Walking the fire

Posted 6/6/01

“The greater risk would be us going in with (chain) saws and putting it out,” said Ron Steffens, a fire monitor with Teton Interagency Fire.

The interagency could suppress portions of the fire and allow other sections to burn, …

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Walking the fire


{gallery}07_02_09/snakefire{/gallery} With the Teton Mountains peeking through smoky trees, Teton Interagency Fire Monitor Ron Steffens surveys a small fire near the Snake River last week. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers Monitoring blazes as season startsThe Snake Fire in Grand Teton National Park simmers, but natural barriers more than likely will contain the little blaze, if moisture from a June 25 rainstorm doesn't douse it altogether, a firefighter said.The quarter-acre, lightning-ignited fire is one mile north of Teton Point, off U.S. 191-89-26. There is no immediate threat to any facilities, so Teton Interagency Fire is allowing the smoldering cottonwood and conifer trees to burn.

“The greater risk would be us going in with (chain) saws and putting it out,” said Ron Steffens, a fire monitor with Teton Interagency Fire.

The interagency could suppress portions of the fire and allow other sections to burn, Steffens said.

For Steffens and a reporter, it was a sweaty, huffing march three days after the fire was reported, with hard hats, Nomax clothing, backpacks with fire gear and fire shelters designed to protect users if they are overtaken by flames.

But this was not Steffens first trip. He has been closely monitoring the fire since it began.

Steffens takes the slopes — a series of benches — that descend to the river in stride.

The fire becomes visible; tall tell smoke meandering skyward like an abandoned campfire.

Steffens radios Teton Fire Dispatch, to notify them he is going in.

The area is susceptible to fire, but because this fire is surrounded by the Snake River and a river channel, natural containment is in place.

The interagency ran 250 computer simulations to determine the worst- and best-case scenarios. The conclusion was six acres of fuel in the form of downed trees could burn.

A good, hard rain could douse the fire, but without rain, it probably will smolder until it consumes itself, Steffens said.

“Live woodies,” green standing trees, likely will not burn, Steffens said. Nor will live grass and other plants burn in their present state, with 250 percent moisture content. However, when the grass cures, it will burn at 100 percent moisture content.

Dry logs lying on the ground, especially the decomposing stuff that crumbles in your fingers, will burn, he said.

Steffens scrambles across a dead log that spans the channel. The log is sun-baked grey, with brown spots where the inner tree is exposed. The very tree that was clobbered by lightning and ignited the blaze is Steffens' bridge to his work — the fire.

Downed trees lay this way and that, like tubular dominoes scattered by a gigantic child's unruly hand. The stuff is everywhere.

Steffens said he calculated the downed trees at 50-plus tons of fuel per acre. Once you reach or exceed 50 tons per acre, you usually stop calculating, Steffens said.

That's a lot. It's tricky negotiating the island of spruce and cottonwood because so many of their prostrate brethren bar passage.

Blue smoke rises in the gentle wind. The few flames — barely flames at all — follow the erratic lay of the logs.

“Its (fire) carried by the dead and down,” Steffens said.

As long as there is remaining fuel, the fire will smolder, Steffens said.

Even with the fuming logs, it is peaceful. It is almost like kicking back around the campfire after a hard day's hike.

Occasionally, sap within the logs snaps with the sound of popping bubble wrap, and a scant few yards away, the Snake River surges like a flock of feathers brushing glass.

It feels like a walk on the moon — easing through powdered marshmallows. The white ash, stirred by the breeze and footsteps swirls like tiny snowflakes.

The hotter the fire, the whiter the ash, Steffens said.

A tall pine stands like a wounded survivor, burned bark and needles singed a rusty red. Yet branches of green needles clutch the top as though the fire decided to quit its toilsome climb.

Like Paul Bunyan's campfire, the burned logs lay like charcoal. A stick pokes from the ashes like a spent stogie.

As the crow flies, the highway is about one-half mile, with at least a couple benches rising between the fire and the road. The steppes and green sagebrush will act as a buffer because sage is not an effective conductor of fire.

So the fire will not likely surmount the natural barrier, Steffens said.