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November 04, 2008 3:00 am

In the aftermath, a look back at Gunbarrel Fire

Written by Tribune Staff

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Russ Wenke, administrator for Park County Fire District No. 2, left, and Clint Dawson, zone fire manager for Shoshone National Forest, returned to the scene of the Gunbarrel Fire. Thursday, Dawson predicted the fire would be extinguished or nearly extinguished with the weekend's anticipated precipitation. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers

Almost out

Conducting a field trip into the heart of the now mostly-extinguished Gunbarrel Fire last week, Clint Dawson, zone fire manager for Shoshone National Forest, defended the loss of Sweetwater Lodge and called the fire, as a whole, a success.

No private property was lost, nor were there any major injuries attributed to the $11.2-million, 68,149-acre fire.

Although the loss of Sweetwater Lodge raised a few hackles, Dawson said it was owned by the service, not privately.

Contrary to what some may believe, Dawson said they did not allow the lodge to burn.

Dawson said firefighters had their hands full on Aug. 3 when the lodge went up in smoke. Fire was threatening private structures, such as those near Aspen Creek and Absaroka Mountain Lodge, and personnel were busy protecting them.

There were plans to place sprinklers around Sweetwater Lodge Aug. 3, but Dawson said they simply did not have time.

Bridges on the road to Sweetwater are washed out, and the only access to the lodge, a few miles north of U.S. 14-16-20, was by foot or ferrying personnel on helicopters, Dawson said.

It would have been an enormous risk to firefighters, said Susie Douglas, spokeswoman for the Shoshone Forest.

“I'm glad now we didn't have people back there when the fire did what it did,” Dawson said.

The fire came within a quarter mile of the national forest boundary when it pushed its eastern envelope in the Jim Mountain area Aug. 21. The wind was 40 mph. At that time, suppression efforts kicked in to protect property in the area.

Those winds were typical, though, Dawson said.

On Aug. 20, 1988, Black Sunday, 165,000 acres of forest in Yellowstone National Park burned in one day. In August 1937, 15 firefighters were killed in the Blackwater Creek area of the North Fork.

On both occasions, high winds instigated by a cold front stoked the flames, Dawson said.

Today, driving up the North Fork and seeing hills with snags resembling cremated french fries sticking out of grey-white ground that looks like pulverized charcoal, it is easy to imagine the fire was a complete rout.

Parking beside cabins on Aspen Creek, the observer gets a different take. Aspen trees, despite toasted undergrowth, still stand tall with golden leaves rattling in the breeze. Pine trees that were removed prior to the fire — some when the fire was practically knocking on cabin doors— saved those cabins.

Charles Cromwell of High Point, N.C., visits his cabin on Aspen Creek five or six times a year. Beyond a few blackened-trunk evergreens with burnt-orange needles and charred brush, his cabin sits down-slope in safe solitude.

The fire was crowning here, hopping from treetop to treetop, then it dropped to the ground to find limited fuel, prolonging its progress.
“If all that hadn't been done, (two cabins and some outbuildings) wouldn't have been here,” Cromwell said.

The only loss there was a dirt-floored dog house, lined with straw.

Russ Wenke, administrator for Park County Fire District No. 2, figures an ember set the canine residence ablaze.

Fuel reductions — thinning trees and brush — occurred two years ago. Brush beneath aspens was removed and Douglas fir trees were thinned to inhibit crowning. There was a prescribed burn below the cabins this spring to remove juniper prior to the fire, Wenke said.

“The worst thing, in my mind, was the cost,” said Dawson, standing near a cabin while Moss Creek gurgled a few feet away.
It was an $11.2 million fire. But a fire of Gunbarrel's dimensions could easily cost $20 million, he said.

The fire burned within 50 feet of an outhouse here, just uphill from a picturesque cabin, but a couple of engines and a hot shot crew kept the flames at bay.

Helicopters that cost $50,000 and more per day were kept grounded unless fire bosses were confident they would be instrumental in protecting structures, Dawson said.

Dawson anticipated rain and snow would dampen the flames over the weekend and expects the fire to be out completely this month.
It grew last Saturday by 10 to 15 acres in the Trout Creek/Robber's Roost area, but there has been no growth on the west end, Dawson said.

Silt in streams and creeks is a possibility in the aftermath of the fire, but a lot of that depends on the speed of spring runoff or the severity of sudden summer storms. A hydrologist is being consulted, he said.

Re-seeding is not likely. Dawson said after the fires of 1988, areas in Crandall areas got grass seed to the tune of $1 million, but the native grass returned as quickly as the stuff that was planted.

Dawson said community support was “unbelievable.” He said folks expressed their support and praise for firefighter efforts.
Wenke said folks appreciated straight, consistent answers delivered by fire management personnel at public meetings.

The fire also demonstrated a good working relationship with Homeland Security, Park County Sheriff's office and other state and federal agencies, Dawson said.

On nature's plus side, white bark pine will regenerate, birds will discover new habitat and new forage will crop up for deer, elk, buffalo and other grazing animals.

Fire is a part of nature and Mother Nature may not be done with the North Fork.

Wenke said there remains the potential for a fire next year.