WEST FORK – On the outside of the old cookhouse at the West Fork Ranger Station, a group wearing hard hats is gathered around the southernmost window.
Two from that group are carefully tacking what looks like a large piece of heavy tinfoil over the window’s frame.
Bitterroot National Forest historian Mary Williams is keeping them under her eagle eye.
“Make sure those tacks don’t go into the window frame,” Williams said. “Once those holes are there, they’ll stay there forever.”
Preserving history is never an easy task.
It becomes even harder when there’s a wildfire bearing down on one of the hundreds of historic cabins, lookouts and other structures scattered over the West’s public lands.
When the fire gets too close, sometimes the building’s last defense is a solid coat of the fire-resistant reflective material that’s similar to the material firefighters rely upon for their fire shelters.
It takes time to properly wrap a building, as well as thousands of staples and lots of rolls of fire-resistant tape.
“There are a lot of things that we’ve learned about doing that since 2000,” Williams said. “We are trying to do better in sharing that information that we’ve learned with others.”
They’ve learned about the high winds that often accompany a firestorm that can find an uncovered flap of material and tear it to pieces. They have seen how embers from a fire can work their way into the smallest hole in the fire-resistant material used to wrap a building.
And they know the importance of experience and having the necessary tools at hand to make the job go quickly.
In that regard, the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region is considering the potential of putting together a structure-wrapping team whose members would be versed in protecting themselves from serious falls off building roofs, as well as the best methods for preserving a building from fire.
Last week, potential members of that new team met to begin training for that mission.
“Line resources on a fire often have their hands full with day-to-day operations,” said Darby Ranger District Fire Management Officer Keith Hackbarth. “There are times they could use some assistance when a fire threatens a structure.”
Hackbarth and others have put together a module that contains all the material, screws and tapes necessary to get in quickly and wrap a structure. Once the team is put together, it would become a rapid response unit that could hook onto the trailer filled with everything needed to wrap a structure and quickly travel wherever they are needed in the region.
Last year, firefighters wrapped four different structures on the Bitterroot National Forest when wildfires threatened. All of them survived.
But that’s not always been the case.
In 2000, the Bitterroot Forest lost a lookout tower in a firestorm.
“A building’s ability to survive a fire depends on a lot of different things,” said Rene Eustace, a detection specialist with the West Fork District. “The terrain can play an important role. The amount of nearby vegetation will make a difference too.”
The tower that was lost in 2000 followed a firestorm that blew through timber that was a bit of a distance away.
“I think there was just so much heat coming off that fire and the embers had just been raining down on that tower,” Eustace said. “The buildings we wrap that are in a relatively open place have a good chance to survive. Those that are in an enclosed area where there will be lots of heat over a long period of time probably aren’t going to last.”
Last week, Hackbarth and Eustace shared their experiences with others interested in learning more about the art of wrapping a building.
“A lot of these people have already done this before,” Hackbarth said. “There is no right or wrong way to do it. It is good for us to share our experiences so we can all learn from those.”
The basics are simple enough.
No holes or spaces for embers to fall inside. Always use lots of staples and high-temperature tape to keep the wrap tight.
“The key is getting it as tight as you can,” Eustace said. “Your other enemy is wind. Last summer, we had wind events that went on for eight, 10, 12 hours that brought winds up to 50 mph. That kind of wind will work on any weak point that it can find.”
It can take six or seven hours to wrap a cabin. The average building takes about three $400 rolls of fire-resistant material and up to 15,000 staples to secure it.
“And then we go back and pull 15,000 staples back out of it when the fire is done,” Hackbarth said.
With the new trailer in place, additional training and potentially a new dedicated team, the hopes are that the agency will be ready for what looks to be a busy wildfire season this year.
“I do think we are way more organized and ready to roll,” Eustace said.