Fire Storm At Cave Gulch

Oct. 1, 2000
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 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.
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.
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.

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.
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.

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.
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.
Photo by Robert M. Winston
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.

Photo by Robert M. Winston We used this structure as a "safe zone," wrapping it with a foil/Kevlar covering.
Photo by Robert M. Winston Fire storm and "blow up" occur around the structure and us.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 [email protected] or at 781-834-9413.

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