Sep 1, 2015

Saturday fire on South Fork started by two juveniles, fire marshal says

A Saturday afternoon fire that burned through more than 140 acres in the South Fork area was started "by two juvenile males playing with fire," Park County Fire Marshal Russ Wenke said Tuesday morning.

"Because they are juveniles we will not be releasing any additional information," Wenke said.

The fire was first reported around 1:15 p.m. near 167 Road 6WX, just southwest of Cody. It consumed about 145 acres along the South Fork Highway and the eastern side of Cedar Mountain before crews from the Cody Volunteer Fire Department, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Shoshone National Forest contained it Saturday night, Wenke said.

An air tanker drops fire retardant on a blaze that burned the eastern side of Cedar Mountain on Saturday. Aaron Mulkey is pictured in the foreground. Photo courtesy Kelly Dedel
Dubbed the Red Lakes Fire, the blaze threatened two homes as well as the Shoshone Water Treatment Plant and several communication towers for law enforcement, radio stations and cell phone companies, Wenke said.

The Cody Volunteer Fire Department sent seven trucks and 28 firefighters and Park County provided a bulldozer, but some areas were so steep and rocky that men and equipment couldn’t get to them to fight the fire, Wenke said.

“That was a real problem for us,” he said.

That’s when the call went out for additional firefighting resources. In response, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service provided 11 additional firefighters as well as a helicopter and two large air tankers out of Billings, and two smaller air tankers from Casper, Wenke said. 

Mutual aid also was provided by Powell volunteer firefighters, who stood by at the Cody Fire Hall in case other fire calls came through.

“The great story is, it was a success. We did get it stopped with very little damage," Wenke said.

By 7:15 p.m., crews had contained the fire and the South Fork Highway was reopened — it had been closed intermittently during the fire.

“We held it to around 145 acres and worked through the night,” he said.

Four fire engines and 17 firefighters worked on Sunday to douse hotspots, but no air support was needed at that point. A few firefighters will continue to monitor the area over coming days to make sure nothing flares up near the edges of the fire, he said.

“The great story is, it was a success,” Wenke said. “We did get it stopped with very little damage."

Only one power pole and a few power lines were burned, despite the fact that the area was under a red-flag warning for high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity, he said.

“It was just a great example of cooperation between our fire district, the BLM and then the Shoshone National Forest,” Wenke said.

The fire marshal did say that things could have turned out differently, a private citizen apparently launched a drone.

"Luckily a woman who knows how serious this can be for our air resources asked the gentleman to land the drone and he did," Wenke said. "If a drone is observed over the incident all of the air resources are grounded until we can verify the drone is no longer in the area. If we had lost the air support, the outcome of this incident would have been much worse."

The original caller described the fire as an out-of-control agricultural burn, but the fire investigator ultimately determined it was caused by the two juveniles.

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