With cooler temps and rain late last week, the growth of the Fishhawk Fire slowed dramatically after burning with a fervent pace in earlier days. But that did not mean the 195 emergency personnel working the fire notched down their pace of work.
“There’s never really any down time,” Schelly Olson, public information officer and wildland fire mitigation specialist said. “Down time is a training opportunity. I don’t think there’s ever a time where we waste a minute resting.”
From Thursday until Monday night the fire was scheduled to be managed by the Rocky Mountain Type 2 Blue Team, a conglomerate of responders from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, National Park Service and state agencies in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, with assistance from Park County Fire District 2.
The outside organization stepped in to relieve the Shoshone National Forest and Park County Fire District the main share of the load, so they would not be short handed in case fires sprung up elsewhere.
“It gives them the ability to refocus on what they do day-to-day,” said Chris Zoller, a division supervisor from Spearfish, S.D.
Both those local agencies did still lend a hand during the fires.
As of Friday the fire was as close as 1.5 miles to the closest structures but on Saturday morning residents of the Kitty Creek cabins and Buffalo Bill Boy Scout camp were allowed to return to their homes after being evacuated Wednesday night.
The Rocky Mountain Type 2 Blue Team used the weather break to set up structure protection, remove potential hazards and place hoses and sprinklers.
Staff laid these water mechanisms around the Buffalo Bill cabins as well as up and down the road which services the Kitty Creek cabins, ready to be sourced from Kitty Creek. In case a fire approaches the structures, fire staff will already have protection net in place and can even pre-treat the area if deemed it will be effective.
“We try to be as least invasive but very effective with the tactics that we’re doing,” Zoller said.
Also serving as a safety net is the brush-removing work homeowners and Park County Fire Protection District 2 already implemented in its structure protection plan before the Fishhawk Fire ever started. The plan reduces risks to both their property and firefighters by briefing Blue Team staff on what mitigation has already taken place on buildings around the area and what it would take to implement structure protection on them.
“It gives us a leg up on knowing where things are,” Zoller said. “It’s a great base, great foundation.”
After initially performing this work around evacuated areas, staff moved farther away to the east and north of the fire to perform the same precautionary measures around the Blackwater Creek Ranch and UXU Ranch.
The Rocky Mountain team also has three fire truck engines, two fixed wing airplanes and five helicopters at its disposal. Those aircraft have only been used to analyze the fire using infrared readings, not dumping water or slurry.
“Even when we run in with all the aircraft in the world it doesn’t work without that in-ground resource to hold it place,” incident commander Michael Haydon said.
The Stink Water Fire in the Sunlight Basin also continues to hold steady at 47 acres with 68 percent containment. Fire responders did structure wrap one cabin in fire shielding material that resembles aluminum foil.
At Fishhawk, Hotshot crews also dug out hundreds of feet of control lines around structures, resembling the rows between plants one might seen in a garden. These 2-3 foot wide lines – dirt paths with all vegetation removed – are designed to stop a fire in its tracks and also provide firefighters a safety ridge which to perform from.
From these lines, firefighters will start controlled burns to collide with forest fires, a technique known as “backburning,” to kill momentum from a wildfire that feeds on burning vegetation. This method was used prominently in the 2008 Gunbarrel Fire northeast of the Fishhawk Fire.
“When it impacts and that comes together it’s away from the structures,” Zoller said “It gives us a huge advantage.”
Members of the Hotshot team working the fire spent Friday removing dead wood, brush and grass from the area and around these lines.
Michael Roche, a San Diego-based season wildfire fighter was preparing a control line around the Buffalo Bill cabins on Friday, working with a bit of urgency on the chance fire descends down the ridge immediately facing the cabins.
“If it does happen we’ll be ahead of the game,” Roche said.
One common misconception that many in the public hold about wildfires is that soon after a fire starts, firefighters immediately start dousing flames from the air and ground.
In reality, staff has decided a fire must be an active risk to human life and or structures before any direct suppression efforts will begin. The mountainside wildfire fighting that makes up mitigation of the Fishhawk Fire is taking place in areas rife with thick underbrush and dead timber.
“It’s really about the values at risk in there, the safety of firefighters,” Hohn said.
But back in 1937 these precautions were not taken. When it came to fighting the Blackwater Fire responders went straight into the flames. In that fire 15 men died and 38 more were injured.
“We’ve learned over the last 100 years that we can’t do it the way we used to,” Haydon said, “We’re simply getting way too many firefighters and members of the public killed.”
Horribly destructive forest fires as recent as the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California are even guiding the way staff handle the Fishhawk Fire.
“We have to change the way we’re doing business and that’s what we’re doing here,” Haydon said. “It’s so hard to wait for the fire to come to us but that’s what has to be done. Not only is it safe, it’s super effective rather than fighting a wall of flames in the forest.”
Help from the past
With forest fires hardly a new phenomenon in Park County and even the immediate area around the Fishhawk drainage, firefighters are able to utilize previous burns to study fire traits and stifle new fires that travel into old burning grounds.
Due to the geography of the North Fork, the prevailing winds around the Fishhawk zone tend to push towards the north and south, which is the line of direction the fire has generally followed. An uncommon wrinkle to the Fishhawk blaze is that the fire started high on the hillside and then slowly travelled down the valley. Haydon said this is evidence of a large wind presence.
“When it’s doing that you know wind is playing a really really big role,” he said.
The weather and forest fires carry a symbiotic relationship, especially dependent on wind, humidity, cloud cover, temperature and atmospheric stability. With warning signs in all five of those categories that drew a red flag warning on Wednesday, the fire grew more than 5,000 acres and two miles.
A slow burn
Significantly sized wildfires like the Fishhawk Fire do not fully burn out quickly. Extinguishing the flames can be a piecemeal process that takes weeks if not months, usually dependent on a season-ending event like heavy chill or snowfall to finally burn out.
Hohn said although the fire continued to show growth on Thursday, the fact that this growth slowed to 800 acres of increase while receding slightly back up the hillside, was a positive sign, even though the fire has not yet shrunk since discovered Sept. 2. Over the weekend the fire slowed further, only growing by about 41 acres.
“It’s favorable,” Hohn said. “It’s a good day when you don’t have to worry about the fire growing two miles downslope.”
With a cooling trend being exhibited over this week it appears the fire will continue dissipating, but Hohn said a change in weather patterns could quickly bring a wrathful response from the blaze, especially considering big logs retaining heat long after the fire has passed.
“We liken it to running a marathon,” Zoller said. “We’ve got some moisture and its laid down. Talking about that 12, 24, 48, 72 hours out – we’re trying to get ahead of it in case it does come back to life.”