Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wind, lightning test firefighters

Mustang Fire prompts evacuation, threatens electric lines


By MATT FURBER

The Halstead Fire burns in forest north of Stanley. Photo by Kate Wutz

    Lightning and high winds have been keeping Halstead firefighters on their toes as crews expand mop-up of the 48-day-old forest fire that has reached 151,200 acres, mostly in Custer County. The fire north of Stanley was 40 percent contained by Tuesday.
    “These winds will be testing our containment lines in place. We’re keeping a real close eye on them,” said Mark Regan, an incident spokesman in Stanley.
    He explained that as rehabilitation crews work on cleanup, the response to spot fires, some caused by lightning over the weekend, has been a high priority. “Lightning starts have been popping up. Our goal is to keep it small and put it out.”
    In addition to protecting structures, electrical power line workers have been successfully protecting Salmon River Electric Cooperative Inc. infrastructure between Sunbeam and Stanley. Some of the power lines were in the fire as it made its way to the Salmon River at Yankee Fork and Sunbeam, but workers were able to save power poles in the fire zone, said Rick Leuzinger, operations manager for the electrical co-op.
    “A lot of those were helicopter-set poles. It is difficult terrain,” Leuzinger said, adding that the co-op regularly replaces wooden poles with steel as woodpeckers take their toll. “(Co-op workers) grubbed out the brush and the grass and did fall some trees that were beetle-killed. The work certainly helped.”
    Power was returned to the Bradley Memorial Boy Scout Camp Friday. The electric co-op had de-energized lines serving three customers near Banner Summit, Leuzinger said. “Power was out at the scout camp for about a month. The (firefighters) asked that the line be shut off so they could work safely to fight the fire there.”
    Difficult-to-reach power poles and islands of unburned fuel that might still ignite in the fire zone continue to add concern as firefighters stay on task until cooler, wetter weather cooperates with the effort to extinguish the forest fire.
    “The threat coming to our corridor is quite slim now,” Leuzinger said, hopeful that more moisture is on the way.
    Fire picking up with winds can still cause fire to cross containment lines, however, Regan said. “Embers are still a cause for concern.”
    Infra-red data collected during nightly flights over the fire shows that there are still dozens of hotspots to watch carefully.
    In the Lemhi Valley there are standing evacuation orders related to the ever-increasing Mustang Complex fire, which has grown to 289,974 acres. It grew by 8,000 acres from Monday to Tuesday. People have been evacuated from Quartz Creek to Gibbonsville. Officials have requested that drivers minimize use of U.S. Highway 93 as the fire continues to get closer to the roadway. No homes have been destroyed by the fire, according to the multi-agency InciWeb database.
     “We have had some people staying at the church, but they have found other housing,” said Tommie Palmer, a volunteer at Salmon Valley Baptist Church in Salmon. “We have an environmental alert—no one who works outdoors should exert themselves. It is very smoky today (Tuesday) and has been for a number of days.”
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    “Idaho Power line crews are assigned to protect power lines where possible and make repairs if poles are damaged,” said Idaho Power spokeswoman Lynette Berriochoa. “The same challenges that firefighters face, like steep terrain and dry, heavy fuels, also make access difficult for Idaho Power’s line crews.”
    By Monday the Mustang Fire was less than two miles from Highway 93 in some places and officials warned that the fire could still move quickly. Residents were advised to “leave immediately to avoid being caught in fire, smoke or road congestion.”
    Residents were also asked to stop or call the Red Cross shelter at the Salmon Valley Baptist Church when leaving the area so officials could account for all residents. Meals, showers and cots are being provided free of charge. Highway 93 remains open, although delays can be expected due to fire traffic and smoke.
    The Trinity Ridge fire has been beaten back from Featherville and most inhabited areas in the 146,545-acre fire zone have been deemed safe. Tuesday, the road to Atlanta via Edna Creek was closed to all traffic in both directions from 9 a.m. until a heavy equipment convoy had exited the area. By Monday containment reached 64 percent with about 444 people still fighting the fire.
    “There are pockets of unburned fuels that could torch out from time to time,” said Gil Knight, an information officer sponsored by the Superior National Forest, who was assigned to the team fighting the fire. “The crews are continuing to make good progress in rehabilitation and removing hazard trees within the perimeter. With rehabilitation we try and make the area as readily able to recover as we can.”
    Of the 52 fires listed in Idaho on InciWeb, 12 have been categorized as inactive. For information on road status, contact the Idaho Department of Transportation can be reached at 511 or www.511.idaho.gov.




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