Seven professional firefighters known as “smokejumpers” parachuted into a remote area in the Sawtooth Mountains on Aug. 14 to try to contain a newly discovered wildfire. The lightning-caused blaze, about 260-acres in size, was burning in steep, sparsely forested terrain north of Ross Fork Basin, about eight miles southwest of the community of Smiley Creek.
By then, the Moose Fire near Salmon had already burned nearly 80,000 acres, on its way to burn some 50,000 more. One thousand firefighters were already on the scene. Two other wildfires in the wilderness north of the Sawtooths had consumed about 1,500 acres, too. But this new fire, dubbed the Ross Fork Fire, would burn slowly in remote terrain for at least two weeks before it became a high priority.
Over the next two weeks, the Ross Fork Fire meandered on ridge lines and across ravines far from population centers before it exploded around Labor Day weekend. High winds and hot temperatures blew the fire into thick stands of forest and rangeland, much of which had been thinned during Forest Service “vegetation treatments” over the last 20 years to reduce fire risk. Despite the logging, mowing of sage and mastication of slash piles that had taken place in the area, the Ross Fork Fire eventually roared down into the Sawtooth Basin, consuming nearly 38,000 acres and destroying multiple structures. Fortunately, no lives were lost.
Interviews conducted last week with Forest Service managers engaged on the Ross Fork Fire illustrate their decision-making process that balances life safety against property protection and highlights the necessity of adequate fire-fighting resources and “fire-wise” home protection. The top priority was and is firefighter safety.
One smokejumper injured an ankle that first day and had to be evacuated through rough terrain out to Fairfield. The injury highlighted the risk others could face in such steep terrain should the blaze get bigger.
“You never want a firefighter to get hurt,” said Sawtooth National Forest Fairfield District Ranger Marty Gmelin.
Gmelin worked closely to manage the fire with Sawtooth National Recreation Area Ranger Kirk Flannigan and Matt Filbert, a fire, fuels, aviation and safety staff officer with the SNRA. Gmelin said early on the fire was about 10 miles from a church camp, designated a “value at risk,” a term used to describe properties and structures prioritized for protection. Other fires in the area were burning closer to homes and people.
Flannigan said the dangerous terrain and long evacuation route factored in to the decision on how many people to dispatch to the nascent fire. He said the risks around the Ross Fork Fire increased because the forest in that area had seen a 60-80% die-off of lodgepole pines in the early 2000s.
“Much of it has fallen over time, but because lodgepole pine is such a dense growing species there are still many, many dead standing trees out on the landscape. Those trees pose a serious threat to a firefighter on the line as they fall frequently under surprisingly little wind and even more so when they are burning.”
Flannigan said the highly organized team fighting the fire understood the risks of putting firefighters “in the right place at the right time for the right reasons.”
During the early days of the fire, the six remaining smoke jumpers were aided by a helicopter and two single engine planes that were conducting targeted water drops, Filbert told the Express. He said the strategy was deemed better than attempting to control the fire with boots on the ground.
“It would have taken 60-80 people to get around the fire [at the time],” Filbert said. “If it doubled, we would have needed more than 100 people in that rough terrain.”
Instead, managers developed a “confine and contain” strategy using 17 wildland firefighters to build fire lines and set about protecting the church camp on the South Fork of the Boise River drainage on the east side of the Sawtooths. Drones as well as personnel on foot and motorcycles monitored the fire’s potential growth up Johnson Creek to the north. Regular aerial drops of water or retardant were used to slow the spread.
A fire progression map drawn from infrared imagery was eventually developed as the fire expanded, but this aerial resource was not always available in real time and could have been inaccurate due to cloud cover, Filbert said. The ongoing strategy included finding places where teams might stop the fire as it moved north and east, should it pass a ridge line that could bring it down to Beaver Creek and Smiley Creek and endanger other areas on the east side of the Sawtooths. If the fire crossed Johnson Creek, the team agreed, they would ask for more resources.
Filbert said requests for personnel and machinery were called upon judiciously because both land-based and aerial resources carry risk. Managers didn’t need to look far for a reminder: A few weeks earlier, in late July, a helicopter crash killed two pilots working on the Moose Fire near Challis.
“You can always use more resources,” Filbert said. “And we were never denied resources when we called for them.”
The same day the smokejumpers landed on the Ross Fork Fire, another human-caused fire started at Alpine Lake, near Iron Creek north of Stanley. Due to its proximity to a community there, the Alpine Lake Fire drew immediate aerial resources. Filbert said this allowed the Ross Fork Fire teams to the north access to shared aerial water drop resources from Moose Fire teams.
While helpful, the use of fire retardant is most effective when people are on hand to rub it into the ground to prevent fire spread, Filbert said.
“The drops are used to slow the fire down, but at some point, they become ineffective—and more risky, as was seen with the helicopter crash on the Moose Fire,” Filbert said.
Flannigan said prior to Labor Day, firefighting “action points” were established between the blaze and Smiley Creek at Vienna and Johnson creeks, as air resources were deployed to hold it at the ridge line to the southwest. Two hotshot crews were called in to help monitor the Beaver Creek drainage that led down toward the town.
On Aug. 30, with a heat dome and high winds in the region, the fire jumped the ridge. Flannigan said it became unsafe to have firefighters up there in steep terrain.
“I thought we had a good plan in place to hold it at the ridge line, but with back-to-back red flag days at the wrong time, the rate of spread down Beaver Creek toward Smiley Creek was not what I expected,” Flannigan said.
On Sept. 1, the team called for a Type 3 team of 30 managers who had the capacity to call for far more resources and personnel. It took two days for them to arrive and then a major fire camp with hundreds of personnel was established about 10 miles south on state Highway 75.
By Sept. 4, four large air tankers were pulling water from Redfish Lake and flying air drops throughout the day onto the fire, which threatened numerous homes and caused the evacuation and closing of Highway 75. Forest Service, state, county and city agencies teamed up to hem in the fire by late September.
“The level of partnerships involved really spoke to me,” Flannigan said.
The Ross Fork Fire has since been nearly extinguished and the community of Smiley Creek largely spared. Last Friday, Filbert called for perhaps one of his last aerial drops, to protect a green patch of forest in Abe’s Chair, a popular spot behind Smiley Creek now surrounded by burned areas. He is still learning lessons every day from the Ross Fork Fire, he said.
“We had an understanding of the fuels and topography, but the weather is the least predictable factor out there,” he said. “The fire moved far more aggressively than it would have under typical summer conditions.”
Filbert said timber sales to the west and northwest of Smiley Creek since 2000, and dead tree removal south of Smiley Creek on the west side of Highway 75, along with other vegetation treatments undertaken by the Forest Service, likely reduced the potential range and intensity of the fire.
Filbert said a lesson homeowners can take away from the incident is that clearing brush and tress from around homes can save property and lives.
“I would say that many [homes in Smiley Creek] met fire-wise recommendations,” he said, “while others likely could benefit from additional preparation.” ￼
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I think that it is reasonable to expect red flag days in August. We all value firefighter safety. I wonder how one would weigh firefighter risk if the supervisor had used more resources early on and controlled the fire, versus waiting and risking the well known red flag days, and the putting 700 firefighters on the blaze and exposing them (and Smiley Creek residents) to even more risk. I hope this fire and the management of it are studied well.
Welcome to the discussion.