Photo by Marshall Wallace, USFS; courtesy of Inciweb
Helicopter at Foster Field helibase.

Fire strategy focuses on containing north and south perimeters of Diamond Creek

By Ann McCreary

As the Diamond Creek Fire enters its second week, fire managers are focusing on preventing the fire from advancing north toward Canada and south toward the Eightmile drainage.

In a community meeting Thursday evening (Aug. 3) in Twisp, members of Pacific Northwest Team 2, a Type 1 incident management team, said the northern and southern perimeters of the fire are their greatest concerns.

The fire, which began July 22, had grown to about 8,678 acres as of Friday morning (Aug. 4), and was burning in steep, rugged terrain within the Pasayten Wilderness. Its northern perimeter is about 8.6 miles south of the Canadian border, and the southern perimeter is about 4 air miles from Billy Goat Trailhead.

A strategy to manage the fire, which is expected to continue burning throughout the summer, focuses on holding the fire at the northern edge by using natural barriers, helicopter bucket drops and “aerial firing” – using helicopters to set strategic fires to reduce fuels in the path of the forest fire, said Kale Casey, an information officer with Pacific Northwest Team 2.

Smoke from fires throughout the region and British Columbia continues to impact air quality and visibility, which can also affect air operations, Casey said.

On the southern perimeter, the fire has moved down into the Lost River drainage and is burning within a couple miles of the river’s confluence with the Drake Creek drainage.Managers are concerned that if the fire enters the Drake Creek or nearby Jinks Creek drainages, it could travel eastward toward the Eightmile drainage, which flows south into the Chewuch drainage, which travels to Winthrop.

“We’re especially concerned about the Drake Creek drainage, in case the fire wants to spin around to the south,” said John Szulc, operations section chief.

As a contingency for that possibility, crews began constructing a fire line Thursday outside the wilderness boundary in the vicinity of Billy Goat trailhead, near the top of the Eightmile drainage.

The San Juan Hotshots, who were called in for initial attack on the fire, are tying the fire line into avalanche chutes that create natural fire breaks on either side of the drainage, said Casey. They have been cutting, limbing and brushing vegetation to create the line, he added.

“We have big heavy equipment that arrived today,” including excavators and feller bunchers, Casey said Friday morning. “We will remove large diameter trees along the road” to reinforce the line.

“This will give us some place to stand and fight,” said Robert Allen, deputy incident commander. “We know it’s going to continue marching to the south.” The fire line would tie into the 2014 Upper Falls Creek Fire burn scar on the east, which would also provide a barrier to the fire’s progress, he said.

Casey said Eightmile road will be closed before the trailhead to keep the public away from the area where crews are working. The Billy Goat trailhead, a popular entrance into the Pasayten Wilderness, has been closed since the first days of the fire, along with about 18 trails in that part of the wilderness.

Helicopters also are dropping water to cool off pockets of high heat from Nanny Goat Ridge west to Lost River. As of Friday morning, the fire had spread to the west across Lost River and up to Rampart Ridge, according to the daily incident report.

Infrared map from Aug. 6, courtesy U.S. Forest Service. For more maps in more sizes, visit https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/maps/5409/

Although the fire has entered Lost River drainage and is burning south, incident team members said they are not worried about it traveling down the drainage toward Mazama. The Lost River Gorge is very rocky and steep, without a lot of vegetation to fuel the fire, they said.

“All our computer modeling doesn’t show it making it down Lost River before a season-ending event,” Allen said. A rain or snow storm heavy enough to stop fire growth would be considered a fire season-ending event.

On the northern perimeter, a peak called Two Point Mountain is a natural barrier to the fire, but managers are concerned that the fire could sneak past the mountain and head toward Canada.

“We are actively working on the north area with bucket drops,” Casey said. “There is a massive amount of fuel in Dollar Creek” on the northern part of the fire. “We’re working ahead of that to take out some of the intensity.”

“We’ve visited with our counterparts in Canada. They would like us to keep it out of Canada,” said Szulc.

The incident management team has ordered about 60 more firefighters, and equipment including fire engines and bulldozers. One bucket helicopter is on site, and another is on order if needed, Allen said. A fire camp has been set up at the Rhythm and Blues concert grounds just outside Winthrop.

“There is a lot of competition for resources in the region” due to numerous fires in Oregon and California, Allen said.

Five engines, part of the team’s structure protection division, were traveling through Mazama and Fawn Creek on Friday conducting inventories of homes and structures, assessing ingress and egress, water sources, Firewise properties, fuel treatments and other factors that would influence firefighting in the area, Casey said.

That “comprehensive understanding” is needed whether due to the Diamond Creek Fire or another fire. “We’re in fire season. Part of our assignment is to be initial attack … if there is another incident,” Casey said.

Conditions were ripe for the Diamond Creek Fire, which is determined to be human-caused. There has not been a wetting rain – defined as one-tenth of an inch or more – for the past 50 days, and temperatures have been 3-5 degrees hotter than normal for this time of year, Jon Fox, incident meteorologist, explained at Thursday’s public meeting.

That weather helped produce extremely volatile fuel conditions, said Todd Gregory, fire behavior analyst. Log-sized wood in the fire area measured at 6 percent moisture. “Anything below 12 percent is critical,” Gregory said.

Small branches and twigs are at about 2 percent moisture, he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen 2 percent.”

The fire is burning in “very unforgiving country” that is not conducive to trying to fight the fire from the ground, Gregory said. “There are a lot of spot fires,” he added. “We’ve seen spotting one-half mile away.”

Fox said there is a “small chance of thunderstorms early next week” but they don’t appear to have enough moisture to dampen the fire.

The long-term weather outlook is for continued warmer and drier than normal condition into the fall, Fox said.

Information about the Diamond Creek Fire can be found on Inciweb or on the Diamond Creek Fire Facebook page.