The fire season took a serious turn Tuesday when gusty winds blew a wilderness blaze close enough to a crew of 10 firefighters they used emergency fire shelters to protect themselves.
The firefighters survived without injury from the event at the Little Venus Fire in the Shoshone National Forest's Washakie Wilderness, incident commander Byron Bonney said in a telephone interview Wednesday. The fire burns about 40 miles northeast of Togwotee Pass. It made a run down rugged terrain along the Greybull River and toward several ranches on Tuesday afternoon.
It moved so fast the firefighters "found themselves in harm's way" and hid under their tent-like shelters, according to a statement. "The blaze moved so quickly through the dry fuels that they used their fire shelters for protection," spokesman Steve Till wrote in a release.
Officials didn't say how close the fire came to the crew, would not release its home town or allow interviews with its members. Release of more information will follow an investigation, they said.
After the incident, the firefighters hiked down the drainage to the Jacks Creek trailhead, Bonney said.
Deploying a fire shelter is a significant event - one firefighters seek to avoid - and underscores the touchy nature of the tinder-dry backcountry. Fire danger in and around Jackson Hole is rated high.
"People need to understand it's pretty serious conditions," Bonney said. "The bottom line is the crew followed safety rules. The reason they made it out is they did exactly what their training told them to do."
The fire threatened the crew on a day when weather forecasters posted a red flag warning, which cautions firefighters to "watch out" because of flammable conditions, Bonney said. The crew received the warning before it set out that morning, heading to an overnight spike camp, he said.
An outfitter carrying the crew's overnight gear made it to the camp and back out of danger before the fire threatened the crew, Bonney said. Specialists will debrief the firefighters.
"They've gone through a stressful situation," Bonney said. "We do have a review team coming in. They're going to look at the situation. As soon as they get done reviewing, we're going to release some information."
Fire shelters are foil-like tents that firefighters carry on their belts in case of emergency. They are erected without poles by stepping on two corners, pulling the shelter over the back, holding the other two corners in gloved hands and flopping down, face first.
"You just set it up and crawl in it in the best area you can," Bonney said. "You try to clear an area," of flammable material before deploying a shelter, he said.
On the red-flag day, the Little Venus fire "dramatically increased" from 7,000 to about 10,000 acres, Till wrote. "Erratic winds, low humidity, high temperature, and beetle-killed trees," fueled the conflagration.
It burns to the northeast and several ranches where some of the 62 firefighters assigned to it are stationed.
Bonney said he didn't hear of the incident until it was over.
"We didn't get word until they actually got out," he said of his crew. "The radio communication is not actually very good."
The erratic winds grounded helicopters assigned to fight the fire with water buckets.
When lightning ignited the Little Venus Fire on June 19. managers allowed it to burn to clear out beetle-killed trees and improve habitat.A team assessed the blaze and drafted a plan that called for action when and if the fire spread beyond certain points. Now, the fight is on.
Bonney said property remains a secondary consideration. "People's safety is number one - firefighters' safety, public safety," he said. "Everything else takes a back seat to that."
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