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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Magpie Creek Road is about 10 miles long and is situated in a beautiful and heavily forested narrow valley. The creek in this valley was flowing very little water due to the persistent drought. The pine and spruce trees and the grasses and brush contained record low readings of fuel moisture. Everything was tinder dry and the slightest spark meant ignition. We entered the mouth of the valley and saw large trees burning and torching out. It was early evening and the fire had slowed its forward movement. A number of homes and outbuildings just outside the valley had been saved from burning by the efforts of firefighters. We located the structures inside the valley and developed a plan to save them. Engines and hand crews would be deployed the next morning to begin structure protection efforts.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
Fire enters under the "wrap" and ignites the structure.

We found one cabin, however, that required immediate action because a line of fire was creeping slowly towards it. We decided to burn out the surrounding brush and brought in several engines staffed by the Montana National Guard. After a long night's work, the burnout and fuel reduction was accomplished. This action would ultimately save the cabin and surrounding outbuildings. It would also provide a "safe zone" for several firefighters the next day.

The Fire Storm

Saturday, July 29, started out very warm and breezy. Our Incident Action Plan (IAP) to protect the structures along Magpie Creek Road in the valley and in the smaller gulches was ready. The hand crews were deployed and were hard at work cutting trees and brush to reduce fuel loads around structures. The strike team of engines and water tenders was strategically located in the valley.

One hundred twenty-five structural, wildland and contract firefighters were working to save the identified structures as the main body of fire would be approaching soon. The temperature reached the century mark while the relative humidity dropped into the single digits. The winds would increase later in the day and the narrow valley would act like a funnel to further increase the wind speed.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
Destruction of the structure and surrounding forest is complete.

The first cabin along the road was located in a hollow just below the road. Low grasses and light brush surrounded the cabin. This fuel would be burnt out by the hand crew and an engine was brought in for support. Madden, a hand crew and I were at the cabin that was prepared the night before. One of its outbuildings was used as a cold-storage place for deer meat. It was heavily insulated and built into the side of a hill. I mentioned to some firefighters that that structure would be a good "safe zone," should they need it.

At about 3 P.M., weather and fire conditions quickly changed in the valley along Magpie Creek Road. The fire spotted across the road from the area of the first cabin and a flame front was rapidly growing and swiftly moving along the valley. Large trees began torching out and crowning fire was seen running through the forest. Excited talk was heard coming from portable radios that, "She's coming your way!" "The fire's crossed the road!" "Watch out down the road!" "Heads up! It's coming your way!" "We need a hand down here where the engine is at the first cabin!"

Madden ran down the road to the first cabin and found the engine. The fire had severed its two hoselines, which had been charged, and its plastic light lenses had melted from the intense heat. He called me on his portable radio and asked me to bring in another engine. The flames and dense smoke made the road impassable at that moment.

We anxiously waited until we could move ahead and then met up with Madden. A quick accountability check was done and everyone was safe. The firefighters at the second cabin, where the fire passed by, had found a "safe zone" in the outbuilding used to store deer meat. The prep work the night before had worked. That cabin and its outbuildings survived the fire, as did the firefighters.

Bar Gulch

Madden and I drove down Magpie Creek Road to a place called Bar Gulch. Two structures were located in the gulch. One was a U.S. Forest Service cabin that had been "wrapped" the day before in a heavy-duty reflective foil. It would survive the fire.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
This sign graphically displays charring and blistering due to the tremendous radiant heat generated by the "blow up" fire on Saturday, July 29.

We drove up the gulch to another cabin and met up with a two-person crew from Rural/Metro Fire that was just beginning to "wrap" this cabin in a similar reflective material. Madden began to burn out fuel from around the cabin. I assisted the Rural/Metro firefighters with the "wrapping." The fire front was rapidly approaching us.