The Fire Next Time
Photography Karen Wattenmaker
September 2001. Sparks from burning trash touch off a fire east of Fairfield. The fire burns for five days in the sage and grass covered hills. Six bulldozers, 21 engines, seventeen planes and helicopters, 500 firefighters, two million dollars, and the grace of God are needed to stop it one ridge shy of the Deer Creek drainage. 18,000 acres blackened, a swath of charred hills six miles by eight and 35 miles around, all caused by a guy burning trash in a barrel on a hot windy day in drought conditions. The Willow Creek Fire.
There was little about Willow Creek before the burn to distinguish it from the look of Quigley Canyon east of Hailey. Same sage and grass covered hills, stands of aspen here and there, cottonwoods and willow in the draws. And the lack of common sense it takes to walk away from burning trash in the center of hundreds of miles of tinder isn’t restricted to the country west of the blinking light. What would happen if under similar conditions, a fire starts here?
August. A two week string of blistering days. The valley hasn’t seen a hard rain since May nor much snow the winter before. The whole west is burning. Firefighting resources have been pulled like taffy.
At 7 p.m. a ‘99 Volvo wagon heads west out of Quigley Canyon. Across from the irrigation pond it turns into Dead Man Gulch, turns around in the two foot grass, continues on toward Hailey, then south on 75.
Before it crests Timmerman Hill, the fire its red-hot catalytic converter sparked in Dead Man Gulch has scorched a trampoline-size patch of grass. The smoke drifts off unseen to the northeast. Through the evening the fire creeps up the gulch.
No call reaches 911 until ten the following morning. Rubberneckers lining Quigley road have turned a ten minute trip from Hailey into twenty. By the time the brush rig from the Hailey FD arrives with an engine from Wood River Fire and Rescue, the fire has climbed into the drier fuels on the hillsides. A wedge shaped forty-five acres have burned.
At the fire’s leading edge, an arc a quarter mile long, flames ten feet high leap out of the grass. The fire is out of control. Dispatch alerts the BLM office in Shoshone. Dead Man is their jurisdiction.
Fuel, heat, and oxygen make fire burn. Deprive it of one of the three, it’ll die. A line around the fire removes the fuel. Water lowers the heat. Retardant coats the fuels depriving them of oxygen. These are the basic tactics. If they don’t work the fire burns until winter or until there’s nothing left to burn.
Each engine takes a side of the burning wedge, spraying the perimeter. They hope to contain the fire, not put it out. Firefighters trail the flames. With one foot in the burn they scrape the ground to bare dirt, pulling out roots which the fire can use as pathways under the line. A fireline is sometimes all it takes, but digging even this skinny ribbon is hard, hot, dirty, work. All the advancements made in fighting wildland fires over the years ——the computer models, handheld weather stations, infrared mapping——haven’t much changed the firefighter’s job. It still comes down to this: busting hump with shovels and rakes.
They keep the wind to their backs. They avoid the fire’s leading edge. Before approaching the fire from any side, they ask themselves where, if the thing blows up, they might escape. If they don’t like the answer, they don’t go.
Taking advantage of ridges, game trails, roads, streams, any natural feature where vegetation is sparse, a scout flags the route ahead of the crews. They shepherd the fire, trying to keep it within the narrowest bounds. The fire is running. They can do little else.
The brush rigs carry 400 gallons of soapy foam. They spray from the truck until the slope becomes too steep. Then crew drags out hose, twelve hundred feet, and spray until they’re out of water. They refill at the tender, do it over again.
The fire pops and crackles. In the really dry fuel, it whooshes. It’s running north towards the ridge into Indian Creek. It might slow down in the rockier terrain on the ridge top buying time for the planes to arrive. It might not. Engines from Sun Valley and Ketchum rush south to protect the houses in Indian Creek. Besides what’s left behind to respond to any unrelated emergency, every available engine is on its way.
Noon. The BLM Incident Commander arrives from Shoshone. With gusting winds the fire takes a dramatic turn. In grass knee deep, flames shoot thirty feet high. Two helicopters arrive. Water dropped on the head of the fire only makes it sizzle. The fear that the fire will spot into Indian Creek has become a certainty. The IC orders more crew, more engines, more planes, more of everything.
