The summer of 2002 presented me with a unique opportunity to observe the Mule Fire in Sublette County, Wyoming, from start to finish. The area burned by the Mule Fire was on the north side of North Horse Creek about fifteen miles west of the Fort Bonneville marker for the Mountain Man Rendezvous of 1833, 1835, 1836, 1837, 1839, and 1840. As a fur trade historian, it was important to me this area not be destroyed by fire. Despite disgust and anger at the way the fire was initially handled by local forest service personnel, the experience gave me a greater appreciation of the problems involved.
The fire started with a lightning strike which smoldered for several days, and the local forest service personnel did basically nothing to put it out. The first smoke was on July 11, 2002.
Three days later the Mule Fire blew up.
The next morning, Roby McNeel, the son of the owner of the cattle on Spring Creek, and I was at the head of the canyon at daylight to roundup and bring out the cattle. Fireballs from the crown fire had crossed over Mill Creek to the head of Spring Creek, which is well over a mile from the crown fire area. These fireballs set several small areas on fire.
This stump was burning until Roby answered a call of nature and put out the flame. With a disgusted look, he turned and said,
“That’s more than the forest service has done.”
These fireball-started fires did not spread because the fireballs lit in areas of green plants with high moisture content. The moisture content of the trees, plants, and soil play a key role in the severity of forest fires, as is shown by this green area around an elk wallow.
As we reached the mouth of Spring Creek with the cattle, a Type II Incident Management Team arrived from the North Carolina Forest Service. The Incident Team assumed complete control of the Mule Fire…no more local forest service, BLM, or environmentalists making decisions on fighting the fire. Within hours after the North Carolina management team arrived, my feeling was this fire would be contained. Besides the fifty people on the management team, there were at various times, crews from Idaho, New York, Maryland, Maine, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Florida,Texas,Tennessee, and Arkansas. In addition to these people, there were emergency medical teams from Rock Springs, Wyoming, local firemen and law enforcement officers, and forest service personnel from Utah, Sublette County, and Jackson, Wyoming.
The 2002 Mule Fire ranked 43rd on the National Priority List of Fires because no structures were endangered. Despite the majority of these crews coming from areas near sea level to an elevation from 7500 to over 9000 feet, the fire was attacked as if it was the number one fire on the list. I cannot speak for all fires, or fire personnel, but on the 2002 Mule Fire, it amazed me how hard the crews worked under difficult conditions and terrain.
Excerpts from a press release prepared on July 23rd by Teresa Odom, information officer, of the North Carolina Forest Service gives a typical day’s activity. The inserted pictures were not part of the press release:
One super Huey 205, one Bell Jet Ranger, along with the Teton Helitack Helicopter flew in 14,428 pounds of cargo, and delivered 36,963 gallons of water on the fire logging 16.3 hours of flight time.
The crewmembers aboard the Teton Helitack Helicopter were repelled from the helicopter yesterday to help strategically locate equipment positions on the fire.
Press release: Infrared flights yesterday detected some hot spots along the fire perimeter south of Lead Creek. After several days of drying these areas could ignite and spot across containment lines if the forecasted winds pass through the area. Crews will work extinguishing those areas today.
Press release: Presently the Mule fire is 3,585 acres and is 65% contained. Resources currently working the Mule fire include eighteen 20-person hand crews, four ten-person camp crews, four helicopters, three dozers, fourteen wildland engines, and a type II National Incident Management Team from the North Carolina Forest Service, www.tetonfires.com/.
On July 25th. eleven days after it started, the fire was 100% contained, and on July 29th a type III Incident Team took over the restoration work and to monitor the burned areas. At this point, the fire had burned 3,982 acres at a cost of $4,395,866 dollars.
The management team and fire personnel were able to confine the Mule Fire to the south-facing slopes, instead of the heavier timbered north-facing slopes, and the fire did not burn hot enough to “sterilize” the ground. Due to their efforts, next year there will be re-growth of grasses and bushes on the fire-fertilized ground…I was wrong on this. I rode back up to the strip clear cut area a year later, and there was little new growth.
The Mule Fire did as little overall damage as could possibly be hoped for. The worst burned area was not far from where the night fire picture was taken.
There are four major reasons for the Mule Fire being contained within a relatively small areas:
(1) Incidents Teams management skills in directing the fire, along with the hard work and dedication of the fire personnel involved,
(2) local forest service and BLM personnel, as well as environmentalist concerns, were excluded from fire management decisions,
(3) this area was heavily logged by the tie-hackers (for railroad ties) in the nineteen-thirties, so in many areas there was not a build up of downfall from old growth timber,
(4) logging with strip clear-cuts was permitted in this area by the Bridger-Teton Forest Service until it was stopped by environmentalist groups in the mid-nineties.
This picture taken on the ridge separating Mill Creek and Spring Creek clearly shows the value of clear cuts in forest fire management. The fire burned up to the clear cut areas and stopped.
Small spot fires burned into September. These fires were in areas with no danger of spreading and were allowed to burn…notice the green ground cover and lack of downfall.
The Incident Command System (ICS):
Managing emergency incidents like wildland fires can be complex, confusing and inefficient, mainly because multiple agencies at the Federal, state and local levels are trying to work with each other in a pressure-packed situation. To put total control of the fire under a single management team was developed in the United States almost 30 years ago. The Incident Management System (ICS) has become the system envied and imitated by emergency response organizations around the world, http://www.nifc.gov/fire_info/nfn.htm
Percentage breakdown of fire costs:
Fire Crews 32%
Management Personnel 17%
Camp Support 16%
At this altitude (~8000 feet) the smaller Huey could carry 250 gallons and the super Huey 400 gallons of water, whereas at sea level, they can carry several thousand gallons.
Maximum number on fire line personnel 449
Support People 106
2500-calorie meals were served three times a day. This is 5500 calories higher than what is recommended for the average diet, and from talking to people on the fire line, every morsel was devoured.
The large Huey cost $18,000 dollars a day to standby, while flight time ranged from $1800 to $3000 dollars an hour…this sounds extremely expensive, but helicopters are the most effective means of controlling and directing a fire.
I would like to thank the following forest service personnel for providing information on the 2002 Mule Forest Fire.
North Carolina Forest Service Incident Team
Teresa Odom, Information Officer
Dan Smith, Incident Commander
Bob Houseman, Chief of Field Operations
Bridger-Teton National Forest
Jay Anderson, Information Officer
Mary Lendman, Information Officer
The replies, pro and con, to the forest fire articles give various perspectives on forests fires, and are well worth reading.
The Mule Fire article was written by Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming.
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