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August 07, 2008 7:43 am

Firefighters focus on structure protection, burn-out operations

Written by Tribune Staff

‘We want to deal with fire on our terms'
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Teams of Gunbarrel firefighters were in protection mode Wednesday. This Idaho-based Hot Shot crew prepares a perimeter water line around a Mormon Creek cabin. Tribune photo by Toby Bonner
Crews fighting the Gunbarrel Fire on the North Fork were on the offensive Wednesday, protecting structures and planning for burn-out operations around lodges and along U.S. 14-16-20.
Burn-out operations were scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday, weather permitting.
The fire had grown to 32,590 acres by Wednesday morning, but according to fire officials, it was moving slower than in previous days.
Ben Brack, public information officer trainee for Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team A, said, “Yes, it's growing, but it's progressing west at a slower pace.”
Elephant Head Lodge, Crossed Sabres Ranch and Goff Creek Lodge, as well as a cabin east of Eagle Creek Campground, all on the west edge of the fire, were evacuated late Tuesday. The campground at Eagle Creek is under a “precautionary evacuation alert,” according to an update sent by the fire management office.
“The fire hasn't overtaken the area, but, because of movement, we decided to evacuate. The evacuations will allow fire managers to conduct burn-outs around the structures,” said Brack.
He added that, in addition to structure protection, the primary goal is to keep the fire on the north side of the highway, adding that it would be a “real mess” if it crossed to the south side.
What the burn-outs accomplish, he said, is to allow the firefighters to “deal with the fire on our terms, rather than letting the fire over-run the area. It's the safest thing for firefighters and the public.
“What we're doing is tie in to the rest of the fire. That way, if there's a shift in winds, it doesn't move so quickly,” he said.
According to the written update, “On the east side of the fire area, units will continue to prepare the Standing Star Ranch to withstand the fire front's advance.”
Brack added that, for the first time since the second management crew arrived, they didn't have a red-flag warning on Wednesday. A red flag warning means weather is conducive to extreme fire activity.
“Today, a cold front is moving in, bringing more moisture and humidity. There's the possibility of some thunderstorms, which is a mixed bag. They may bring some moisture and rain, but they also come with lightning and erratic winds. We expect that pattern to continue for a couple days ... we'll see how it goes,” he said.
He confirmed that the fire is “pretty well established in Libby Creek, and it is headed toward Mormon Creek.”
High winds caused rapid growth of the fire to the north and east Sunday night — officials say the fire moved 4.5 miles in three hours. Firefighters confirmed Monday night that the Sweetwater Lodge and its surrounding buildings burned late Sunday.
Management team members didn't realize the lodge had burned until they were able to fly over the area on Monday.
The vacant lodge was owned by the Forest Service and hadn't been in operation for several years.