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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The smoke was getting denser; fire brands were swirling about, starting spot fires and bouncing off of us; the winds were now blowing at 50-60 mph and the tall pines and spruce trees all around us were igniting in rapid succession. Extreme fire behavior was occurring as the trees began to torch out and then support a crowning fire.

The "wrapping" was nearly completed, but had to be abandoned due to the extreme fire conditions around us. One corner of the cabin was not secured and we watched as the fire entered at that point and ignited it. The cabin was going to be our "safe zone." Madden had me help him burn out a small grassy area opposite the cabin that would become our hastily constructed "safe zone." We were ready to deploy our aluminized fire shelters. The heat and smoke were almost unbearable, but we stayed put as we watched everything that was combustible around us ignite. I looked up in awe at the massive column of boiling black and gray smoke that rose, almost directly over us, to an estimated 20,000 feet. We were right in the midst of and experiencing a firestorm with "blow up" conditions.

The heat wave and flame front passed by us. No one was injured, although we all took a bit of smoke and lots of heat. Our nerves were raw, but we made it and were relatively safe. All of the other crews made it out of the valley safely.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
A heavy lift Sky-Crane sucks up 2,000 gallons of fire retardant from a mixing tank.

What was once a place of tranquil beauty had been reduced to a blackened moonscape by an extremely intense fire. The Cave Gulch fire grew by 16,825 acres that day because of the blow-up/fire storm. We lost four of the eight structures that were prepared.

I give Madden, who is also an ex-Smokejumper, a lot of credit for our survival under those extreme fire conditions.

The cabin opposite our "safe zone" was destroyed, but the cabin that had been pre-wrapped went unscathed by the fire. A small outhouse near it had its wood-shingle roof burned. However, we saved the rest of outhouse by extinguishing the roof fire.

In the final analysis, four structures were lost; 30,000 acres were burned; 1,295 personnel were working at the high point; 40 engines, eight helicopters, three air tankers and nine bulldozers operated at a cost of over $7.3 million in fire suppression costs.

And a great lesson in survival on the fireground was learned.


The Buck Snort Fire began on Sunday, July 23, and was caused by hot charcoal from a cook fire. This fire consumed nearly 9,500 acres and burned about 40 homes and other structures. It was a part of the Canyon-Ferry (Lake) Fire Complex outside Helena, MT.

Local volunteer and career structural firefighters mounted a tremendous firefighting effort as well as county, state and federal wildland fire agencies. These firefighters defended, successfully, many homes and other structures from the ravages of this fast moving wildland/urban interface (W/UI) fire. True, some structures were lost. However, if it were not for the valiant and tireless efforts, during extreme fire conditions, of the small army of firefighters and their support people, many more homes and other structures would have surely been lost.

There were no fatalities and injuries were minor. A big "tip 'o the fire helmet" to all those that were a part of the fire suppression efforts on the Buck Snort W/UI Fire Incident.

Robert M. Winston

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with 31 years of structural and wildland fire experience. He is a Red Carded qualified Structure Protection Specialist and instructor for wildland/urban interface fire protection. Winston holds a degree in fire science and is a member of the National Fire Academy Alumni Association. He can be contacted via e-mail at or at 781-834-9413.