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June 23, 2009 4:18 am

Flames force evacuations

Written by Tribune Staff

Firefighters contain Gunbarrel fire to north side of U.S. 14-16-20

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This Sikorsky S-64 Air-Crane helicopter made multiple trips to the Shoshone River Saturday, refilling with water to help in the fire fighting efffort. While crews are not actively trying to suppress the Gunbarrel Fire, they are attempting to keep it on the north side of U.S. 14-16-20. Tribune photo by Toby Bonner

Raging flames in the Gunbarrel fire forced evacuations of two North Fork lodges over the weekend and put others on alert.

But, thanks to the efforts of hard-working firefighters, the fire claimed only an empty dog house.

As of Monday, firefighters had held the fire to the north side of U.S. 14-16-20. That was despite unfavorable weather conditions, including high temperatures, low humidity and high, erratic winds, according to an update from the Laura McConnell, public information officer Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team A.

By Monday, the fire had grown to 21,995 acres — up from 1,000 acres just a week before. Containments costs were estimated at $1 million.

The fire is burning 40 miles west of Cody near Gunbarrel and Goff creeks. It is burning in areas with heavy dead and downed timber with 50-80 percent beetle-killed spruce and fir trees.

The fire was zero percent contained. To date, firefighters' efforts focus on protecting threatened structures and resources.

The Park County Sheriff's office and the Gunbarrel Fire incident commander asked guests and employees at Elephant Head and Absaroka lodges to evacuate the lodges at about 3:30 p.m. on Friday. The evacuation was complete by 6:15 p.m.

Employees of Elephant Head Lodge waited at the Wapiti School that evening with luggage belonging to guests, who had to find lodging elsewhere for the night.

An Elephant Head Lodge employee from Fort Washakie said employees were told the evacuation was necessary because firefighters were planning to start a back-burn in the area to prevent the fire from jumping U.S. 14-16-20.

Ironically, he said he came to work at the lodge on Tuesday because he liked the idea of saving on gasoline by living and working at the same place. That plan backfired when he had to seek temporary shelter somewhere else on Friday.

Employees and guests were allowed to return to Elephant Head Lodge on Sunday, with the understanding they could be asked to leave again.

Absaroka Lodge reopened only to employees.

Due to burning logs, weakened standing trees and other hazards, the road up Moss Creek remained closed to everyone but firefighters. Today (Tuesday) was the soonest cabin owners might be allowed to return, though it could be later.

On Sunday, pilot cars were used at times to lead travelers through the burning area near the U.S. 14-16-20. About 10 miles of the highway's edge had burned.

In the wilderness, the fire had spread east as far as the upper Sweetwater drainage in bug-killed timber that needed to burn, according to an update.

An advisory on Sunday encouraged residents, campers and others along the North Fork Highway to be prepared in case any new evacuations become necessary within the next few days.

More “red-flag” weather and an incoming wind event were expected to further challenge containment efforts on Monday.

Ben Brack, public information officer trainee for the incident management team, said erratic winds pose a large challenge for firefighters.

“The wind can almost be in our favor when it's predictable,” he said. “But that has not been the case in canyons. It gets quite erratic.”

That is because of the geography in the area, combined with varying weather conditions, Brack said.

As always, “Our No. 1 concern is firefighter safety,” he said. When faced with erratic winds, “We have to remain in area clear from a lot of the fuels and the circulating wind.”

Brack said a frontal pattern forecast for Monday would shift winds from the south-southwest to the north-northwest and challenge firefighters' containment line.

“Our management objectives are to keep the fire north of the highway and provide structure protection for cabins along the highway.

“What we're going to see, if we do get those winds, is they will push the fire possibly toward that control line.

“We will focus our efforts on patrolling the highway, with a very vigilant watch on south side of highway to make sure no fire gets across there.”