Rock Creek fire remains away from residences

2013-08-21T18:00:00Z 2013-08-22T10:37:05Z Rock Creek fire remains away from residencesStory By BRETT FRENCH Photos By BOB ZELLAR The Billings Gazette

7:30 A.M.: Fire officials in Red Lodge officially handed over command of the 600-acre Rock Creek fire burning south of town to a Northern Rockies Type II team at 6 a.m. Thursday.

Jeff Gildehaus, fire information officer, said that despite the new command, the plan for Thursday remains much the same as Wednesday.

"Continue to try to get direct line in on this fire and get a ring around it," he said.

Thanks in part to Wednesday's weather — temperatures didn't get too hot, cloud cover provided a bump in humidity and expected winds from possible thunderstorms never really hit the area — as well as efforts from the 68 personnel on scene and a trio of heavy tankers flying out of Billings and dropping retardant, the fire didn't grow much overnight.

It grew primarily in the interior as well as a little creeping up towards the ridge," Gildehaus said.

As of 7:30 a.m., it was officially listed as uncontained, although Gildehaus expected that number to change later in the day after a better assessment.

RED LODGE — Dark smoke boiled out of the trees and then flames three stories high shot into the sky as the Rock Creek fire devoured dense stands of timber west of Highway 212 on Wednesday.

Luckily, winds out of the northeast kept the 600-plus-acre fire burning on the steep flanks of the Custer National Forest and away from the many residences on the east side of the highway and lining the narrow canyon’s bottom.

No homes have been burned and fire evacuations are voluntary for now. Highway 212 over the famed and scenic Beartooth Pass remains closed from Red Lodge to the Long Lake, Wyo., area near the bottom of the pass on the west side. Travelers to Yellowstone National Park are being redirected to the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway.

Four hiking trails in the Red Lodge area have been closed: Beartrack, Silver Run Plateau, Silver Run Loops and Ingles Creek.

On Tuesday, fire officials had evacuated the 86-room Rock Creek Resort as the fire took off, but guests and staff were allowed to return Wednesday morning to retrieve their belongings and clean rooms. The resort is set to reopen Thursday.

West ablaze

With firefighting resources stretched thin by the more than 50 fires burning across the West, local fire officials were glad the fire was behaving. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 32,000 fires have burned more than 3.45 million acres in the United States so far this fire season. Montana currently has seven large fires; Wyoming has two.

About 68 personnel from the Custer National Forest, Red Lodge Rural District 7, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and nearby rural fire departments were fighting the fire Wednesday, according to Jeff Gildehaus, a fire information officer based in Red Lodge. 

The Northern Rockies Type 2 Incident Management Team, headed by incident commander Shawn Pearson, is scheduled to take over the fire on Thursday but was expected to add few additional resources to battling the blaze.

A fire briefing open to the public is scheduled for 6 a.m. Thursday at the Red Lodge fairgrounds at 6 a.m. Future fire briefings will be held at 5 p.m.

Cloud cover helped reduce fire activity. The north flank of the fire is secured as well as a portion of the fire along Highway 212. Two bulldozers have built containment line on north flank of the fire.

Because of the many residences lining the narrow canyon that provides access between Red Lodge and Yellowstone National Park, the fire was a top priority for the three air tankers sent from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The planes were refueling in Billings to make retardant drops.

“Resources are thin,” Gildehaus said. “We’ve been really lucky to get these air tankers in here.”

Fire containment

The tankers were dropping retardant along the ridges above the fire to try to keep it from going over the top of Wapiti and Town Point mountains into the West Fork Rock Creek drainage to the west, or to the north toward Red Lodge. Dozers had also cut fire lines near the fire’s ignition point and closer to Red Lodge.

“The concern is that if it gets going in any direction … it’s a whole new program,” Gildehaus said. “The goal is to keep it pinched off at the ridge with the heavy air tankers painting the ridge up on top.”

The dozer line closest to Red Lodge was actually reopened – a remnant from the 2000 Willie fire that burned farther south in Rock Creek Canyon. That old fire scar now provided some fuel break for the Rock Creek fire on the south end, but Gildehaus noted that the old fire scar also was a grassy area where flames could quickly race through if the fine fuels were ignited.

“It might slow things down in terms of a crown fire, but with the fine fuels it could really go through faster,” he said.

Thursday’s forecast was calling for a 30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms after noon. Winds are forecast to be fairly calm out of the south and southwest at 6 to 11 mph, changing to the southeast in the afternoon.

Close to ignition

Lisa Cords discovered the fire burning on Tuesday just across the highway from her parents’ vacation home along Rock Creek and called 911. The flames quickly raced up the hillside through grass and scattered timber.

The fire is suspected to have been human caused. Fire investigators were examining the ignition point on Wednesday.

“It wasn’t threatening because it was going” uphill and away from the highway, said Bill Cords, Lisa’s father.

Nevertheless, the Brookfield, Wis., family loaded all their gear in case they needed to evacuate, but ended up unloading it and spending the night instead. They had no plans to leave anytime soon.

“It was a good way to rearrange the home,” Bill joked.

Lisa said she was heartened by the many text messages and Facebook offers of help. Even the Red Lodge football coach called to offer manpower and a trailer to haul out household goods.

“I hope I never live through that again,” Lisa said. “You just can’t describe how scary it was. Yesterday was surreal. It was like being on another planet.”

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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