Burnout operations on the Castle Rock Fire continued for a second straight day Wednesday, with the bulk of the controlled burns occurring in the Adams Gulch area north to Fox Creek and near Penny Lake in the lower Warm Springs Creek drainage.
Viewed from afar off of state Highway 75 north of Ketchum around 1 p.m., large columns of inky black and gray-colored smoke towered over what looked like bands of tiny yellow ants just meters from tall walls of intentionally set flame.
In reality, they were wildland firefighters stationed at key points around the fire’s perimeter. Their job is to set fire to unburned areas in an effort to remove burnable material across an expansive area. These areas will eventually become part of a network of fire line standing between residential areas in and around the Ketchum area and the still-moving Castle Rock Fire.
So far, the burnout operations have been as close to “textbook” as firefighters could hope for, said David Olson, fire information officer for the Type 1 incident management team from Southern California that is in charge of fighting the Castle Rock Fire.
“It was done very well,” Olson said of Tuesday’s burnout operations, which burned in the Heidelberg Hill area and along the south-facing Warm Springs Creek face in northwest Ketchum.
At last count Wednesday morning, the blaze had increased in size to 14,190 acres, and remains 6 percent contained, Olson said.
That’s a roughly 15 percent increase in size from Tuesday’s official count for the blaze of 12,058 acres.
Olson said a total of 744 firefighters were working on the blaze Wednesday. He said fire managers have requested an additional 10 Type 1, 20-person fire crews, seven Type 2, 20-person fire crews as well as additional fire engines.
“We’d like to have more crews,” Olson said.
He said a national multi-agency coordination group out of Boise will decide whether the wish list for fire managers on the Castle Rock Fire is filled. The group is tasked with prioritizing firefighting resources for fires burning nationwide.
“It’s a constant evaluation,” Olson said.
The other major priority Wednesday for fire officials managing the Castle Rock Fire was the more than 100-acre spot fire burning in the upper Red Warrior Creek area south of Warm Springs Creek Road. Late Tuesday, the spot fire apparently crested south over the major ridgeline that divides the Warm Springs Creek drainage from the Greenhorn Gulch drainage.
Infrared maps generated by aerial flights over the Castle Rock Fire after nightfall Tuesday show the spot fire had just barely crested the ridge above Lodgepole Gulch, a tributary of Mahoney Creek, which is itself a tributary of Greenhorn Gulch.
Based on the infrared map, the flames were apparently some three miles distant from the main Greenhorn Gulch drainage.
Olson said the Red Warrior Creek spot fire was bombarded with retardant drops from heavy air tankers to help check its spread late Tuesday.
On Wednesday, fire managers sent in ground crews to dig hand lines beginning from the west end of the spot fire, he said.
At the same time on the northeast side of the spot fire, fire managers authorized heavy equipment operators to begin bulldozing a fire line, Olson said. The fire line will only be as wide as a single bulldozer blade and will follow a continuous section of ridgeline between Bassett and Alturas gulches before continuing southwest to the upper end of Red Warrior Creek, he said.
“They’re going to put a line in on that ridgetop,” Olson said.
He added that if all goes well, the hand crews could tie in with the bulldozer crew in as little as three or four days. The completed fire line would then hopefully keep flames from continuing south further into the Greenhorn Gulch area and east towards Bald Mountain.
In consultation with a local resource advisor from the Sawtooth National Forest, fire crews are “working to minimize impacts” from the three to four miles of bulldozer work, Olson said.
“You’re going to look for your easiest avenue to get your line built,” he said.
Olson said once the fire has been contained, but before the Type 1 incident management team departs, rehabilitation work on those areas impacted by fire suppression work will be carried out.
On Tuesday, fire managers greatly expanded the public lands closure area on the Sawtooth National Forest. The expanded area now covers a significant portion of Sawtooth National Forest lands in the Boulder Mountains from just north of Ketchum all the way to the Russian John Guard Station along state Highway 75. The closure area extends east from Highway 75 all the way to the eastern boundary of Blaine County.
The closure area has also been expanded to the south to encompass the entire Deer Creek drainage west to the Blaine County line.
All roads and trails in the massive closure area, including those in Deer Creek, Greenhorn Gulch, on Bald Mountain, in Warm Springs Creek, Adams Gulch, Fox Creek, Chocolate Gulch, Oregon Gulch and the entire North Fork of the Big Wood River, are closed to public use.
Two other major developments in the fire suppression effort Wednesday were the beginning of fire line construction on the north flank of the Castle Rock Fire, and the construction of a helicopter landing site on the west flank of the blaze, Olson reported.
Digging fire line on the northern flank will be two hotshot crews, he said. Olson described the method the hotshots will use as “coyote tactics.”
He explained that this is when firefighters hike into an area and stay there unsupported until they complete their task.
Fire crews typically carry very little personal belongings such as tents and will eat MREs, or meals-ready-to-eat, Olson said.
“You’re just kind of laying down on the ground and sleeping,” he said.
Fire crews building the helicopter landing site are working in the vicinity of Boyle Mountain, which is just west of Rooks Creek on the fire’s western perimeter, Olson said. The landing pad will allow fire crews to be flown in starting Thursday for the purpose of constructing fire line along the blaze’s western flank, he said.
Fire crews assigned to the Castle Rock Fire are working hard to bring the blaze under control as soon as possible, said Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, the incident commander for the Castle Rock Fire.
“We’re out to contain this fire,” Pincha-Tulley said Wednesday.
Although the suppression effort is going well right now, fire managers are working to implement as many tactics as they can ahead of a cold front expected to move into the region sometime next week, she said.
“It’s a race against the weather,” Pincha-Tulley said.
She estimated the “long, narrow wind-driven fire” was just 1.5 miles from Ketchum on Wednesday.
Most of all, firefighters are working hard at “getting it away from Ketchum and getting it away from Highway 75,” Pincha-Tulley said.