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August 25, 2011 9:09 am

Clark area wildfire grows to 4,500 acres

Written by Gib Mathers

Flames and embers glow as the 2,000 acre Hole in the Wall Fire burns northwest of Clark in this long exposure photograph taken early Wednesday morning. Firefighters are assuring Clark residents they are doing everything they can to protect their homes and property. Lightning sparked the blaze Sunday. Flames and embers glow as the 2,000 acre Hole in the Wall Fire burns northwest of Clark in this long exposure photograph taken early Wednesday morning. Firefighters are assuring Clark residents they are doing everything they can to protect their homes and property. Lightning sparked the blaze Sunday. Tribune photo by Kevin Kinzley

Updated 11:45 a.m., Thursday, Friday update here: The air outside smelled of smoke Tuesday night, while inside the Clark Pioneer Community Center, local firefighters assured Clark residents they were doing their best to protect them and their property.

The Hole in the Wall Fire, which reached 4,491 acres on Wednesday, is burning north of Bennett and Line creek drainages in the Shoshone National Forest, about eight miles northwest of Clark.

There are risks, but Clint Dawson, zone fire manager for Shoshone National Forest, said he believes Clark property is defendable.

“We feel confident that our plan of action will be highly successful in protecting their community here,” Dawson said.

The lightning-triggered fire, hastened by strong west winds, took off immediately following ignition Sunday evening.

The Hole in the Wall Fire grew to 250 acres the first night. Tuesday morning, it was estimated at nearly 2,000 acres, Dawson said. By late Wednesday night, that figure had been pegged at 3,600 acres and on Thursday morning, it was estimated at 4,491 acres (click on image at right for a larger map of the fire).

More public meetings will be held this (Thursday) evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Clark Pioneer Recreation Center and at Red Lodge's Civic Center at 5:30 p.m. Agency administrators, fire management officers and public information officers will be providing fire updates and will be available to answer questions.

Public and firefighter safety are the No. 1 priorities, said Terry Root, Shoshone Forest district ranger at Tuesday's meeting in Clark.

Initial incident commander Russ Wenke, who is the fire marshal and administrator for Park County Fire District No. 2, said he is following objectives to ensure firefighter and public safety, protect structures and property and take appropriate actions to prevent the fire’s spread south of Bennett and Line creeks and from crossing east of Road 140.

If the fire crosses Line Creek, the concern is it will continue to spread north, Wenke said.

Fire managers tried to stop the fire from crossing the creek and lessen its intensity with a Wednesday burnout, but strong winds from a thunderstorm pushed the fire west and across the creek, said a Forest Service news release late Wednesday night. The fire crossed into Montana and on Thursday was burning in north Line Creek, in steep and rugged terrain, the Forest Service said. A fire weather watch is in effect from this (Thursday) afternoon through the evening.

As a precautionary measure, local fire departments are patrolling rural residential areas near the fire, the Forest Service said, while the Carbon County, Mont., Sheriff has issued an evacuation notice for the Robertson Draw, Ruby Creek and Gold Creek areas.

Trail closures include the Line Creek Plateau, Corral Creak Trail 9, Maurice Creek Trail 6, North Grove Trail, Face of the Mountain 7, and Robertson Draw 5 have been closed to public access. Forest Road 123, Line Creek Road, and South Grove Road are closed for public safety. All other roads remain open at this time.

The fire is above Clark, but thick smoke, like a scratchy blanket, covered the sprawling valley dotted with homes, making locals anxious.

“It’s right out your back door,” Root said Tuesday night, “and you can see it.”

One woman living on Line Creek was concerned the fire would overtake her home while she slept.

The Park County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for evacuating people, but firefighters will knock on doors and say, “‘It’s time to go,’” Dawson said.

Firefighters are watching the fire 24-7. “At 5 o’clock we don’t go home,” Dawson said. “We have got people there all night to watch the fire.”

Firefighters working 15 hours per day on the line often sleep near the fire in spike camps, Wenke said.

“You guys’ homes are our highest priority if it (the fire) comes off the forest,” Dawson said.

Dawson said fire updates will be posted at Edelweiss and at the Clark Fire Department.

“We really appreciate your presence here,” said Bonnie Craig, who lives with her husband, James, in Clark. Craig’s comment produced a round of applause.

Conditions are very dry, and the fire is fueled by down timber and standing beetle-killed trees.

“We are attempting to hold it at Line Creek right now,” Root said.

Wednesday's burnout to try to keep the fire there was conducted using aerial ignition, said Olga Troxel, fire information officer. Aerial ignition entails dropping ping-pong like balls containing ethylene glycol that ignites on impact with the ground, Troxel said in a release.

“These spheres will be dropped along the upper slopes in strips, and the fire will be allowed to slowly move downhill into Line Creek. Two additional large helicopters will be used to cool the fire as it burns close to fire lines,” Troxel said. “This operation reduces unnecessary exposure to the firefighters on the line.”

On Thursday, approximately 222 personnel were staffing the fire, including nine engines, three 20-person hotshot crews, eight helicopters and one Air Attack. Additional resources were en route, the Forest Service said

The fire was classified as a Type III fire on Tuesday. Type III is the least complex designation and utilizes local personnel. Type I is the most complex with more personnel and management.

Command was transferred to a Type II Incident Command Team under Joe Lowe on Wednesday night.

In Wednesday night's release, residents to the east and south of the fire were told to expect heavy smoke.

The fire could linger if it doesn’t snow. “If we don’t have precip, we could be looking at the middle of November before we see our last smoke,” Dawson said.

Updates on Hole in the Wall Fire can be found at http://www.inciweb.org/incident/2510/.

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