A wildfire was ignited during a routine ground squirrel management operation in Indian Creek on Tuesday and quickly swept up the northwest side of the canyon, scorching about 50 acres of sage-covered hillside.
Multiple fire departments responded to the blaze, which eyewitness Kelley Weston said started about 11:30 a.m. in dry grass on the edge of an agricultural field and quickly spread to willows beside his home on Blackfeet Drive. Two hours later, the fire was still burning at the highest reaches of the northwest side of Indian Creek canyon as fire crews struggled to contain it with hoses.
Indian Creek Ranch Manager Blake Evenson said he was using a flame-inducing Rodenator device to kill ground squirrels and collapse their tunnels.
Weston said he and Evenson worked frantically with a fire extinguisher and a garden hose to control the flames, which quickly spread to dry willows and then onto the hillside.
“I called 911 as soon as the fire extinguisher ran out,” Evenson said.
He said he typically uses the Rodenator this time of year to control ground squirrels. He said eliminating them protects farm equipment, which can be damaged by ground squirrel tunnels.
“The snow melted on these fields only last week,” he said. He said this time of year is usually a safe time to use the device because grass is still wet and matted, but he believes climate change has altered the usual cycle.
“These days it’s going from tinderbox dry in the fall to tinderbox dry in the spring,” he said.
Evenson said he employed the Rodenator hose to send a mixture of oxygen and propane gas into a ground squirrel hole at the north edge of a farm field. When the gas was ignited, a plume of flame shot out the other end of the hole about 12 feet away and ignited dry grass.
“It happened in a spot that I couldn’t see,” he said.
Weston, who lives about 30 yards from where the fire started, said there was no way the two men could put out the fire with what they had on hand. Fire Crews responded within 20 minutes of ignition, he said.
The fire raged quickly up the ridge and down-canyon to the south where fire crews stood by to protect a nearby home. Had the wind been blowing in the opposite direction, Weston’s home would have been threatened.
Weston said it was fortunate that the wind was less gusty than the day before, or the fire might have been far more damaging.
“Yesterday the wind was howling through here,” he said.
Evenson said he would not be using the Rodenator again.
“I don’t think the homeowners here would want to risk it,” he said.