The Ross Fork Fire was 13% contained Tuesday morning—up from 2% heading into the weekend—marking the first streak of major gains against the 37,612 acre burn scarring the southwestern Sawtooth Valley.
Stymied by cooler, wetter weather—and hemmed in by increasingly fortified fire lines—the fire grew less than 400 acres Monday into Tuesday, according to information from the Sawtooth National Forest. A week earlier, it spread more than 10,000 acres in a single day.
“We’re certainly moving in the right direction, compared to last week,” Nate Leising, a public information officer with the federal Great Basin Team 3 response unit, told the Express Tuesday afternoon. “The next couple days should be good.”
Leising spoke as much needed rain fell on the fire, aiding efforts to “mop up” hot spots and clear debris in the residential and recreational areas near Smiley Creek, Cabin Creek Road and Alturas Lake Road. Though the fire burned its way to the lake’s southern bank last week, those places were “looking really good” Tuesday, with no building under threat, Leising said.
Some crews will continue to stall the fire on the south side of Alturas Lake Road, Great Basin Operations Chief Trainee Dan Cather reported Tuesday morning, while others will be “actively patrolling, assessing and working hot spots around the state Highway 75 corridor” and in the community of Smiley Creek.
Cather reported “very little” fire growth Tuesday morning.
“One thing in our favor, we’ve got some active precipitation happening today, possibly over the next two days,” Cather said.
The moisture should stop grasses and sagebrush from burning, according to the Forest Service’s fire behavior analyst assigned to Ross Fork, but “heavier fuels” like substantial trees will continue to burn until “larger amounts of rain or snow fall.” Containment isn’t expected until Oct. 31.
On Tuesday, the most active portion burned in the remote reaches of the steep Frenchman’s Creek drainage, the fire’s southeastern corner. Citing safety concerns, fire managers are reluctant to commit too many firefighters to that isolated area, Leising said. Some personnel are on the ground monitoring the site, Cather said, with air support watching for hot spots and new growth.
Meanwhile, atmospheric inversion that had been bottling smoke around the fire broke Monday, allowing aircraft to take aim at some of the hottest portions of the fire in the Vienna Creek drainage, Jake’s Gulch and southwest of Vienna Creek, the Forest Service said in a statement.
“We’re just trying to keep this into areas where we can keep the fire in check,” he said.
As of Tuesday morning, the Type 2 Great Basin Team 3 marshaled 14 hand crews, 48 engines and eight helicopters against the Ross Creek Fire, with a small number of scooper planes gathering water from nearby lakes in support, the Forest Service said. Great Basin’s 712 total personnel would make its fire camp near Fourth of July Creek the second-largest town in Custer County, gaining on Challis, the county seat.
“We still have hand crews out there,” Leising said. “With activity moderating, they’ve made good progress to improve the line. They’re working, trying to get ahead of what may be coming.
“Crews prepare every day like tomorrow is going to be hot, dry and windy. All it takes is one change to get us.”
Over the weekend, those crews included several Hailey firefighters, who were officially hired onto the fire Sunday and stayed in Smiley Creek through Monday morning, Hailey Fire Chief Mike Baledge said.
“It was a rough couple of days,” he said. “But, we buttoned up Smiley Creek, Beaver Creek and almost Alturas.”
Baledge added he was hopeful that the fire would retreat westward into the Sawtooth Wilderness.
“As long as it’s away from people ... once it gets back into the wilderness we’ll let it do its thing,” he said.
Though the Red Flag conditions that stoked the fire have subsided, the Forest Service and Idaho Department of Lands implemented Stage 1 fire restrictions on Sunday in what’s known as the Sawtooth North Zone, from U.S. Highway 20 in the south to the northern edge of the Sawtooth National Forest. The city of Ketchum followed suit with its own restrictions Tuesday morning. Open campfires and smoking outside of an enclosed structure or protected area are banned during Stage 1 restrictions.
Meanwhile, a mandatory evacuation order is in place for all homes and campgrounds in the Pettit Lake Road and Cabin Creek Road areas, Sawtooth City, Smiley Creek, Alturas Lake and Beaver Creek. A vast zone of the Sawtooth National Forest is also closed to public access.
With lines holding, some firefighters are turning their attention to clearing roadways and other hazards for when residents and property owners return, Leising said.
“Everybody is really aware that the public wants to get back to their homes,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to make that happen as soon as possible. Right now, though, we’re not there.”
Temporary flight restrictions are in place over the fire and have so far been violated twice by drones: first Thursday and again on Sunday, according to the federal fire tracking site InciWeb. The incursions stopped all firefighting flights over the Ross Fork Fire “to avoid a potential midair collision,” according to the Forest Service.
“If you see a drone flying in the area of the Ross Fork Fire, please report it immediately to the Blaine County Sherriff Department and the FAA District Office in Boise at 208-387-4000 with as much information as possible,” the Forest Service said.
South of Galena Pass, crews have taken preliminary actions to protect the historic Galena Lodge in the northern Wood River Valley, fire officials said Saturday. The Galena Lodge area is under a “set” evacuation status, meaning people should be prepared to leave on short notice.
State Highway 75 in northern Blaine County has been open for four days straight as of midday Monday. However, the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office has warned that the highway is subject to closure at any time, and travelers are advised to check the Idaho Transportation Department website for updates.
The Ross Fork Fire was started by a lightning strike on Aug. 14 in a remote section of forest west of Smiley Creek and burned slowly for weeks. A “high wind event” caused the blaze to erupt over Labor Day weekend.
With more favorable conditions forecast, Leising hopes for good news to continue into the weekend.
“Every day we get precipitation, every day we get minimal wind, there’s more cause to be optimistic.”
Emily Jones contributed reporting. ￼