In the Miner Paradise Complex, fire commanders are breathing easier about the North Eightmile Fire, and they are most uncertain about the Horsetail Fire. But a change in the weather could rewrite the equations, which is why the Gallatin National Forest has closed Hyalite above the reservoir today.
The leaders of the Type 2 Incident Command Team that took control of the Miner Paradise Complex on Sunday discussed the fires and their challenges at a public meeting Tuesday night at the Montana State University Weatherization Training Center.
Around 15 people watched as fire professionals used projected images of Google Earth and photographs to explain the growth and movement of the fires and what the public can expect for the next seven days.
“The fires have grown and they’re going to continue to grow,” said Incident Team Deputy Cmdr. John Thompson. “Our weather guy isn’t showing us any relief, except a chance of thunderstorms. We don’t like thunderstorms.”
The weather is potentially the firefighters’ worst enemy, but they’re also battling with severely limited resources as fires burn in much of the West. While the demand for firefighters and equipment is high, supply is low because federal budget cuts, mainly the sequester, have forced federal agencies to hire fewer seasonal workers.
“We’ve been struggling to get the tools we need. Right now, the Northern Rockies ranks No. 4 in the pecking order,” Thompson said. “Everything seems to be tighter this year. We don’t even have a kitchen, although one might show up in camp tomorrow.”
With fewer resources, less can be done to control each of the four fires encircling the Paradise Valley, which means they might move more and burn longer. All four fires are burning in steep, rugged terrain, adding more difficulty. Two helicopters are assigned to the complex.
“You’re going to hear me talking about steep, nasty country all night,” said Operations Section Chief Greg Archie.
At the south end of the Paradise Valley, in the Tom Miner Basin, the Sheep Fire has two 20-person crews and eight engines trying to control the 500-acre blaze.
Archie said the fire is less of a concern because it is in a north-facing bowl, and fire crews just need to drive it south to keep it from moving north into ranchland. The only concern is the possibility of the fire jumping east across Horse Creek.
On the east side of the Paradise Valley, the Emigrant Fire has roared back to life after smoldering in just 650 acres for a couple of weeks.
“Yesterday morning, folks started to experience fire behavior they hadn’t seen that early in the day – torching and spot fires,” Archie said. “The spot fires (to the south) became too numerous, and the fire crossed Sixmile Creek. Since then, it’s grown to more than 7,200 acres.”
With no structures threatened and the fire headed mostly into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, five engines remain on the fire.
Archie said the column of smoke towering over the area will continue for the next four or five days as the fire continues to grow.
Archie felt most confident about the North Eightmile Fire, which is burning in an area that was already torched in 2001 by the Fridley Fire.
Only two high-elevation bowls facing northeast still have unburned timber, which is burning now. To the west is the Bozeman Creek drainage, but the ridgeline stopped the Fridley Fire before, so Archie isn’t too worried about the North Eightmile Fire going over the top.
“Of all the fires, this is the one I’m most comfortable with,” Archie said.
The Horsetail Fire is the most worrisome because of the difficulty of building firelines and uncertainty over where it will go.
The lightning-caused fire started on the steep ridge between Flanders Creek and the East Fork of Hyalite Creek. But the fire rolled down the ridge’s west side into the Flanders Creek drainage and is burning along the drainage bottom.
Fire commanders don’t want to drop any firefighters into the area because they couldn’t get out. Only two firefighters are assigned to the area along with eight temporary firefighters.
Archie said retardant drops would help but no resources are available.
“We’re trying to figure out a way to close the door on that fire so it doesn’t go north, but we can’t build a line across the drainage,” Archie said. “As long as we stay in this weather pattern, the winds should push it south. But there’s no guarantee.”
Gallatin District Ranger Lisa Stoeffler said she was closing Hyalite above the reservoir on Wednesday because there was no way to know where the fire would go. Because it takes one to two days to evacuate people, she didn’t want to wait until the fire made evacuations critical.