Aug 9, 2016

With fighterfighters' work and Sunday rain, Whit Fire mostly contained

A Sunday thunderstorm aided firefighting efforts on the Whit Fire west of Cody, upping containment to 70 percent by Monday evening.

The fire began Tuesday, Aug. 2, on the North Fork of the Shoshone River southeast of Wapiti. By Wednesday evening, the fire had burned across 9,600 acres and spread to the South Fork.

Burnout operations. Photo courtesy Brant Jungck
Roughly 260-270 North and South Fork residents were directed to evacuate on Tuesday and Wednesday; those orders were able to be lifted on Saturday morning.

Incident Commander Todd Pechota’s Type 1 Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team took over the fire on Friday. They helped get the blaze 15 percent contained on Friday evening and 30 percent by Saturday evening.

Firefighters took an aggressive strategy and made progress, Pechota said at Saturday evening meeting at Glenn Livingston Elementary School in Cody. Though, the commander added, “I’m not going to tell you it’s a done deal.”

The fire stood at 12,094 acres on Monday.

It’s a hazardous environment of rugged terrain, rolling rocks, falling trees and no protection when lightning strikes. Two firefighters suffered injuries, Pechota said. One sustained a tear to the lower abdomen and the other was hit in the shoulder by a rock.

“These guys are giving it their all,” Pechota said.

Rain was in the forecast for Sunday, he noted, and, “We’re taking every drop.”

Luckily, the weather forecast was right.

Sunday afternoon was sunny and warm, but thick clouds to the west suggested rain.

Around 1:30 p.m., Pete Buist, Type 1 fire information officer, negotiated a gravel road on the south side of the South Fork.

A few disparate lightning bolts fractured the sky followed by their booms caroming off rocky ridges like hammer blows. 

On the ridges, gray columns of smoke rose like warped monoliths to contrast perfectly against the purple sky. In a few isolated spots, flames ignited fleetingly only to flame out like spent kitchen matches. Patches of brown grass untouched by fire contrasted sharply with blackened zones that were overcome by flames.

“There is a story painted across that view,” Buist said.

The burn pattern indicated the fire’s behavior; how it ran Wednesday, Buist said.

The darkened areas illustrate where heavy fuels where, Pechota said. There was less fuel on the lower hills.
Powell firemen assess the Whit Fire on the South Fork Wednesday. Photo courtesy Damian Dicks
Fuels are trees, downed trees, grass and brush.

The fire ran uphill faster and slower downhill, Buist said.

Three factors drive fire: Fuel, topography and weather. In this scenario, weather, or more precisely, wind drove the fire, Buist said.

In some locations, black patches like meandering paths of asphalt reached nearly to homes and outbuildings.

One home was lost, and seven “minor structures,” according to Buist’s official notes. The official report says the cause is “still under investigation,” he said.

A homemade sign on the Lower South Fork Road (Road 6QS) reads, “Thank you firefighters.”

“That’s a morale-builder for us,” Buist said.

Matt Broyles, a task force leader, keeps an eye on his crew from the road. His job is to ensure resources such as hand crews and engines coordinate efficiently.

Firefighters conducting structure protection have been stationed on the North and South Forks, Buist said.

The fire behind structures is secure, but a few stumps may continue to smolder, Broyles said. It will continue to smoke for weeks, Buist said.

Broyles points south where a few small flames occasionally lick the sky, the end of what fire managers called the, “Division Whiskey burnout.”

Firefighters were conducting multiple burnouts on Sunday. That is, they torched areas to remove fuels to impede the fire’s advance, Buist said.

The gray smoke clung to the ridges and down the slopes like insidious morning fog. As the rain began, it seemed to ensnare the smoke, pinning it to the ground.

Truck after truck rolled down the mountain. The firefighters must sit out the storm for safety’s sake, Buist explained.

A storm rolled through the area Sunday afternoon. Cody News Co. photo by Gib Mathers
Lightning cracked again in a serrate line like a surly reminder of the power of nature.

“Another reason not to be on the mountain,” Buist said. The firefighters will deploy again once the weather front passes on.

The firefighters take advantage of their down time. Some nap, others chat or snack and one group in a crew cab crank up some AC/DC.

The rain does seem like manna from heaven, but there will be no celebrating yet.

“It’s not going to put the fire out, but it’s darned helpful,” Buist said.

On Monday, there were eight Type 1 hand crews, 10 Type 2 hand crews, 41 engines, four water tenders and one dozer, according to an update.

A hand crew is a 20-person team using hand tools. Water tenders haul water.

There were 717 people working the fire Monday. The Type 1 team will turn it over to a Type 3 team on Thursday.

Two Type 1 helicopters, two Type 2 helicopters, two Type 3 helicopters and two air attack platforms are on the fire.

Type 1 helicopters are like Chinooks with two big rotors. They can carry buckets or transport water internally with a capacity of up to 4,500 gallons. Type 2 helicopters, like Bell Hueys, pack buckets of up to 200 gallons. Type 3 helicopters are smaller ships used for observation. Air attack platforms are fixed wing or rotary aircraft, similar to traffic control, to direct aerial fire fighting.

A no stopping order and lower speed limit on U.S. Highway 14/16/20 near the Buffalo Bill Reservoir was lifted on Sunday and the reservoir was scheduled to reopen to the public on Monday afternoon. The Green Creek, Twin Creek and Sheep Mountain trails remained temporarily closed.


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