They did receive a little rain there Wednesday evening.

Firefighters have not wrapped homes and cabins in Smiley Creek in protective foil. But they have scattered wood that was piled up against homes and cut away vegetation near the homes. They’ve also  stood guard, putting out spot fires caused by embers flying through the air. The community has a hundred homes--about 30 of them year-round residences.

“It was a real firefight but they did a good job of protecting the community,” Leising said.

When it’s not too windy or smoky, twin-engine scooper planes have been scooping up water from nearby lakes and dropping it on the fire. Helicopter have assisted in the aerial attack as well.

Retardant is not being dropped because of the fisheries in the area.

The fire has been pushing into the Frenchman’s Creek area where the headwaters of the Salmon River lies. It’s steep and rugged with a lot of downed timber and beetle-killed trees so it’s not safe to put firefighters in there, Leising said. Firefighters have, instead, been positioning themselves along the highway developing a plan to attack the fire should it reach the highway.

A Type 2 Incident took over the management of the fire on Wednesday. The Type 2 team consists of 40 people who manage the fire, planning strategy, addressing medical needs and ordering fire crews, bulldozers, engines and aircraft.

The team also has an onsite meteorologist or fire analyst to predict fire behavior—the Type 3 team had a meteorologist but he was not onsite.

As of Wednesday, 493 firefighters were fighting the fire in dense Douglas fir and subalpine fir amidst a lot of dead and fallen trees. That's up from about 150 over the weekend.

“The teams are assigned based on the complexity of a fire,” said Leising. “Type 3, which had been working up here, had 25 people. They deal with fires when they’re away from houses and people. Originally this fire was way up in the mountains—it was big but simple. Once you get into houses and highways and vital infrastructure, the complexity becomes greater, the issues become greater.”

A type 1 management team, like that which managed the 2007 Castle Rock Fire and the 2013 Beaver Creek Fire, consists of 60 or 70 field and administrative people. They’re brought in when the situation becomes even more complex.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authorized the use of federal funds to help with firefighting costs Tuesday afternoon after a FEMA administrator determined destruction caused by the fire could pose a major disaster. The state had requested a federal Fire Management Assistance Grant.

The fire is threatening the community of Smiley Creek, which consists of some year-round and secondary homes and a restaurant and lodge. It’s also threatening homes in Beaver Creek, Sawtooth City and Cabin Creek, as well as four religious camps, a fire station, campgrounds at Alturas, Pettit and Perkins lakes, the Smiley Creek Airport and two communications towers.

The funds will be available to pay 75 percent of the state’s eligible firefighting costs. and more than $700,000 will be available for the mitigation of future wildfires and post-fire flooding or mudslides.

The Ross Fork Fire was first spotted the afternoon of Aug. 14 and is believed to have been lightning caused. It was initially attacked by a helicopter dropping water, as the terrain was considered too rugged to put ground troops in.

It did not make a major run for a couple weeks, then blew up on Thursday, Sept. 1, before accelerating on Friday night and Saturday in windy conditions and temperatures exceeding 90 degrees.

By Wednesday it had grown to 29,000 acres, having grown more than 4,000 acres in the previous 24 hours. Ballooning from a 1,300-acre fire on Aug. 31, it’s 2 percent contained.

The fire is in the vicinity of Smiley Creek and extends 10 miles to the west. It also extends from the southern end of Alturas Lake spreading six miles to the south.

Firefighters had to contend with wind gusts of 29 miles per hour and 15 percent humidity on Wednesday. A Fire Weather Watch continues in effect today with humidity below 10 percent, expected wind gusts of 30 miles per hour and temperatures in the high 80s to low 90s.

The fire was expected to continue to push towards Galena Summit and the Salmon River, but west winds were expected to limit the spread on the western side of fire.

Cooler temperatures later this week are expected to help.

BRUNDAGE MOUNTAIN FIRE

Payette National Forest officials reported Wednesday evening that a fire was burning on top of Brundage Mountain, home to McCall's ski area. Smokejumpers dropped into the area, which is being dubbed as the Rainbow Fire, and three engines raced to the scene. The fire was estimated to be about 15 acres and is one of a few fires burning in the McCall area.

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