Spot fires have caught on the downslopes in the farthest drainage back in Indian Creek. Six engines are there to deal with it. They coat the houses with foam. As a shield against wind-blown embers, it’s better than nothing. Because fire spreads more slowly downhill than up, the firefighters steal some time. Not enough to coat every house. Residents are out with hoses, but should the fire choose to take a house, a garden hose won’t change its mind. If homeowners haven’t thinned the sage and grass, or greened it up some way, or have a metal roof, leave is what they need to do, the sooner the better. A house catches fire. Then a second.
It’s the hottest, driest, breeziest time of day. A storm cell has moved in from the south bringing unstable air. They can still predict the fire’s behavior, but they can’t rely on their prediction. There’s a formula. Plug in the temperature, the wind, humidity, the fuel moisture, the topography, the time of day, you get back how hot your fire’s going to be. It’s going to be very hot. Before things get any better, things will be getting worse.
Up and down the valley people are edgy. Fire Information Officers are at the Hailey Post Office answering questions. KSKI and KECH broadcast updates. Officers knock on doors in Indian Creek. The evacuation order has been given. Were there water enough in Magic to float a boat, you could sit and fish and see the smoke.
Firefighting is labor intensive. Since every available local crew is either here or on its way, the IC’s call for more manpower is filled through Salt Lake. The earliest that crews can arrive is after dark. Already fifteen engines are on the scene. Two helicopters, two SEATs, and a C-130 are dropping thousands of gallons of foam and retardant. Two more tankers are on the way.
A Cessna guides the planes to the dropzone. The single engine air tankers are small and agile, their pilots gutsy, adroit. It’s nothing to them to fly thirty feet off the deck. They could sign their names with retardant. The airtankers carry 3,000 gallons and can string out a drop for half a mile. They drop not on, but just outside the fire. All day it rains retardant, a slimy mixture of fertilizer, water, and clay, dyed orange for visibility. The retardant clings to vegetation, to houses, clothes, skin, and everything else it touches. It comes down in sheets, in mist, in globs of slurry.
Ninety degrees, single digit humidity, parched land, unstable winds——things are prime for a blowup. Heat generates wind which generates more heat which generates more wind. The fire feeds on itself. It swirls. It roars like a squadron of jets. The heat can split granite boulders, make trees explode. A tornado of fire. A firestorm.
In the way a small explosion in your oven can singe your eyebrows without burning your skin, a grass fire often moves so fast only the tops of the blades are burnt. The fire sweeps across Indian Creek passing over houses in its path.
The IC chooses to let it run into Ohio Gulch and the open hills to the east. They will make their stand to the west. Crews and engines are redeployed. The Valley Club is vulnerable. The Heatherlands too. Bulldozers gouge a hasty fireline across the hillsides. A dozer can build a lot of line in a hurry, but it does a lot of damage, too, sometimes more than what the fire would do on its own. The fireline cut in an hour will be visible for a lifetime.
Nine p.m. The head of the fire noses across Ohio Gulch above the transfer station. On the east the fire is having its way. Smoke can be seen from Twin Falls.
Ketchum suffers a choking night. During the day the winds push the smoke toward Challis, but at night it sits in the Valley. The sky glows orange. In Dead Man Gulch where it started, the fire is burning itself out. Crews sift through the ash for embers. They probe with bare fingers for anything warm. They spray water from pumps on their backs.
Night is an ally. The fire lays down again, but it doesn’t go to sleep. The winds that blow up slope during the day reverse at night. The fire loops back on itself, back toward Indian Creek. The three additional engines assigned to structure protection get no support from the air. Planes stop flying at sunset. It’s tricky enough during the day.
During the night, a Type 2 overhead team straggles in piecemeal from all over the west. Overhead refers to management. Type 2 refers to a fire’s complexity. The size is not the problem yet. The proximity to Hailey, the value of the private property, and the multiple jurisdictions involved are what make Dead Man Type 1. Type 1 is the most complex. There are no Type 1 overhead teams available. The Type 2 team will have to elevate its game.
Several sections comprise the team: Operations designs the strategy. Planning orders the resources. There’s logistics, information, finance, and safety. A fleet of rented trucks serve as mobile offices. Inside the trucks are fax machines, telephones, laptops, a xerox.
