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August 14, 2008 1:45 pm

Using fire for good

Written by Tribune Staff

Gunbarrel Fire, now at 41,000 acres, is a history-making tool
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Wapiti District Ranger Terry Root (right) told lodge and cabin owners and residents of the North Fork at a Wednesday morning briefing on the Gunbarrel Fire that the forest service “didn't want another Blackwater Fire Memorial,” a reference to firefighters killed in battling fire on Blackwater Creek on the North Fork in 1937. Citing difficult terrain, the decision was made to preserve public safety and protect structures on the North Fork corridor while allowing the Gunbarrel Fire to burn in beetle-infested timber of the rugged back country. In the foreground is Dave Van Norman, operations section chief of the incident command staff. Tribune photo by Dave Bonner
You're going to see smoke for a long time from the Gunbarrel Fire on the Shoshone National Forest west of Cody.
It is growing in size, and if all goes according to plan, it will get even bigger in the rugged back country on the north side of the North Fork corridor.
This is a beneficial fire, as far as forest fires go.
So said forest managers as the Gunbarrel Fire grew beyond 41,000 acres Wednesday. In a briefing at the old Wapiti Ranger District headquarters on the North Fork, forest managers and incident command officers touted the history-making significance of this fire as a tool to clean out a beetle-killed forest.
In fire control terms, the Gunbarrel is classified as a “fire-use fire,” one that is managed to perform a benefit to the health of the forest. Incident Commander Don Angell of Denver said the Gunbarrel Fire is now the largest “fire-use fire” in the history of forest firefighting in the Rocky Mountain Region.
That doesn't mean the fire goes unchecked. The priority remains to protect structures and public safety, including the safety of firefighters.
Necessary actions are taken to protect lodges, cabins and other structures and to keep traffic moving safely on the North Fork highway, U.S. 14-16-20.
Beyond that, the fire is being harnessed to do some good. Angell said that has been the strategy from the outset.
“Your forest is receiving a lot of resource benefit from this fire,” he said. “This forest needs some rehabilitation. It is a very, very beetle-killed forest. It needs to burn to go through its natural course.”
The incident commander said crews are watching both ends of the fire, at the east and the west, “to make sure we can corral and direct the fire where it can do some good.”
The center of the fire area, where it was ignited by lightning high on the ridge between Gunbarrel and Goff Creeks 19 days ago, is secure, Angell said.
“You're gonna have smoke,” he said. “But our goal is to watch it and monitor it and manage this fire safely, and you will be better off. The community will be better off.”
The Gunbarrel Fire, for the most part, has burned in an easterly direction since it started. An initial run took it west near the Mormon Creek drainage, and there still are hot spots on Libby Creek above Crossed Sabres Ranch. The west end is relatively quiet now.
Meanwhile, the fire has burned into the Big Creek drainage on the east and is putting out massive columns of smoke from Big Creek, above any private land holdings.
Dave Van Norman, operations section chief on the fire command, said if there is an opportunity to put a line around the east end of the fire in grassy, open areas, that would be a tactic to attempt to put the fire to bed on one end.
Rick Connell, assistant fire management officer on the Shoshone Forest, said it's going to take a lot of precipitation to put the fire out. He is looking for a weather event at the end of August or early September — not a fire-ending event, but one that typically “knocks the teeth out of it.”
The fire may not be put out completely until snow is knee deep in the mountains, fire managers said.
Firefighting resources — manpower and equipment — will rise and fall at the Wapiti Ranger station incident command as the situation dictates, Angell said.
“Fortunately, there are a lot of resources available in the Rocky Mountain West right now,” he said.
Angell gave credit to Wapiti District forest management for proactive work that has been done in recent years to protect the North Fork corridor.
Beetle-killed trees have been cleared in many areas, and prescribed burns have helped to create fire defense.
That proactive work has saved money on the Gunbarrel Fire, Angell said.
“To date, we've spent about $4.4 million on this fire of 41,000 acres. On the Cascade Fire of 5,000 acres (near Red Lodge, Mont.) they spent $9 million,” he said.