On scene at the Rock Creek Fire

Photo by Eleanor Guerrero Rock

Creek Fire scorched

the landscape

near Rock Creek Resort.

By Eleanor Guerrero CCN Senior Reporter

How does it feel in standing in the aftermath of a fire? Hot, especially if you are wearing pounds of fireproof clothes, boots and hard hat in the middle of a Montana August on Friday, Aug. 30, when Type 2 Team gave CCN a tour of Rock Creek Fire west of Highway 212 just south of and across from Rock Creek Resort. The best news? All of the trails are safe and untouched. They will reopen as soon as the areas are safe to approach-including Silver Run and Bear Track trails. Andy Efta, from USFS BAER group (Burn Area Emergency Response) said the rehab of the area was already being planned. “During the fire, we work to study how to approach fire fighting to minimize damage to the land and pose few threats to fish, wildlife, and people downstream.” He might recommend that a dozer line be further from a stream to avoid harm to a fishery. Before the fire is out he is working to mitigate damage from fire fighting in effective planning. It was reported that 890 acres of Forest Service land burned and 60 acres of private land so far. It was clearly a battle line, with the fight still going on as helicopters plied mountain H-5 beyond the immediate area along the highway with water. “We had three heavy duty tankers that assaulted that southern line from the Wapiti Peak on the southern tip up to H-5,” said Incident Commander Shawn Pearson pointing to the charred mountain currently being assaulted by air. That initial and crucial work alone, cost about $300,000 of a total of approximately $2.7 million spent to date. “It’s mostly in the air support,” he explained. Pearson stressed how fortunate it was to get those heavy tankers when there were major fires at Lolo and in California. Although Rock Creek Fire is only 60 percent contained, burning in other areas, Efta was already active in the burned area to determine treatments to aid in recovery if it would not happen naturally or to speed up the natural process. Tools such as building a berm of biodegradable netting with straw would serve on steep slopes to hold dirt and decrease erosion, a major problem after a burn. The straw would serve to speed up revegetation. The slope would be reseeded. “It is not done all over because mass reseeding is not cost effective.” He noted the area was an Elk Migration corridor and that there should be lots of good forage there next season. “It will be bright green.” He noted that special equipment would be needed to string the berms along the steep slopes. He also works well before the fires to make sure needed equipment is available in his region-even if it is privately obtained. “It is always available on an emergency basis if needed,” he explained. “If a fire is blazing and there is a dozer is across the street, we can make the decision to use it.” Otherwise, the contract process for a region starts well in advance of the fire year. “We look at archaeology, watershed, noxious weeds and many other considerations in our initial review.” Efta worked at the beginning of the fire to make sure undersides of all trucks entering were washed to be free of noxious weeds and decontaminated helicopter buckets and water pumps so invasive mussels, etc. would not be attached. In initial planning, BAER takes into consideration the designation of the area being rehabbed. “We do consider that the Beartooth Highway is managed scenic corridor. So we consider the management plan to keep its scenic value,” said Efta. USFS Information Officer Jeff Gildehaus said, “That also meant the area right along the highway burned in the Willie Fire could not be treated as it might in another area. We had to keep it ‘natural’ which meant you could not harvest some good firewood.” He described how helpful the hotshot crews were that were not available at first due to the number of fires ongoing in the West and which were now at work in that area. “They are self-contained,” he said, pointing to the Navaho Hot Shots’ special truck. “They bring in their own water, camping gear and freeze-dried food. They attend all our standard briefings and we are in close contact but they might stay out there 2-3 days at a time, working to dig those lines.” He described the grueling routine. “You dig and dig for hours, then curl up and sleep on the ground and at dawn, get up and do it again.” Pearson said that the crew work was less expensive. They worked with the resources they were given, and crews all over the nation had responded.