Everything needed is trucked to the site. Things are packed in kits. The chainsaw kit contains a saw, safety goggles, earplugs, rags, chaps, gas can, whatever it takes to operate the saw. Finance kits. Radio kits. (350,000 batteries are used per day during peak fire season.) The kitchen is a tractor trailer rigged with griddle, oven, and dishwasher. A reefer truck carries ice and perishable food. Another truck is a rolling pantry. Another has showers. Satellite dish, generators, porta-potties, dumpsters. Tabs are kept on every tool, every case of Gatorade. What isn’t consumed will be returned, refurbished and repacked for the next emergency.
Wildfire is as much a moneymaking proposition as it is a natural disaster. Two-man tents sprout in the pasture rented for the purpose. Hotshot crews—highly-trained, fit, professional—travel the country all year long from one fire to the next. They come from Alaska, from Montana, from Utah. The Bonneville Hotshots, the Logan Hotshots, the Flamin’Go’s from Utah State Prison. Hotshots are known for their toughness and espirit de corps. Type 2 crews, a notch below, are mostly college kids, eight dollars an hour plus overtime and hazard pay. Ten thousand bucks for a summer’s work. Money, excitement, camaraderie—fighting fire is a young person’s game.
A Lear six seater takes infrared pictures over the burn. It can find a hot spot the size of a saucer from 8,000 feet. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for another hot day. It is raining in San Francisco and moving this way, but the low is pushing strong winds out in front.
At 6 a.m. the outgoing IC briefs the new commander, who in turn assembles the operations chief, division supervisors, crew bosses, engine captains, anyone in a leadership role. He points to a topo map. Here the fire is burning. Here it’s been contained. He establishes objectives: Prevent the fire from advancing any further west toward highway 75, toward Hailey, and private property. East Fork and Cove Creek will be the final barriers to the north. Quigley Road to the south. On the east there are no roads, no way to get crews or engines in. There they’ll let it burn. Because the lines will need to be rehabbed, he orders a light hand with the dozers. He details financial constraints. He circles vital habitat. Rain is a possibility. The challenge will be gusting winds.
Crews have been on the line for eighteen hours without a break. They need to be rested and fed. They’ll use two shifts, fifteen hours each for as long as it takes.Crews are assigned to divisions and the divisions to specific tasks.
The air attack will continue with six heavy tankers, three SEAT’s, and seven helicopters. On the ground, structure engines will remain in Indian Creek, The Valley Club, in the Heatherlands. Others will be stationed in Triumph and East Fork. Fifteen hand crews, twenty-five wildland engines, and five dozers will be on the job. Five hundred fifty people in all.
Winds push the fire further toward the northeast. They set a backburn in its path. It will exhaust the fuel the main fire needs in order to advance. In theory, that is how it works. Backburns are risky. They have been known to jump the lines that they are meant to reinforce. The prospect of the fire reaching the heavy timber up above Triumph makes it a risk they have to take. If they don’t stop it there it may jeopardize East Fork, Gimlet, Elkhorn, ultimately Sun Valley itself.
The fire they set in the bottomland of the drainage south of Triumph takes off up the northfacing slope. The main fire has already spotted over the ridge. Where the two fires meet there is a tremendous sucking of air and the flames catapault a hundred feet high and for a moment it seems as if there will be a second blowup worse than the one the day before. The conflagration is intense, but brief. As they had planned, and hoped, and prayed, the fire that had been heading for Triumph now is out of fuel.
Temperatures drop twenty degrees during the night. Around two a.m. it begins to rain in the higher elevations. The firelines have held. The cold and moisture kill whatever still actively burns. Attention turns to demobilization. The fire is now officially under control. Two houses have burned. No one has died.
The rain washes the smoke from the air. And though the hills are scorched to black, and the willows are black in the draws, by spring green shoots will appear through the ash and the aspens will sprout suckers from their roots.
Rick Slone, a frequent contributor to Sun Valley Magazine, has also written for Surfing and Outside. His novel, Brown Shoe, was published by Random House.
The author would like to thank Andy Payne of the BLM who gave freely of his time and expertise, and Bill Murphy of the Forest Service who told him how to set the Valley afire and put it out in 2,500 words.