Fire Storm At Cave Gulch

Robert M. Winston provides a first-person account of a dangerous wildfire: "The heat and smoke were almost unbearable, but we stayed put as we watched everything that was combustible around us ignite."


It was Sunday, July 23, 2000, when the Cave Gulch Fire in the Helena National Forest in Montana was first reported. This fire was part of the Canyon-Ferry (Lake) Fire Complex 14 miles east of the city of Helena. Scattered structures and the small town of York were threatened as this potentially...


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It was Sunday, July 23, 2000, when the Cave Gulch Fire in the Helena National Forest in Montana was first reported. This fire was part of the Canyon-Ferry (Lake) Fire Complex 14 miles east of the city of Helena. Scattered structures and the small town of York were threatened as this potentially destructive fire was growing rapidly. The wildland fire season's incidents in the western states were at an all-time high. The Cave Gulch Fire was soon to become a history-making event in the Helena area.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
The Cave Gulch Fire as seen from Montana Route 284. Extreme fire behavior created this type of "plume-dominated" fire activity on a daily basis.


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Photo by Robert M. Winston
Torching out and crowning fire was a direct result of high winds, high temperatures, low relative humidity and record low fuel moistures in standing vegetation.

It was about 9:30 in the evening on Tuesday, July 25, and I was at home watching the national news coverage of wildfires in the western states when the telephone rang. It was a district fire warden from the Massachusetts State Wildfire Crew and contact person for the Eastern Area Coordination Center (EACC). He was notifying me of a fire assignment outside Helena and asked me if I was available as a "Structure Protection Specialist" (STPS). I told him, "Yes!" and made arrangements to fly out the next day.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
Before and after photos of a structure that we tried to save. Above, firefighters prepare the structure by removing vegetation from around it.


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Photo by Robert M. Winston
Wildlife suffered losses at this fire. Here a black bear was seen with burn injuries to his hide and feet. We named this bear "Smokey II." Fish and Wildlife Services were notified of the bear's condition and location.

The first flight took me into the airport at Salt Lake City, which is surrounded by mountains. As the aircraft approached its landing, I looked out of a window and saw several large wildfires burning on those mountains. The second flight took me directly into Helena. When I stepped out of the terminal, I saw several large columns of smoke dominating the skyline near Helena. That's what I was headed for!

Relocating Our Camp

The first two days at the fire camp were relatively routine. Then, the fire camp was transitioned from a Type 2 to a Type 1 camp and moved to the other side of Canyon-Ferry Lake. The camp was renamed "Hellgate Fire Camp" - the name would become appropriate as time went on and the fire grew.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
Before and after photos of a structure that we tried to save. Above, the fire was too severe and the structure was reduced to ashes within minutes due to extreme fire conditions.


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Photo by Robert M. Winston
This Forest Service cabin was of historic significance and was "wrapped" in a heavy-duty aluminum foil and firefighters cut vegetation from around it prior to the fire’s arrival. The cabin survived extreme fire behavior. Note that the roof is of all-metal construction.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston


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Photo by Robert M. Winston

On Friday, July 28, I and Bob Madden, who is an STPS and a battalion chief with the Bend, OR, Fire Department, were assigned the task of identifying and preparing structures along Magpie Creek Road and in several small gulches. Eight cabins and a number of outbuildings were located there and a plan to prepare them to survive the advancing fire front had to be drawn up.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
We used this structure as a "safe zone," wrapping it with a foil/Kevlar covering.


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Photo by Robert M. Winston
Fire storm and "blow up" occur around the structure and us.

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