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Firefighters near full containment of Clark area fire

Fire managers believe they could be approaching the end of the Hole in the Wall Fire northwest of Clark, with personnel being scaled back from a peak of more than 450 crew members this weekend.

“We have ... turned the corner on the fire,” said fire information officer Greg Heule on Monday. “By no means, however, are we turning our back on the fire.”

Rain, higher humidity and firefighting operations in recent days have moderated the fire’s growth. The 6,200 acre fire, inside the Shoshone and Custer National Forests, was pegged at 75 percent contained Monday morning and has grown only about 15 acres since Friday.

A lightning strike started the Hole in the Wall Fire on the evening of Aug. 21, about eight miles northwest of Clark.

Firefighters working to suppress the fire’s northeast edge are prepared to conduct a burnout in the Robinson Creek area in southern Montana to stop the flames, but managers are hoping it’s not needed.

“We’d much rather to just be able to contain it where it is right now,” said Heule, who’s with the Type II Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team handling fire operations.

Strong winds are forecast in coming days, and “that’s one of the real reasons why we want to get the northeast section put to bed as soon as possible,” Heule said.

Crews on Monday were using a water enhancer called Thermo-Gel to help suppress the fire’s hotspots in the northeast. The water and gel are being deployed by air because the terrain is, as one manager put it last week, “nasty, nasty country” that is too difficult and dangerous for ground crews.

A peak of 453 personnel worked the fire on Saturday — putting more people on the fire than those living in the roughly 300-person Clark community. A total of 294 personnel were staffing the fire on Monday, including four Hot Shot crews, eight helicopters, 12 fire engines, a bulldozer and a water tender.

Operations have been based at the Clark Fire Hall and Pioneer Recreation Center.

The Hole in the Wall Fire’s growth generally slowed — or has been slowed — in all directions but northeast since Thursday night, along with some spreading to the southwest.

“The problem is, how do you shut it off on the face (of the Beartooth Mountains), because it’s just continuing to march around,” said Rob Powell, operations manager for the incident command team at a Thursday night public meeting in Clark.

Fire managers attempted, unsuccessfully, to stop the fire from spreading and crossing Line Creek with a burnout on Wednesday.

“It was a very, very good plan,” said Jay Esperance, deputy incident commander, at Thursday’s meeting. The plan initially appeared to be working.

“(Initial Incident Commander Russ Wenke) called me about 5 o’clock and he said, ‘I think we pulled it off’,” recalled Shoshone National Forest fire manager Clint Dawson, but “I bet you about 20 minutes later I heard traffic on the radio and things had gone bad on the fire.”

An unexpected thunderstorm had brought winds well over 50 miles per hour, said Shoshone District Ranger Terry Root, and it pushed the fire across the fire line.

“The best information we had was that the thunder clouds that came in were supposed to come in further south,” Esperance said, but instead the strong winds “pushed the fire out and kind of off to the races.”

The situation grew even more challenging a couple hours later when the fire’s smoke column rose so high — about 35,000 feet — that the top of the column froze, grew heavy and collapsed into the Clark community, bringing down a cloud of smoke.

“It was quick,” said Brian Dierking, a part-time Clark resident. “A matter of minutes, it covered the valley.”

“It was, I mean, dark,” said resident Carl Cook, saying he struggled to spot his outbuilding from his home when the smoke came around 7:15 p.m.

Esperance’s team took control of the fire about an hour later.

“We were all just trying to put our heads together and saying, ‘what in the world are we going to do with this?’” he recalled at the meeting.

In addition to low-hanging smoke that grounds aircraft and forces the pull-back of ground crews, a column collapse also produces wind in all directions, “and the fire can go anywhere at that point in time,” said Heule. Fortunately, when the smoke cleared, managers found the fire had not spread dangerously. The fire line built to prevent the fire from burning east towards Clark held, even with the stiff winds.

Further, the fire did not jump north into the Rock and Corral Creek areas, having only one spot jump. Growth there could have sent the fire down those drainages, about seven miles southwest of Red Lodge.

“Somebody was watching out for us there,” said operations manager Powell of the Hole in the Wall Fire’s halt at the ridge line.

Higher humidity on Thursday helped firefighters moderate the fire’s growth, with Powell telling Clark residents that night that things were looking good.

“I want to assure you folks that whatever you’re hearing about this fire, or whatever you’re hearing our priority for this fire is, we have a strong focus for this community,” Esperance said, promising that managers “have our eyes on the ball, and that ball is you folks and your safety.”

Agencies involved include the Clark, Cody and Red Lodge fire districts, the Custer and Shoshone National Forests, the Park and Carbon County Sheriff’s offices and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

In addition, two brush trucks from the Powell fire district were called for backup Wednesday night.

Esperance credited the job done by the local fire departments, highlighting the Clark crew under Chief Nathan Hoffert.

“You should all be very proud,” Esperance told the crowd of about 50 Clark residents at Thursday’s meeting.

On Monday, Heule said fire conditions will determine when operations continue to ramp down.

“We don’t know for sure until we get a little bit of report of how things go today,” he said.

Updated information on the fire is available at www.inciweb.org/incident/2510.

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